Victims, Perpetrators, and the Perspective of the Church

Why is the Church so bad at helping victims of racism, discrimination, and sexual violence?

TLDR:

  • Freeman distinguishes between the “perpetrator perspective” and the “victim perspective.” When harm occurs, the perpetrator perspective focuses on the isolated individual who did the harm and responds by punishing the perpetrator or proscribing the most directly violative act. The victim perspective, by contrast, focuses on the conditions which led to the victim’s status as victim and seeks to change those conditions and lift up the person(s) victimized.

  • In the race context, this distinction helps us understand how the consequences of Brown v. Board of Education compounded harms to Black children and teachers: rather than helping uplift victims, the focus on ending the act segregation pushed black kids to white schools where they would be further marginalized and resulted in the loss of jobs for black teachers.

  • In the context of LGBTQ+ discrimination in Catholicism, it helps us understand why victims of discrimination can’t “just get over” the past harm: the conditions under which such discrimination can occur don’t actually change, and the victim receives no assistance on behalf of the institutions which enabled the discrimination.

  • In the context of the clergy abuse crisis, the distinction helps us understand a major gap in moving forward: priests and Catholic institutions receive “rehabilitative” processes, but the victims do not.


The Pillar recently published the story of a Catholic family abused by a priest in their community. The details were horrific. While interning as a seminarian, Robert McWilliams befriended a number of homeschool families in a small community in the Diocese of Cleveland. After the parish internship, McWilliams was ordained and assigned to a parish about an hour away from that community. But he still visited weekly and maintained his connections.

During that time, a young boy in one of those families received texts from a girl who said she knew him from school. He agreed to send her sexually explicit photos, which she reciprocated. Then the girl blackmailed him, saying that she would send the photos to his family and friends if he didn’t continue talking with her and sending more explicit content. The boy, distraught, went to Father McWilliams for help, who gave him and advice and heard his confessions. This continued for two years.

One day, McWilliams was at the house of the boy with him and his mother. The girl texted the boy and demanded more photos during this visit. Initially, the boy agreed, and then he told her he wouldn’t do it anymore. While McWilliams was in another room, the boy’s mother received a text from the girl’s father. The father sent her some of the photos and videos and said her son was a “man-whore.” The mother discussed the incident with McWilliams, who advised her not to tell the police since the boy had turned 18 and the girl was a minor. But the mother followed her instincts and, with the help of law enforcement, discovered that the girl and her father were actually McWilliams using fake identities to blackmail and abuse her sons, as well as other boys in the community.

McWilliams has been sentenced to life in prison. The boy does not practice his faith anymore. But his mother does. And she wants change in the Church. She told The Pillar, “I love my Church, I love my family. I want my Church to be healed.” But while the Diocese of Cleveland claims to take these issues seriously, it does not seem to understand the perspective of the mother or her abused son. Before one meeting with the bishop, diocesan attorneys gave the abused family instructions about “what topics it was ok to talk with the bishop about.” The mother and her son have felt that, rather than being treated as victims and key sources of information about how to move forward, Church leaders have seen them as problems and liabilities to be kept at an arm’s length. The son commented, “They need to get their head out of their asses.”

This sort of situation happens all the time in the Church: vulnerable persons are harmed and want to help the Church move forward, but they are dismissed or kept at a distance by Church leaders who seem to not understand them. The mother said that part of the problem is that the diocese has seemed “afraid” of her family. So she hasn’t received much support.

I believe a key issue here is one of perspective. There is a lack of moral imagination, and imaginative resources, on the part of Church leaders. This lack prevents real empathy which, in turn, prevents both pastoral care and needed change. To move forward, we need to develop new practices of perspective. And to do this, we would benefit from exploring the ideas of scholars on race and racial justice. This will help the Church not only when it comes to addressing sexual abuse, but on all kinds matters, including in the Church’s engagements with the LGBTQ+ community and, of course, in addressing issues of race and racism.

