Collusion--Just a Symptom

by Dee Ann Miller
from author's home page:

This article, originally published in 1997, was republished in 2013 by The World Council of Churches, with slight adaptations, in When Pastors Prey, with Jimmy Carter as the foreword writer. Among other contributors were Richard Sipe, Marie Fortune, and Diana Garland.

Years of studying family systems theories coupled with intense involvement, working with survivors of gender-based violence in psychiatric nursing, have led me to conclude that collusion is a symptom of a serious systemic thinking disorder. Therefore, collusion should not be considered, as some suggest, a normal occurrence, despite the fact that it is a common choice bystanders make in the wake of family or institutional abuse and violence.

There is no greater example of collusion than what Joe Paterno did at Penn State. Yet imagine how much more devastating this case would have been if the sentiments of the public, as a whole, had been to bash the press for "trashing" the reputation of this man who was an icon. That's what has commonly happened in churches: those who collude have gotten away with "trashing" the messengers! This is a prime example of collusion, and it translates as nothing short of spiritual abuse that is frequently irreparable.

During my time in Africa, I frequently checked the hemoglobin of African women and children, as I attempted to intervene in diseases which commonly were made much more serious because of anemia. It was rare to find a patient who was not anemic! Yet imagine a health worker in Africa concluding: anemia in African women and children is normal....."just must be something in their genes"....."must be since it is so common!"

The truth, of course, is that African women and children suffer from anemia because of other health issues. Most of these conditions will not be altered without massive changes in cultural, social, and economic systems. Doing so will require that the rest of the world change the way we think about our responsibility to stop practices that contribute to the problem.

Similarly, collusion in cases of sexual or domestic violence or in family incest is incredibly common. yet it is not normal. Collusion, wherever it occurs, is evidence of a spiritually sick system. This thinking disorder has been around so long that some folks justify it by calling it normal.

As a nurse, I am trained to focus on the etiology (causes) of problems, the symptoms, and the treatment. Basic Facts about Collusion offers insights into DIM thinking (Denial, Ignorance, and Minimization), spelling out the resulting, destructive games that are highly visible in collusion. A Two-fold Treatment Approach deals with treating the system. The page you are now reading, however, focuses solely on etiology.

Individuals collude, either actively or passively, partly due to acculturation. In many instances, the reasons are also personal . Those with a vested interest in preserving the system or profession at any cost are much more prone to keep secrets which they deem to be more harmful to them personally than would be helpful for the larger community. People who come from families with unresolved issues of incest, alcoholism, drug abuse or other issues of extreme dysfunction are also more prone to collude. (For more insights, see Striking Parallels and Contrasts.)

Not only are we dealing with DIM thinking issues from the wider culture, we must also consider specific ones which may be even more prominent in religious communities:

  • Closed-system thinking--"We don't need outside help. This church or denomination can find its own answers within its own ranks, thank you."

  • Naivete'--When one's life revolves primarily around the activities of the cloistered "protection" of the institutional church, it is much easier to ignore the realities about both the outside world and those of the institution of which one is so much a part. The theology of many religious communities encourages followers to see the outside world as "evil" and those within its circle as "good." Not seeing what is real greatly increases individual and collective vulnerability to victimization.

  • Narcissism--Members of religious communities like to see themselves as "special" children of God. This sense of being exceptional makes it easy to justify collusion for many people.

  • Patriarchal thinking--Patriarchy, according to Joan Chittister, O.S.B., is "elitism without merit." Not only does it enhance the god-image of religious leaders, making them exempt from accountability in the warped world of collusion. It also demonizes anyone who would call their behaviors into question. Finally, it provides help from the larger culture in giving preferential treatment to men, a problem which is even more magnified within religious circles.

  • Competency Issues--There appears to be a sense of hopelessness and confusion in this area. Does the religious community have the same responsibility for setting universal standards for its professionals and volunteers? Should there be a code of ethics? If so, how can it be effective with the divisions and factions which exist within the community of faith? If not, who is going to protect the public when churches are largely exempt from outside regulations? The historic "honor system" has obviously resulted in a lot of dishonor to all concerned. If competency does not become a greater concern, how can we hope for the religious community to hold onto any respect at all? These are difficult questions to raise. Yet we dare not avoid them.

