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Understanding the World of 'Secondary Victims'

“It’s such a big shame for me to leave the priesthood after living it for last 30 years; but I feel the same shame to continue as a part of this Catholic Church, where clergy molest children and where bishops fail to take actions against those priests.” These powerful words out of a desperate mind brought my attention for the first time to a certain group of people whom the safeguarding literature names as ‘secondary victims’. They represent two sets of people: those who relate in any manner with the ‘primary victims’—abused children—and those who relate in any degree with the perpetrator, the abuser. Slowly I recognized the long list of those secondary victims within the Church, such as present and future family members of the abused child, and those of the abuser—parishes where the priest had his ministries; the faithful who had received the services of that particular priest on special occasions, like marriage, baptism, or first holy communion; fellow priests of the same diocese or congregation; friends and colleagues of the offender; the clergy and Catholic bishops in general, and so on. It is not an exaggerated list. Actually, it will not be easy to find someone in the Catholic Church who is totally exempt from any kind of harm from these abuse scandals. Just as the ripples in the water, the wounds of those who are in close circles with both the victim child and with the offender priest will be profound, and deeper than those in the outer circles.

Studies among secondary victims showed some similarities in their initial reactions, without a difference as to whether they are related to victim or to offender. Shock, doubt, and confusion were the common response for the family members of the victim child. Usually the accused priest was a trusted, admired, and loved figure within the family of the victim, and therefore family members were confused about the reliability of the information. They unnecessarily doubted the involvement of the child in the incident, and they remained shocked by the tragedy. A qualitative study among the non-offending priests in England and Wales by Fr. Barry O’Sullivan, an English psychologist, has noted their preliminary responses as a sense of shock, denial of the fact, and a counter accusation, as if it were an anti-clericalist thing to discredit the Church. Clerics felt anger towards the offender priest, towards bishops for their poor response, and even towards the media for the way they presented the scandals.

After the initial panic, family members began to blame themselves. They felt guilt since they could not protect their child. Unresolved grief and sorrow lasted for a long time. Some others were wounded again while going through the process of reporting it to the authorities. The non-offending priests spoke about their existential crisis, loss of identity, loss of confidence in the institutional church and authority, fear of the future of the church, fear about false allegation for them, fear of working with children, shame, isolation, experience of being branded collectively, ridicule, humiliation, stigma, loss of pastoral initiatives, etc. They recognized the damages these scandals brought in their relationship with their bishops, fellow priests, and the faithful.

In its core, secondary victims share with the real child victims some similar painful feelings like shame, fear, anger, grief, and anxiety; but of course it is different in its gravity. Similar to the ‘primary victims’ they are also carrying the scars of an offence for which they are not subjectively responsible.

Different from the primary victims, these people would find it difficult to recognize themselves as victims. They don’t have any specific traumatic event to point out or any primary information regarding those events, unlike the primary victims. But they are under the impact of a series of scandalous news reports and unending discussions, especially in the social media. Therefore most of them remain themselves as clueless around their emotions of shame, distress, and anger, and do not trace their link with traumas related to these scandals. O’Sullivan’s study says that all non-offending priest participants, without any exception, said that the interviews were their primary opportunity to speak about their inner conflicts related to the child abuse scandals in detail. Though most of them lived with these wounds for over twenty years, they remained unaddressed. They never recognized the impact of these scandals in their personal lives in its depth until the interview.

Usually it is not easy to recognize these wounds and address them adequately. But those unaddressed emotional wounds can damage oneself and the community in many ways. Most importantly they would cause emotional abuse of others, consciously or unconsciously. Social media has brought a wider option for this. It will begin another chain of victimization, creating further secondary victims. Thus the possibility of ‘a victim turning to an offender’ within the context of primary victim would become more probable among secondary victims.

Recognizing and naming oneself as a ‘secondary victim’ would serve as the starting point towards their resilience. The highlight within the conclusions drawn by O’Sullivan’s research is about the need for listening to these wounded people. The researcher demands creating opportunities, where these secondary victims would have chances for personal sharing, to talk openly and in depth. Stephen R. Covey says, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” The present situation demands for people who would listen to these secondary victims to understand them, not to judge them or to argue with them. When someone listens to them just to reply or to argue with them, in the process of defending those arguments, these victims would undergo some mode of re-victimization. An empathic listening would calm down the flurry emotions out of a wounded heart. Being believed is a necessary passage for a victim to come out of the webs of hard feelings. It’s important to find each other as better listeners rather than smart debaters in this context.