The Victim vs. Perpetrator Perspective

In his essay, "Legitimizing Racial Discrimination through Antidiscrimination Law," David Alan Freeman distinguishes between two perspectives: the victim perspective and the perpetrator perspective. These two perspectives are in conflict, and often institutions must choose between one or the other when addressing harms within them. Understanding these distinctions can help us understand the continued frustration help by those who are marginalized in society, from Black Americans to clergy abuse survivors.

According to Freeman, the perpetrator perspective is one commonly held by institutions, and it is the perspective currently at play when it comes to antidiscrimination law in the United States. This perspective sees, for example, racial discrimination

"not as conditions but as actions, or series of actions, inflicted on the victim by the perpetrator. The focus is more on what particular perpetrators have done or are doing to some victims than on the overall life situation of the victim class."

When looking at harm, the perpetrator perspective focuses on the particular violative act. And addressing the harm means prohibiting that act and/or punishing those who engage in it.

The perpetrator perspective "presupposes a world composed of atomistic individuals whose actions are outside of and apart from the social fabric and without historical continuity.” And so it views violations such as racial discrimination "not as social phenomenon but merely as the misguided conduct of particular actors." Its central focus is on "fault" and "causation," on isolating both the blameworthy individuals who have "intentionally" caused harm and the concrete measurable distinct effects of that harm. The remedial task of the perpetrator perspective is to "neutralize the inappropriate conduct of the perpetrator." Under this perspective, the eye is kept on the perpetrator and what he has done.

By contrast, the victim perspective "suggests that the problem will not be solved until the conditions associated with it have been eliminated." Considered through Freeman's lens of race,

"This perspective includes both the objective conditions of life (lack of jobs, lack of money, lack of housing) and the consciousness associated with those objective conditions (lack of choice and lack of human individuality in being forever perceived as a member of a group rather than as an individual)."

Rather than focusing solely on the isolated act of an isolated perpetrator, the victim perspective asks: What conditions facilitated and perpetuate this victim's status as a victim? It recognizes that a true remedy to the situation looks to address not just an isolated act of a single perpetrator, but to address the broader problems that put the victim in a place to be victimized, and that may put this victim or other victims in this place again in the future. Rather than just identifying violations and declaring them unacceptable, the victim perspective focuses on remedying the harmful conditions suffered by the victim(s).

Brown v. Board of Education

Freeman uses this perspective to clarify issues with “solutions” to school segregation that resulted from the Brown v. Board of Education case and others like it. As a result of Brown, American civil rights focused on a concrete measurable harm (school segregation), rather than on the issue most relevant to the child victims (the lack of quality education and educational resources). This result often compounded harm for Black children. Rather than increasing resources to Black schools, Black schools were often maligned and abandoned: Black children were removed from their schools and sent to the "better" White schools. As a consequence, most of those Black schools closed, which resulted in loss of jobs for Black teachers who could not get jobs in those White schools (perhaps explaining why the teaching profession today is so predominantly White). It also resulted in Black children being sent where they were not welcomed or wanted by classmates, teachers, or administrations, where they were subject to hostility, in contrast to their previous Black schools where they were under-resourced but at least wanted and prioritized.

Neither these Black children nor their parents were given a choice as to what might be the best educational opportunity under these conditions. Rather, they were told where the children would go so that the White schools could be "bettered" by integration and the Black children could be "bettered" by access to those White schools' resources. And while the harms outlined above (in particular, acts of racial hostility on the part of teachers and administration) may have found some remediation in the intervening years, those harms could only be addressed after those young children had been subjected to them.

In contrast, the adoption of a victim perspective might have facilitated more creative solutions truly oriented towards the good of the Black children and their communities. Freeman argues:

"Were the court [in Brown] to have recognized affirmative claims to resources or integrated classrooms, it would have adopted a victim perspective on racial discrimination. Essential to this perspective is the conferral upon the members of the formerly oppressed group a choice that is real and not merely theoretical with respect to conditions over which they had no control under the regime of oppression."

