Silence is golden they say. It can also be black: a dark pit of despair that leaves people isolated and unable to find a way out of their suffering. Silence can bring peace: a respite from the noise of daily life. And mental silence is the best of all: a respite from the constant mental chatter we all suffer, at least from time to time. Out of that mental silence insight can arise. Silence is indeed golden. Except when the silence covers abuse.
Abuse in religion
Recently in Australia, we had a huge enquiry into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The enquiry uncovered forty years of abuse. And what allowed it to go on? Silence. Silence was enforced in many ways. Those brave enough to speak up were disregarded as unreliable witnesses, and those in power even if they did believe them, covered up the abuse. They protected their own. The most they did was move a priest to another parish.
But abuse—sexual, physical and emotional—doesn’t just happen in the Catholic Church. It can happen wherever there is an imbalance of power—homes, at work, schools, Universities: anywhere where there is a teacher student relationship. And in all cases, silence is its greatest ally.
Not wanting to look
Though the article I took the following quote from speaks specifically about child sexual abuse, it applies to all forms.
“ … sexual assault scandals … can create a feeling of disgust and an urge to look away from an ugly reality. Yet we must confront and take collective responsibility for child protection by acknowledging that it happens every day and that we have to talk about it. Societal silence on child sexual abuse protects perpetrators and enables abuse to continue.”
Why, you may wonder, do the ‘victims’ not speak out, for clearly they need to be the first to speak. The following quote is from an excellent article on the topic in The Conversation. It gives a good summary of the grooming techniques used by perpetrators, and I highly recommend reading it, but the following gives you an idea of why it is so hard for victims to speak out.
“The rule against breaking the silence is reinforced in families as well as socially and culturally, children and adult survivors often report that they feel guilt, shame and fear when telling their stories. Self-blame, fear of retribution, a sense of powerlessness, mistrust of self and others, over-responsibility and protection of others are common effects of being trained to be silent and sexually available.” http://theconversation.com/we-all-have-a-role-in-protecting-children-end-the-silence-on-abuse-31281
It’s safer to shut up, but silence only allows the abuse to continue.
Different cultures different times
Concern about abuse in all its forms and laws against it are a relatively recent thing. In some Muslim cultures, domestic abuse of women is seen as the husband’s right—he is permitted to hit her as discipline—they can even be punished after they’ve been raped (see the case of Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow) or threated with punishment for speaking out.(See a case in India where a girl was threatened with stoning if she didn’t withdraw her allegations of rape.) These cases horrify Westerners. The fact that they take place in a different culture does not make them any less wrong. The women still suffer. Women have only taken a stand on sexual abuse since the women’s liberation movement of the 60s and 70s, and society is finally becoming aware of the damage and the need to prevent it and provide escape strategies for victims.
“Domestic violence has devastating psychological, physical, and economic consequences for those who experience it—and for the children who are exposed to it. Survivors often suffer from a host of long-term physical and mental health problems that have a significant impact on their ability to live a healthy, productive, and fulfilled life.” Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis are Co-directors of Measure of America of the Social Science Research Council. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kristen-lewis/domestic-violence-silence_b_6599556.html
Abuse in a spiritual context
Abuse is particularly painful to confront when in a spiritual context. Why? Because it’s so hard to believe that those we trust with guiding us spiritually, those that talk about morality or ethics don’t abide by those principles themselves. We trust that, as spiritual advocates, they will have the practitioners’ best interests at heart. When presented with testimonies indicate otherwise, we simply find it hard to believe.
“But he is such a nice man,” we say. We can’t believe that there is another side to him that only the victims of his abuse see. And we don’t want to confront the possibility that it’s true. Especially if the person accused is someone close to us: our husband, our brother, our father, our revered teacher. Paedophilias get away with their abuse for years because of this.
The situation is further complicated when the religious beliefs permit the abuse and create a culture where others in the religion do not support the victim. Women from a radical Islamic political group in Australia said publically that permission from Allah for Muslim men to hit their wives is “a beautiful blessing”.
