Silence is Golden - or is it?

The following article was a featured training bulletin published by VIRTUS Online on June 2, 2013.

Listening to the Silenced
By Paul Ashton, Psy.D., D.Min.

I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.  Elie Wiesel

Silence is Golden—or is it? It is said that you can find God in the silence. But can you? You can break silence, reduce someone to silence, and give your consent by being silent. It is said that silence can be deafening—or worse—silence can be deadly. We can hurt others equally with our silence or comfort. Like many things, it can be either good or bad depending on how it is used. 

Our language contains many ways to soften the meaning of words by using other words or terms to lessen the impact of an event, feeling, or action. A euphemism substitutes a more, vague or mild word or expression for one considered too severe or direct. The ancient Greeks used the term euphemism meaning, “to keep a holy silence” (speaking well by not speaking at all). 

It seems that we are living in a “culture of silence” or keeping to the unwritten code of some universal silence. It should be understood that silence, when not chosen, can indeed be deadly. Silence, when inflicted upon another is paralyzing. It immobilizes persons and freezes them in places too dark for minds to accept. It condemns a person to repeat a never-ending cycle of anxiety, which instigates an exhausting search for triggers and ways to avoid them in life. 

Because we know that what happens to a victim of child sexual abuse is overwhelming and destructive we tend to use euphemisms to make it easier to bear. Sometimes the use of these euphemisms contributes to silencing victims. Perpetrators of sexual abuse rely on our discomfort with this topic because it reinforces shame and thus silences the victim into not telling. I have heard perpetrators euphemistically refer to the “relationship” they shared with their victim. These were not relationships—they only resembled relationships. They were grooming behaviors carefully orchestrated by a perpetrator to get closer to a child and his or her family. Grooming confuses both the children and the adults in their lives to create a more hospitable environment to commit a vile crime. Any other words soften the reality.

Victims hurt. And when others want to make it all “okay” by using words that make it look and appear less evil, it hurts further. We should do everything we can to call sexual abuse what it is, name the demon, and move forward toward healing from a dark place to a place of light. 

In May 2010, the National Review Board (see works cited) presented the following ten points about what they learned from the sexual abuse crisis. It is honest, direct, and clear language that names things about child sexual abuse, as they ought to be named. They are well worth repeating here and reflecting on, in the hope that we come closer to understanding what victims face and try harder to listen to their stories more and the excuses of the perpetrators less.

  1. We have learned that it takes great courage for a victim/survivor to come forward with his or her story after years, sometimes decades, of silence and feelings of shame.
  2. We have learned that to the victim/survivor it is so important to finally simply be believed.
  3. We have learned that, in spite of their own pain and suffering, many victim/survivors are just as concerned that the Church prevents this abuse from happening to more children as they are about themselves and their own need for healing.
  4. We have learned that, while each individual’s story is different, what is common is the violation of trust; some survivors trust absolutely no one to this day, while others have been able to work through this pain with the help and support of loved ones.
  5. We have learned that today there are methods of therapy that work particularly well with and for survivors of childhood sexual abuse and that individuals can be helped even after many years of unsuccessfully trying to simply “forget about it.”
  6. We have learned that very many victim/survivors have lived for many years with the belief that they were the “only one” to have been abused by a particular priest.
  7. We have learned that the abuse has robbed some victim/survivors of their faith. For some this means loss of their Catholic faith, but for others it means loss of any faith in a God at all.
  8. We have learned that, while some victim/survivors have been unable to succeed in various areas of life (marriage, employment, education, parenting, etc.) as a consequence of the great emotional/psychological harm, others have gone on to lead very healthy and productive lives.  We have learned that between those two “ends of a continuum” there is as much variation as there are numbers of victims.
  9. We have learned that to be privileged to hear an individual victim/survivor’s story is a sacred trust, to be received with great care and pastoral concern.
  10. We have learned that we still have much to learn. 

Works Cited:
The National Review Board is an advisory group of 13 laypersons with expertise in areas such as law, education, media, and psychological sciences. The board was established in 2002, when the U.S. bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People to oversee efforts of the Office for Child and Youth Protection. The National Review Board is responsible for a three-year Causes and Context Study undertaken by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The study looks at the clergy sexual abuse of minors problem to ascertain the factors led to it and how it can be prevented going forward.


Paul Ashton is a consultant for VIRTUS.

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