A victim perspective would have kept an eye on the children, rather than just on the particular act of segregation. This issue doesn't just matter because of segregation; it matters because a particular group of children were harmed by segregation, and then they were harmed again during the integration process. A victim perspective would focus on minimizing and eliminating ongoing future harm to those children and their communities.

LGBTQ Discrimination

In considering the benefits of understanding these distinctions, I'll look at two issues facing the Church. I will consider my experiences of discrimination as a gay Catholic, and also how Catholic institutions, such as dioceses, handle sexual abuse issues. In addition, it is demanded by justice that Catholics take these learnings and apply them to the issue that is central to Freeman's work: racism in the United States. (If you are looking for a place to start, I highly recommend Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum.)

To use just one example from my life as a gay Catholic: I've struggled to understand why a rescinded internship offer from my Catholic Studies program on account of my sexuality continues to bother me. Why do I still, years later, feel sad, angry, rejected, and lonely because of it? Why can't I just get over it?

One explanation may be that it has yet to be addressed, and this failure may constitute ongoing harm. A deep betrayal by someone in a position of trust, such as a religious authority, can constitute its own traumatic event, at times even more traumatic than an event as serious as sexual abuse. (By saying this, I am not arguing that what I myself experienced is worse than such abuse; I am only saying that such betrayal can be traumatic, and seriously so.) Since sharing my experience of unjust discrimination publicly, the only acknowledgement I received from the department which participated in it (a department which I loved and promoted) was a private apology from a professor who had no involvement in it. The apology was much appreciated, and has helped to facilitate healing. But because there was no institutional apology, public recognition, or a real commitment to change, I am left in a position of believing that (1) what happened to me didn't really matter to the institution and (2) it could definitely happen again.

I've struggled with my desire for it to matter. But I worry that, as far as the department is concerned, it doesn't. One reason why I want it to matter for the department, and for my Catholic community, is because it mattered (and still matters) to me. It fundamentally changed the direction of my life. I had dreamed of working for the Church, and had told myself that as long as I defended the Church's teachings and tried to live by them, that I would be wanted and valued by my Catholic community. The experience taught me that I was wrong to hold these hopes. The experience had so dashed my dreams that, when I was offered another Catholic internship a year later, I turned it down, fearing how I would be treated as a gay man. The experience furthered the cynicism that I have to struggle against when it comes to Catholics in positions of power and influence. And it planted the seeds of a worry that it doesn't really matter whether you uphold Church teaching; the Church doesn't want to lift up gay Catholics either way. (So why bother to uphold it?)

The perpetrator perspective would have looked at what happened to me and said, "Well, that's in the past. Things are different now. We learned our lesson and just won't do that again."

The victim perspective, by contrast, would consider the dynamics of the situation, how practically there is nothing that would prevent this from happening again, and also how I was placed in a vulnerable position where I was conditioned to accept harms that I still carry with me. The victim perspective might ask what needs to be done, affirmatively and institutionally, to help someone in my position heal and find peace and reconciliation. It would know the answer to the question, "Why can't he just move on?" It would not view the harm as one particular action that happened in the past and is now over, but would see it as something that continues, both in the maintenance of the conditions that facilitated it, and in the ways the victim experiences ongoing harm because of them.1

Abuse in the Church

Similarly, understanding the distinction between the perpetrator perspective and the victim perspective can help the Church better respond to instances of sexual and other abuse. In April, The Pillar shared the story of a friend of mine who was abused as a child in her parish, and then had her abuse dismissed when she shared it with her parish priest. The priest encouraged her to stay silent, and the abuser continued to work with children in the parish. Years later, she brought the priest's response to the attention of her Catholic diocese, and an investigation ensued. She shared the pain she had experienced, the toxic dynamics in the parish that kept her from coming forward sooner, and (after the article came out) the ostracization and marginalization she experienced from many parts of the Catholic community for shedding light on what had happened. (As recently as last month, a member of the community chastised her for sharing her story.)