If the victim of sexual, physical and emotional abuse sees it as a blessing, does that make it not abuse? Not in the eyes of the law. As Police Commissioner of NSW Mick Fuller said, “The law doesn’t distinguish between race and religion, when it comes to violence against women it is not acceptable in any shape of form,”
The role of beliefs
I was horrified recently to learn that allegations of abuse by my spiritual teacher may be true, and that the religious organisation of which I am a part has a culture that supports abuse. What appears to some as abuse is seen as ‘skilful means’ to assist the student in breaking through his or her habitual patterns so they can attain enlightenment more quickly, and the supposed perpetrator is seen as an enlightened being who sees the long term benefit for the student even if we ordinary deluded folk don’t. It’s called crazy wisdom. Add to that beliefs that one should not criticise one’s teacher (at the risk of going to Vajra hell), but rather see all his actions as pure and you get a situation ripe for abuse to flourish if power is misued.
There are reasons for these beliefs that work well within the system of Vajrayana Buddhism and they are not harmful in themselves; they are only a problem when the student does not understand the concepts correctly and the teacher abuses the trust his students place in him. Ordinary students are now becoming aware of this issue, but like me, they have not experienced any abuse themselves; their experience with their teacher is overwhelmingly positive, and he has brought enormous benefit to thousands of people. Because of that many simply can’t believe the shocking details when they hear them. Their challenge is to work out what, if anything, they will or can do about it, assuming a sufficient body of evidence manifests to give credence to the claims.
Though this style of ‘teaching’ (apparently hitting, punching, sexual coercion and emotional abuse) may have been acceptable in Tibet, which was a feudal society, it is simply not acceptable here in the West, as Police Commissioner of NSW Mick Fuller made clear.
Rennovations require deconstruction first
Breaking the cycle of silence is the first step to healing for all involved. His Holiness the Dalia Lama is very clear on the need for students to speak out when they see their teacher behaving unethically. You can read his guidance for students in this situation here.
If the outcome of speaking out is that a structure is demolished, then it can be rebuilt better, stronger and cleaner.
The Catholic Church in Australia has assured the enquiry that they will set up structures to ensure that this abuse will not continue. They have admitted and regretted their wrong doing, made reparation to the victims and are vowing not to let it happen again. That is the way to purify. It’s even a Vajrayana Buddhist teaching and practice. This organization could do the same. Then they would come out of this with their integrity intact. But it would take a huge commitment from the senior students at the very heart of the problem, those who enable the abuse to continue, to clean up their act. Can they do it? Only time will tell. But they won’t even see the problem unless others point it out.
Perhaps some Catholics will lose their faith in their Church, but I doubt they will lose their faith in Jesus Christ as their guide and they may find a different church, but others will find this resolution satisfactory and will continue to attend their church happy that the truth is finally out and the situation is being dealt with, (though if they’re wise, they will make sure that they and their children are never alone with their priest).
I challenge any organisation accused of abuse to end the cycle of silence by admitting there is a problem, and setting up structures that ensure that the abuse does not happen again, and if it does, to provide real support (not just lip service) and an exit strategy to help victims remove themselves from danger.
The bottom line
“In all ethnic groups and all classes of society, from the extremely disadvantaged to the most affluent, a veil of silence allows domestic violence to be tolerated. The result is that today abuse keeps on happening, over and over again. Silence is not golden. Women must speak out and receive the support they need to live in a safe environment. The media should draw attention to the issue to encourage communities to develop viable solutions. The bottom line: in our culture there should be zero tolerance of domestic abuse.”
Huffington Post Contributor and Former BBC journalist C. J. Grace is the author of the new book Adulterer’s Wife: How to Thrive Whether You Stay or Not, available on Amazon.com. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/abuse-and-the-code-of-silence_us_57a75c01e4b0ccb023729d09
I guess I’m a humanitarian before all else.
I will not be silenced.
I will encourage others to speak up.
I will share anything that exposes abuse anywhere in any of its forms, because only through exposure will people be forced to confront it and make changes to ensure that it does not continue.
Silence is abuse’s greatest ally.
If you care for others, speak up.
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