  • The "Family of God" concept--If we think of the church as a family, we are far more prone to give solace to deviants within the group. (For more insights, see Striking Parallels and Contrasts.)

With my earliest roots planted in conservative religious circles in the South, coupled with the feedback I’ve gotten from my writing since 1993, I’m convinced that clergy sexual abuse, clergy domestic violence, and incest ( in both clergy and non-clergy households) is considerably more common in conservative groups than in mainline. There also seems to be a greater degree of physical violence involved in offenses, and an increased likelihood that victims will be minors. The tendency to think of adolescents as adults is reflected in the culture of the Deep South of the United States. Yet when those victimized as teens find the courage to come forward as adults, they are treated as if they should have been responsible adults at the time of their abuse! The same is common in Catholic communities, reports Patrick Wall, a former priest who is now a legal expert in this field.

Perpetrators are very shrewd in seeking out systems and localities where they feel they can keep their secrets from being exposed. So conservative theology, where even healthy discussions about sexuality are extremely rare, offers some of the “safest” places for perpetrators to operate. The more rigid the rules, whether those rules are made by the Vatican or by people who insist on the automatic gospel truth attributed to every “jot and tiddle” in the Bible, the more likely will be the resistance to facing the truth when it is close to home.

    1. In summary, the degree of collusion in an institution will significantly increase in direct proportion to the evidence of the above issues within its belief system. Having lived in the worlds of both mainline and conservative Christian denominations, I find the degree of the above factors to be strikingly greater among the latter.

    2. Both clergy sexual and domestic violence within conservative circles are still largely hidden unless a case happens to grab the headlines. Due to the convoluted history of sexual secrecy related to slavery, silencing of victims seems to be passed down through generations in the southern regions of the United States more than in other regions.

    3. Despite recent high-profile cases, such as those in Dallas, victims from the conservative South are far less likely to report their abuses, to go public, or even to connect with other survivors. However, thanks to the Web’s ability to break the isolation of survivors, this seems to be changing rapidly!

I believe the compounded problems of collusion in conservative congregations are compounded further for several reasons:

  • Even large denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, can hide with a lot of safety behind the "autonomous church" defense. This means that local churches in these systems are entirely responsible for hiring, firing, and supervising their employees. Yet getting into the ranks of clergy is much easier than in hierarchal systems.

  • There is far less exposure of clergy abuse in conservative circles than in mainline, where increasingly clergy are being required to attend workshops in order for the denomination to keep its insurance. Denominational publications which are more commonly read by laity appear much less likely to expose the issues in conservative circles.

  • It is commonly believed among many mental health professionals that familial incest is more common in conservative homes, where the concept of father being "the head of the house" is easily taken to this extreme. Why should this not be true in the institutional church, as well?

  • Few conservative churches have policies and procedures for handling allegations. If an institution has not been able to even consider the possibility of a case by acknowledging and preparing for it in advance, victims are far more likely to remain isolated, feeling that they are either the only victim within a church or denomination or have found the only clergy offender within its ranks.

(Please Note: The Roman Catholic Church, which has received, by far, the most media exposure of clergy sexual abuse, is just as conservative in its theology as Southern fundamentalists.)

Still, collusion is far from limited to any faith group or region. Personal safety is a civil right. When it is denied in places believed to be sacred, the results are especially devastating. Yet, sadly, because of the confusion about separation of church and state issues in the U. S., religious organizations have often managed to fly under the radar. By doing so, they don't just hide abuse. They hide the far more disgraceful acts of collusion that are sanctioned by the masses who conveniently pass the buck or join in scandalizing the messengers.

Dee Ann Miller is the author of Enlarging Boston's Spotlight: A Call for Courage, Integrity, and Institutional Transformation (2017) How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct (1993) and The Truth about Malarkey (2000)

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