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Institutional Betrayal - Carly Parnitzke Smith & Jennifer Freyd

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

This paper, from Carly Parnitzke Smith and Jennifer Freyd in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oregon, explores what institutional betrayal is, and the damage it causes. It is very well supported with citations throughout, and explores a number of different examples and instances where institutional betrayal occurs.

They describe unhelpful law enforcement and unresponsive legal systems - which can be extended to unresponsive institutional systems as well - as a 'second assault.'

They go into some of the history of the word 'trauma,' and show how understanding of that term, and the importance of the context of the relationship, has developed over time:

"Betrayal trauma theory posits that abuse perpetrated within close relationships is more harmful than abuse perpetrated by strangers because of the violation of trust within a necessary relationship. Betrayal trauma is associated with higher rates of a host of outcomes, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dissociation, anxiety, depression, and borderline personality disorder, compared to interpersonal trauma perpetrated by strangers."

Research has outlined at least two important patterns to institutional abuse: "First, these are institutions that foster a sense of trust or dependency from their members (often both)...'When victims reach out for help, they place a great deal of trust [emphasis added] in the legal, medical, and mental health systems as they risk disbelief, blame, and refusals of help.'" And, "Second, lack of sustained awareness of harmful institutional practices at an individual level can be explained as a response to institutional betrayal that allows for the maintenance of a necessary institutional relationship. For example, a bishop may elect to relocate rather than report a member of the clergy accused of abuse to the authorities in order to maintain his standing with the Catholic community (sometimes referred to as 'passing the trash')."

The authors outline a non-exhaustive list of characteristics of institutions where traumatic events are more likely to occur: those with clearly defined group identities with inflexible requirements for membership, where institutions or their leaders enjoy an elevated role within the community or society, and institutions where performance or reputation is valued or, or divorced from, the well-being of members.

Another powerful quote from the article, highly relevant to the current situation within Shambhala (with citations removed for flow):

"The risks associated with these institutional characteristics are perhaps best illustrated when an institution comes under stress, such as with an allegation of abuse. Having clear standards of membership allows for the 'othering' of the individual making the allegations against the institution, as nonconforming attributes of individuals can be highlighted in order to cast doubt on the veracity or importance of reports. It can serve to create an 'us versus them' mentality common in group cohesion and may represent an additional level of betrayal when divided loyalty within an organization leads to further isolation. For example, women who report military sexual trauma are often questioned about their sexual history and substance use by military authorities. Additionally, perpetrators may be singled out as unrepresentative of the institution, in keeping with the myth of the 'bad apple.' Yet this stereotype is not supported by research on repeat perpetration and obscures institutional policies that may facilitate such abuse."

The authors identify three barriers to change, and responding the crises involving sexual violence effectively. The first is a lack of language around the issues that continually arise, only to be apparently seen for the first time, each time. The second is an ability for people to 'live in a twilight between knowing and not knowing' - this 'not knowing' is a second barrier to recognition, which emerges in workplaces where sexual harassment is common and apparently condoned, or in churches where clergy are reassigned or moved to a new parish after allegations of abuse surface but are otherwise not reprimanded. The third is a system's own experiences of trauma. Organizations themselves can experience 'cultural trauma', and develop protective mechanisms as a result, similar to individuals. "Discouraging reporting and doubting those who do report in this way could serve as a protective factor to maintain 'not knowing' about the true extent of the problem and to allow the system to continue to function."

In an effort to measure institutional betrayal, the authors put forward a few different considerations. The metrics focus around failure to prevent abuse, normalizing abusive contexts, difficult reporting procedures and inadequate responses, supporting cover-ups and misinformation, and punishing victims and whistleblowers. Here are the items summarized into a questionnaire, provided by the authors:

The authors close by reflecting on the primary importance of transparency and protecting members when dealing with instances of institutional abuse, and note that "implementing betrayal reparation practices such as these is unlikely to be a one-time endeavor that is met with immediate success."

It is clear that any real progress towards remediation will take dedication and a focused effort by the institutional leadership of Shambhala, and a willingness to be vulnerable and acknowledge shortcomings within the current system, and then go beyond acknowledging and actually take meaningful steps towards action.

I have attempted to capture the main points, but the article in full is definitely worth reading - full of important considerations and reflections. It can be read here:

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