With BJU’s termination of their original agreement with GRACE, those of us who walked through ABWE’s firing of GRACE and any abuse survivor who has had to fight a public and private battle for justice—whether it ends well or not—all know that the victims at the heart of this situation have experienced a whole new trauma that may repeat itself (or simply be triggered again) over the months and years to come, whether they continue to fight or not.
Karin Huffer, a marriage and family therapist, coined the term “legal abuse syndrome” to describe the traumatic impact of going through a brutal legal battle of some kind where injustice and abuse of power were prevalent (I believe her initial finding were somehow related to veterans in legal battles), and I’m surprised I haven’t seen more psychologists and therapists extending the definition yet to include survivors of abuse, especially within faith cultures where the abuse was not properly handled. There is a reason people often decide not to go through with exposing injustice, and it’s that sometimes the process itself is a whole other form of trauma.
I don’t usually quote Wikipedia, but in this case, they’ve described Huffer’s theory so well:
Although the primary consequence of un-addressed legal-system abuse for victims is injustice, abuses of the legal system inflict harm in many other ways. Civil litigation and criminal defense of the innocent impose psychological stress, often severe, upon the parties involved. Often such stress will affect physical health as well. When the system is abused and justice is denied as a result, stress and its effects can be exacerbated enormously. Karin P. Huffer, M.S., M.F.T. hypothesized the condition Legal Abuse Syndrome (LAS) as a form of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by ethical violation, legal abuse, betrayal, abuse of power, abuse of authority, lack of accountability and fraud.
Chronic and high-profile legal abuse have societal effects as well, including distrust of the law, law enforcement and the legal system, rationalization of small crimes by ordinarily honest citizens, and psychological stress.
Isn’t it interesting that those who have already likely suffered from PTSD because of sexual, physical or emotional/spiritual abuse now have it compounded when they go up against corrupt religious institutions and are faced with …
- Ethical Violations: In faith circles, these could also be seen as violations of mutually held religious beliefs
- Legal “Abuse”: As in, the police won’t help for technical reasons—statutes of limitations, foreign soil, etc.—and though it can’t technically be defined as “legal abuse” it feels grossly dehumanizing that the crimes against you “don’t count”
- Betrayal: The institution and church were supposed to watch over you and be concerned for your welfare and they’re not OR your friends/family were supposed to stand up for you but have chosen silence or the institution instead
- Abuse of Power/Abuse of Authority: Those in authority in the institution and in your faith circles who have abused power to cover abuse or who choose to participate in the defense of the cover-up or who simply choose not to be an influence for justice seem to be betraying what we would consider their God-given responsibility as leaders to stand up for what is moral and right
- Lack of Accountability: This is precisely the problem of rectifying historic abuse situations in faith-related institutions or in situations where statutes of limitations prevent authority involvement—there is typically no way to create any accountability if the institution does not submit itself to a trusted and objective source of accountability
- Fraud: While the initial covering of abuse would fall into this category, many institutions take it further when they make public statements that are either false or incredibly misleading, misrepresenting facts to third parties in private phone calls and emails, and other dishonest acts that make the institution “fraudulent” in the area of integrity
All of these things are present in the battles of those like the former missionary kids of C&MA’s Mamou Alliance Academy, the former missionary kids of New Tribes, the SIMS survivors, the former missionary kids of ABWE, the SGM survivor group, the survivors of abuse at the hands of Baptist ministers (like the case that Prestonwood Baptist seeks to silence), the Prairie Bible Institute survivor group and now the Bob Jones University group as well—along with every other notable group who has attempted to get justice for past abuse and had to battle a powerful religious culture and institution that often eschewed honesty as gossip and public confrontation as “gospel-hindering.”
Which brings me to the last piece of the Legal Abuse Syndrome puzzle and how it relates to those of us fighting historical cases of abuse in religious environments. Please notice the last sentence of the quote above, and I’ll repeat it here, changing the words appropriately:
Chronic and high-profile “legal abuse” has societal SPIRITUAL effects as well (including distrust of the law CHURCH, RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS AND ORGANIZATIONS, PASTORS and RELIGIOUS LEADERSHIP, law enforcement and the legal system),
rationalization of small crimes by ordinarily honest citizens and psychological stress.
To be honest, I hesitated over removing the “rationalization of small crimes …,” because I think if we’re truthful, those of us suffering in this way might rationalize (instead of crimes) the lack of mercy and other graces that—much like the honesty of the average citizens—we would ordinarily be able to offer others who’ve hurt us. And I actually want to be careful not to place too much weight on the word rationalize as I borrow this sentence, because we’re simply reciprocating the absence of mercy and grace shown to us by these institutions. But to others, on the outside looking in, it may appear that we are hateful, bitter and not capable of forgiveness. And let me be clear: Some of us may very well may be all of those things. So, sure, maybe (maybe) we are rationalizing.
Or maybe you’re asking something of us that is completely irrational, given our circumstances.
Because honestly this is one of those “walk a mile in my shoes” moments where you don’t get to judge. Honestly, you don’t. Until you have read the hate mail; until you have had your emails to the institution ignored while public statements are made that you are the recipient of care and concern; until you have paid the price for seeking justice with your own mental and physical health and hours of your life you won’t get back; until you’ve had relationships lost because they think it’s ungodly to call religious authorities onto the carpet, no matter how corrupt; until … until … I think it’s best that you exercise that grace and mercy you are so keen on.
And you sit back a moment.
And you realize that maybe you don’t know the half of it.
And that we’re still living through another kind of trauma.
And that now is the time for binding wounds, not creating new ones with your judgment, in whatever form it comes.
Maybe someday we’ll be the beacons of sweetness and grace that you hope for, with lighthearted Facebook status updates and the energy to be all you have previously known us to be, but until that day please know that we’re in repair and we’re probably still in the trenches. We’re fighting wounded, and it sometimes feels like our only allies are the other veterans with their own wounds and scars. Because too many of the healthy can’t be bothered to step away from their desks, far behind the front lines. They’d rather criticize our strategies and the way we face our enemy than pick up the baton of diplomacy and consider how they can do their part—from their comfortable, healthy corners of the world—to help us end the brutal war and usher in an era of peace.
This post is dedicated to the survivors of abuse at Mamou Alliance Academy, a boarding school for Christian and Missionary Alliance MKs, in the 1950s. These survivors’ dedication to not just their own justice but to justice for others led to the forming of MK Safety Net, and their support and encouragement and allegiance has been an incredible blessing that I can never repay.