First Do No Harm
Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free. (Phrase from the Hippocratic Oath)
The Hippocratic Oath, which every physician must swear by, is put in place to remind caregivers to be certain that their interventions do not exacerbate the condition that the patient is already experiencing. It is a sober reminder that caregivers have a duty to make sure that their treatments are appropriate. It is based on well established protocols that have a track record of being effective in curing an illness.In turn, the interventions will not make the illness even more grave. Patients are given a statement of informed consent, whereby the physician helps the individual to become aware of any known potential side effects or outcomes that might result from the procedure or treatment.
What is the relevance of this to the Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) situation? Multiple women have been harmed due to the sexual abuse by Bill Hybels, the former senior pastor. The way that these women have been treated by the care-giver leadership of WCCC has resulted in further abuse, or re-traumatization. Instead of doing no harm, the leadership of WCCC has in fact, potentially intensified the distress of these women.
Sexual abuse by a man towards a female (I will use this term since it encompasses both girls and women) results in characteristic patterns of harm. Most young girls, and even full grown women, have a sense of innocence and trust as it pertains to the males in their world. Trust translates into a sense of safety, which allows females to experience a kind of freedom to be care-free or spontaneous in their interactions with males. When the male has a role of authority, such as a pastor, the assumption is that the male will be respectful of the needs and boundaries of the female. The belief is that a pastor should be mature and grounded in the Biblical understanding of the spiritual dignity of a female. This should serve as an extra level of restraint against any self-centered behavior that would take advantage of the female. It is this unspoken, but known, assumption that gets shattered when sexual abuse occurs.
Suddenly, with the sexual advancements of a previously trusted perpetrator, the walls of safety are breached, and the female must make some kind of sense of this intrusion. Where they may have previously believed that they had control of their bodies, they suddenly realize that a more powerful and sinister person can exploit them against their will. There is a tectonic shift from a sense of safety and peace, to a vigilant need for detection of any possible re-intrusion of the boundaries of their body. An area of the brain called the amygdala begins to dominate their responsiveness to events in their lives. This area is often called the “smoke detector”, because it seeks to recognize and protect them from dangerous potential intruders. Many victims of sexual abuse describe how they go from a sense of freedom and carefreeness, to a preoccupation with their personal safety. In a brutal way, their innocence is lost, and with it the ability to focus and concentrate on areas of growth and goals as they mature. The fear and hyper-vigilance victims experience effectively hijacks their lives as they figure out how to cope.
The harm done to victims of sexual abuse can vary due to a number of factors. These include how intrusive the actions are, how old the female is at the time, and how healthy a female is emotionally. But all victims of abuse are harmed in various ways , and should be responded to respectfully and appropriately.
When sexual trauma has occurred, the memories of the experience become attached to intense emotions and body associations. Recounting the trauma tends to activate the emotions and body experience felt in the original trauma. That is why it is especially important to know how to get a victim to share their experience in a way that is safe and will reduce the impact of the original trauma, rather than intensify the symptoms. The retelling of the story of trauma has to be done with some kind of redemptive purpose, such as allowing the victim to be affirmed and supported and believed. It should be done in the context of a skilled therapeutic context, where safety is paramount to rewiring the brain in healthy ways.
When the current elders of WCCC listened to the stories of multiple women who had been abused by Bill Hybels, they should have been aware of the fact that these women were being asked to retell stories that had a traumatic attachment to the original events. This means that the sharing of the stories themselves had the capacity to re-traumatize these individuals. The women came forward to the elders because they had the assumption that the elders would use the stories to come out with a strong condemnation of the sins of Bill Hybels, and, to some extent, the complicity of the church in supporting someone who had clearly shown entitlement tendencies that fueled his abusive behavior. After originally, courageously, coming out with their stories, they were publicly maligned and called liars as the church’s spin machine went into overdrive to squelch their stories and protect a narcissistic pastor. These victims had shown great strength in coming forward, and they did so only in the hope that WCCC would take them seriously, They hoped that WCCC leadership would condemn the actions of the senior pastor. Instead, they were re-traumatized by being labeled as seditious and colluders in some vaguely defined strategy to ruin the reputation and ministry of Bill Hybels.
The women victims of Bill Hybels then subjected themselves to another retelling of their stories to a four member investigative team. This resulted in another bland affirmation that their stories were credible. Finally they re-submitted themselves to the process of sharing their stories with the current elders. They did this with the understanding that this would finally result in a clear and public condemnation of the actions of Bill Hybels and an honest recognition of the sin and failures of the church in handling this situation. Since, as has been discussed, the retelling of their traumatic stories carried the risk of retraumatization, they did this only with the hope of some kind of redemptive outcome. It was the responsibility of the elders to do no further harm to these women.
Used and Re-abused
What happened instead was the “reconciliation” final statement on the Bill Hybels situation meeting that occurred in July of this year. Contrary to what the abuse victims believed would happen, the elders used this meeting to give a minimal recognition of the harm done to the victims, and then sprinted forward to the future of the church. The women that shared their stories had felt that the current elders appeared sensitive and compassionate. This fueled their belief that finally the abuse would be taken seriously, and a sincere confession by the elders would occur, both for Bill Hybels’ sins and the sins of the church, in maligning these courageous women. The redemptive outcome that they hoped for, and for which they risked retelling their stories, was that WCCC would take seriously the sin of sexual abuse of women and that it would no longer protect the reputation of Bill Hybels at their expense. They experienced instead a massive sense of betrayal. They felt that they had been used so the elders could check off the task of having listening to their stories in order to declare that “we have listened to the stories, and now we can move on to the future of the church”. No real contrition, repentance, confession, sorrow, or tears on behalf of the abused women. The concluding consensus of many is that they satisfied the minimal requirements necessary so as not to risk exposure of the church to potential lawsuits, at the behest of the lawyers and the liability insurance people. They were used in the most callous way to satisfy the deeper agenda of WCCC leadership to not risk legal actions. They asked vulnerable women to risk the retelling of traumatic stories and used these stories to reduce the church’s risk.
These women risked, maybe without their understanding, the potential for retraumatization. They believed that the retelling of their stories would have a redemptive outcome and would in some way give purpose to their trauma. Instead, they felt massive betrayal, which replicated the betrayal that occurred when they were originally abused. If I was one of these women I would conclude that I had been used and re-abused just to satisfy some check-list given to the elders in the form of the guidance of Bishop Tutu. The elders are culpable for inviting the women victims to risk the trauma of retelling their stories and then, by their response, exacerbating or adding to the pain of the original trauma with the betrayal of trust, by not coming out with a strong statement of condemnation against Bill Hybels and the church. Bill Hybels name was not even mentioned by the elders at the “reconciliation” meeting! Do they think that the congregants are stupid? Why, at this point, would these women risk sharing their stories ever again? And, why should any woman in the church believe that sexual abuse of women by pastors is a serious matter? The caution to the caregivers of the church, the elders, to DO NO HARM to the victims of Bill Hybels, was severely violated.
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