After the investigation and as a solution to the issue (which the diocese framed in terms of "inadequate pastoral response" to a child abuse survivor), diocesan leaders decided to take two actions. First, the priest would undergo a "rehabilitative" process to acquire the missing knowledge and skills that contributed to his "inadequate" response. Second, the diocese would do an evaluation to confirm such knowledge and skills had been sufficiently acquired. No acknowledgment of the wrong or apology to the survivor, her parents, or the Church community on the part of the perpetrator would be expected or required.

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In some ways, one can see a move towards the victim perspective in a focus on removing the conditions that facilitated the harm to the survivor, by equipping the priest with the knowledge and skills to respond differently in the future. This is good and valuable. However, the response remains firmly embedded in the perpetrator perspective, in that the focus remained almost exclusively on the perpetrator. Indeed, the "rehabilitative" process was hardly seen as punitive or remedial, and was later framed by the priest almost as a sort of professional development opportunity. Commenting on it in The Pillar, the priest said:

“I am now in the middle of a multi-step process... to better listen to all people with whom I come into contact – in particular, those who have been abused – with the ultimate goal of being the best pastor, priest and person I can be.”

The focus on "rehabilitation" of the perpetrator suggests that the key problem was not the experience of the person harmed, but the professional development needs of the perpetrator.

Sole focus was placed on "rehabilitation" of the perpetrator, and no explicit focus was placed on "rehabilitation" of the survivor. If the perpetrator perspective here focused on a skills gap, a victim perspective would have focused on the constellation of past and ongoing harms experienced by the victim and how to resolve these. A key question would have been: How could we transform this Catholic community to be one in which the victim would feel seen, heard, believed, wanted, valued, and affirmed; and what can we do to best facilitate her healing? The focus would have been just as much on the victim's healing, as it was on the perpetrator's skills gaps. Indeed, the focus of the diocese seemed to suggest that the person primarily harmed and in need of healing was not the dismissed abuse survivor, but was the priest who dismissed her.

Healing

Large portions of Catholic culture remain thoroughly fixed within the "perpetrator perspective," which is perhaps why so many Catholics fail to adequately recognize, acknowledge, and respond to racism, abuse, and discrimination. The perpetrator perspective is one which holds that perspective doesn't matter, because it believes that in a situation where someone is harmed, all perspectives hold equal weight. This is why "he said, she said situation" continues to be a compelling framework in many Catholic circles. The term suggests that a perpetrator's denial is of equal weight to a survivor's story. This is one reason why claims that the Church is changing are often met with cynicism.

For those of us who have healing to do, we don't seem to have those institutions to help us. But it doesn't mean we are on our own. And it doesn't mean we can't heal. I recently heard Teresa Pitt Green, a clergy abuse survivor, share that those harmed must be responsible for our own healing. She shared that it may unjust, but it is the only way forward. There is a door to open, and no one else can open it for us. I think this is one way that we can take back the power that the perpetrator has had over us. We can take away what we feel is their responsibility to help with our healing, and own the healing for ourselves. They still have a responsibility under the demands of justice to do what they can to help us heal, but we no longer need them for our healing. And as we heal, we can discover that we can become wounded healers for others.

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On the other hand, I can recognize the benefits that arose from my experience of unjust discrimination. At the time, I was headed down a pathway of conservative Catholic “orthodoxy,” one where I thought I would find affirmation and belonging. I thought that I could have a fruitful and fulfilling life as a gay Catholic in that world, and the internship likely would have further entrenched me in that position. Instead, the rejection caused me, in many ways, to wake up, to see the delusions associated with that path. The experience itself, and then the failure to address it or my harms, helped me to see that the experience wasn’t a glitch in the system, but the system functioning as it was designed to function. I wonder how messed up my relationship to my faith must have been at the time, where I thought that what happened to me was what God wanted for me. That experience didn’t and doesn’t merit fixing (or even addressing) anything, because, from the internal perspective of Catholic Studies and the culture surrounding it, nothing was broken. So the experience freed me, even if it was still unjust. I had to realize that something was wrong with the system for me to fully accept that I didn’t deserve the way it treated me.