5 Ways the Catholic Church Can Build More “Institutional Courage”

This blog post, first published in September 2020, really resonated for some on Awake’s Leadership Team. Given last week’s post about whistleblowers, it felt like a good time to revisit the wisdom of researcher Jennifer Freyd, PhD. See her advice about “Cherishing the Whistleblower” below.

By Erin O’Donnell
Editor, Awake Blog

In our work listening to victim-survivors of sexual abuse, we at Awake have heard many stories of people who told Church leaders about their abuse, only to face doubt, legal maneuvering, insensitivity, or worse.

Certainly the Catholic Church is not the only institution to falter when responding to victims. The U.S. military, companies, sports programs, and universities have all made headlines in recent years for failing to respond well when victims report that they’ve suffered sexual violence on the institution’s watch. Trauma psychologist Jennifer Freyd, PhD, of the University of Oregon, studies how institutions such as the Church behave in these situations: with silence and denial that further harm victims, or with compassion and action.   

Freyd is known for her work on “betrayal trauma,” which occurs “when a person or organization you trust, depend on, or are very close to, mistreats you in a major way,” she explains, such as a parent abusing a child, or a member of the clergy harming a parishioner. Victims report that the betrayal by beloved people or institutions can feel worse than the abuse itself, making the victim’s wounds harder to heal. Freyd has also studied the role of institutions in allowing abuse or failing to adequately protect victims, which she calls “institutional betrayal.” “There are lots of reasons that institutional betrayal is particularly damaging within religious organizations where people have so much trust,” she says.

More recently, Freyd has focused on how an organization might respond well to sexual abuse in its ranks. She calls this “institutional courage.” “It’s a commitment that an institution makes to seek the truth and engage in moral action, despite risk and unpleasantness and short-term costs,” she says, explaining that this last part is particularly important. “Part of this is acknowledging that sometimes there are short-term costs to engage in the moral action. It’s also a pledge to protect and care for those who depend on the institution, so prioritizing the dependent people over, say, the reputation of the institution.”

Institutional courage is made up not of one or two grand actions, she says. “It’s an overall orientation toward the good of individuals and the world. It’s really a commitment to doing a lot of little things that will add up to a big thing.” And Freyd notes that institutional betrayal and institutional courage can happen simultaneously in different corners of the same large institution.    

As founder and president of the new Center for Institutional Courage, Freyd has created a list of 10 steps—based on existing research—that organizations can take to face sexual abuse courageously. Here we spotlight five actions that Freyd suggests could be especially important for Church leaders to pursue.

5 Steps Toward Institutional Courage

Cherishing the Whistleblower. When people within an institution come forward to publicly report problems, they’re often attacked by the organization. Courageous institutions reward whistleblowers, an attitude that Freyd compares to tech companies paying people to find bugs in their software. “Those who raise uncomfortable truths are potentially the best friends of an institution,” Freyd wrote in an article about institutional courage. “Once people in power have been notified about a problem, they can take steps to correct it.”

Being Transparent with Information. Courageous institutions share what they know about sexual abuse within the organization, Freyd says. “Secrecy is necessary for these problems to continue,” Freyd says. “Making things more transparent and public is a very powerful way to stop sexual violence.”

Anonymous Surveys. Freyd sees well-designed surveys as an important step in measuring the scope of sexual misconduct. “People feel ashamed to be a victim, and they’re not going to just tell you easily,” she says. Only a “tiny percentage” of people will take the initiative to report misconduct through a phone line or email address. But if a random sample of people are asked about their experiences using scientifically sound survey techniques—including removing what Freyd calls “scary terms,” such as “abuse” or “harassment”—”then victims are much more likely to indicate what happened,” she explains. Freyd compares this information collection to a cancer screening. “There’s a temptation to avoid it because you don’t want the bad news that you have cancer,” she says, “but you get the nerve to do it because … it’s better to find out so you can do something about it.”

Educating Leaders. Organizations may respond insensitively to sexual victimization because they lack knowledge about the problem. For example, Church leaders may not know enough about trauma and how it influences the decisions victims make in reporting abuse. “I think there’s a certain amount of failure to understand that is also behind some of the institutional betrayal,” Freyd says.

Using Its Power for Good. Because members of the Church are often inclined to do good and help others, Freyd sees an important opportunity for the Church to not only deal with its own problems, but to serve as a guide for other institutions doing the hard work of addressing sexual violence. That work can be useful for Catholics demoralized by the sexual abuse crisis, she says. “It actually gives people hope and inspiration to reach out to a broader community.”

Is “Institutional Courage” Possible in Our Church?

These recommendations probably raise doubts and questions for many Catholics. How can we encourage more Church leaders to respond with institutional courage? Freyd says more research is needed, but she’s seen two common routes to making this happen. “One path is that a group of members come together in solidarity and through their numbers and their solidarity put pressure on the leaders of the organization,” she says. “That pressure usually involves a little bit of public exposure for the organization.” Another path to institutional courage starts near the top, with one leader making a commitment to act courageously. “I’ve seen that happen where you’ve got somebody with sufficient power in the organization and they really lead a charge and change things,” she says.

Freyd has already gathered multiple researchers under the umbrella of the new Center for Institutional Courage; she’s working to attract funding to study these issues further, particularly in churches, where she says little research has been conducted so far.

She’s deeply worried about the current lack of trust in once-vital institutions and sees institutional courage as an important way for such entities, including the Church, to regain trust in the aftermath of painful failures. “It’s urgent that we address distrust by helping organizations become more trustworthy,” she says. “I believe that if we get our institutions behaving in a trustworthy way, that trust will come back.”

“Honesty is such a good investment in the future,” she adds, “even when it comes with a little bit of pain in the moment. That’s part of institutional courage—people have to tolerate some short-term costs.”

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