I just recently watched an thought-provoking docuseries on Netflix called "The Keepers." It is about the 1969 unsolved murder of a Baltimore, Maryland nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, and the connection to a conspiracy to hide the murder, even to this day, despite overwhelming evidence of a cover-up. While I highly recommend you take time to watch the docuseries, this blog will not focus so much on the particulars, but instead on how and why so many people think that when it comes to victimization, the only victim is the person who the "act" of sexual or physical abuse was perpetrated on. There is a domino effect, it impacts those we love, our family & friends, even strangers. Picture a spider web, reaching out to people around the globe. It may start with one person, but day-by-day or hour-by-hour, others are drawn in or affected as perpetrators or victims. I am certainly not an expert on this particular case, but I am a self defense instructor with 25 years of experience, having dealt with people from all walks of life. I have listened to and taught thousands of people who have been victimized. I can only share my experience in listening to their stories, my teaching knowledge, and my own research on the topic. Again, while this is not about the docuseries “The Keepers,” I will use much of what was in the show as starting points for this conversation.
My business, SAFE International™, has taught more than 215,000 individuals since 1994, with a prominent focus on the teenage demographic. What became evident to me very early on was how many of our teens have already been victimized, starting at an early age, and most often from someone known to them as an immediate family member, an acquaintance, or a person of authority. And because it happens to so many boys and girls at such a young age, most do not have the experience, education or coping mechanisms to first and foremost understand it, never mind how to even deal with it. This immediately causes victims to look at themselves and think they are to blame for it in some way. The consequences of self-blame often results in confused thoughts and misguided feelings. And when you add in the strategies abusers use on their victims, this confusion is only compounded. Some of the things victims end up asking themselves is what they did to deserve or cause this. And when the victim is young, they can believe that the adult abuser must not have any responsibility for their actions. If the person doing the assault/abuse is someone in a position of authority, victims will often feel compelled to submit. Many victims do not have a circle of support to go to, one of the things abusers look for when choosing victims. Others are embarrassed to tell anyone. Sadly, this can be due to thinking they may somehow be responsible, or that they will be judged by others, or that they will not be believed. The result? They block it out, keep it to themselves, or learn to rationalize it so that they can appear to be functioning day-to-day.
As is common, the abuser counts on a victim’s confusion and little-by-little, brings more doubt to their victims, subsequently resulting in even more victimization. They do this through manipulation by using guilt, shame, blame and their authority to further increase their control. Some are so brazen with their acts that they will do it in a school, as in the case of the docuseries. The abuses committed against those in the docuseries took place in a school with literally hundreds of students, all under the same roof, and with many people knowing about it. The perpetrators could extend their control beyond their primary victims. Sadly, many who knew about it kept quiet because they didn’t want to admit it or face that it might be happening. I will discuss this further, but know silence is part of the problem. Similar to the actual victim, someone who witnesses abuse may also not have known what to do particularly if young, and some may even justify in their own minds that it is not their issue to deal with. This is frequently the case, not just in this particular story. Oftentimes people do not want to affect their own futures, whether that be advancing in their jobs, their standing in society or just out of fear. There are many, many reasons why a first-hand account of abuse (or even suspected) gets ignored, mostly the thinking that it is not their problem. Think about that for a moment though, surely they are part of the problem, a huge part of the problem. In many ways even just as guilty. If one knows abuse is going on, BUT does nothing to stop it, there is accountability. That being said, many do not come forward even if they are seemingly not involved because it may trigger abuse they have personally faced which one can understand, but some victims do still come forward. One frustration I encounter is when I post or talk about how sexual abuse is an epidemic. So many people tell me I am just fear mongering, but if one does any type of research, I see no other view; sexual abuse is an epidemic.
Other reasons why so many witnesses/bystanders to assault do not come forward is the fear of questioning authority. From a young age we are taught to respect authority without question. Sit up, shut up, do what you are told, do not disagree, are all things that learned as a child become part of our makeup even into adulthood. The risks that come with challenging someone of authority can be brutal. After all, how many times have you heard members of the community say things like, "I have known Father XX all my life, he is a good man who would never do these things they are accusing him of," or "But he goes to church every week, he is a family man, these are all made up lies," or "They are just looking for some money on this good man's reputation," to even "He or she has had dinner in our home, so we know him, he would never do such a thing." ON AND ON the excuses go. Guess what folks? You have no clue who most people are and what their dark secrets are. You’ve heard the old saying, “Who knows what goes on behind closed door,” you better believe it! And just because someone you ‘know’ has been accused of a vile crime but has not perpetrated said crime against you personally, does NOT mean they aren’t doing it to someone else. When abuse does take place within a family, even loved ones will deny it is happening often due to ignorance, or the worry about how it could affect their own reputation. Are there fake claims of abuse? Yes, most definitely, but that does not mean they are all fake, and I would say the fake claims dwarf the amount of real ones.
In the case of the docuseries, at first only one person came forward, so authorities took the stance that until it can be corroborated by someone else, no further investigation was necessary. When something like this is corroborated, and those accused are "supposed" pillars in the community and nothing is done, it stinks of a cover-up. One of my biggest challenges is understanding the mind of the person who knows what is going, is not a victim, but DOES NOTHING!!!! It is too easy to blame the victim and ask why they did not come forward when it happened. Quite frankly people who say that are ignorant to what a victim goes through mentally. And when someone does have the strength and courage to come forward, they still go through the whole spectrum of disbelief from others, they are made to feel guilty for wrecking a reputation, on and on and on! And EVEN when hundreds come forward with stories of abuse and it is ignored, something stinks and anyone who knew anything about it and knowingly covers it up, should be disgusted with themselves! Covering something up is not what you’d want done if the situation directly affected someone you knew.
I am definitely no expert on PTSD, so I won't speak to it, but commonly when people come out years later, if they even do, with accusations of sexual abuse they are labelled as being liars who are only looking for some sort of compensation. If one does any credible research on PTSD you will find the evidence on repression of memories in order to function and survive… it’s science people, proven fact, lots of evidence-based research! Just because you may not have personal experience in this area, does not mean it isn’t true. Some may never get their memories back, while others may get their memories back decades later.
So who are the victims? Well, the victims are those who have been raped, abused, beaten, tortured, killed, etc. as well as their family members and friends who wake up every single day also blaming themselves for very often not noticing how their sister, brother, mother, father, cousin, friend was being abused. They go 10, 20, 30, 50, 60 years thinking about it everyday, sometimes until they die. Many resort to suicide, drugs, alcohol, anything to try and forget for a few minutes or hours what happened, or to deal with their own guilt. And when no one gets any answers, sometimes over decades, they often spiral. It breaks up families, marriages, relationships. In some cases, it never allows those directly or indirectly involved to ever have a successful relationship. It is like a spider web, often touching countless people we meet, and very often the influence is unconscious so it does often reach strangers. Even the simplest interactions with people are influenced when this is in the back of people's minds. So what was seemingly one victim, actually ends up victimizing hundreds, it not thousands. It is the ripple effect of violence that is so not necessary if people would take allegations of abuse seriously, investigate it, not ignore the reality of it and deal with it. There will still be victims, but there does not have to be hundreds of additional ones if people would look beyond their own personal fears in that moment.
As parents, leaders in our communities, regular civilians, (in other words… EVERYONE), we have established there are never just individual victims, but as an individual you can make a difference in prevention of further abuse.