When I was 15 years old, I discovered that my youth pastor was abusing almost all of the girls in the church and school that I had recently started attending. By the time I turned 16, I had very little hope for my fellow humans.
What disillusioned me was not that a pastor would coerce and force girls as young as 11 to have sex with him. It was not even finding out that it was an open secret among the congregation. When I discovered that my step-father had been covering for the youth pastor for over a decade, it made a sad and sick sort of sense. I wasn’t even that disillusioned when my parents punished me severely for turning Pastor Child Molester in to the police. What killed every last shred of hope that I had in human decency (for a while, at least) was that even after Pastor Child Molester pled guilty to more than a dozen counts of sexual abuse, the majority of the congregation still supported him.
If anything, his arrest and sentencing seemed to make the congregation love Pastor Child Molester all the more. They wept loudly in the courtroom when he was sentenced to prison, and treated him like a martyr rather than an admitted child-molester. To this day, Pastor Child Molester is still beloved in that community. But there is nothing but contempt for those of us who stood up for the abused and for justice.
I was primed for disillusionment by having witnessed abuse in two other religious environments. One was a Christian reform school for teenagers where the abuse I witnessed was so severe the Geneva Convention would define it as torture and as crimes against humanity. And despite the fact that I was not an inmate in the facility, and as close to an objective witness as one would ever get, no one cared to hear what I had to say. Charges of severe abuse made them defend the reform school even more.
For a while, I thought that there was something uniquely sick about religious institutions. But eventually I realized that in almost every situation where there is physical or sexual abuse, there is almost always a cadre of people who will defend the perpetrator. It is one of the truly odd things about those kind of crimes – people are so willing to defend the abusers.
My need to understand why and how people defend perpetrators of physical and sexual abuse has defined much of my life. My very first research project when I went back to college at the age of 33 was trying to understand why and how people defend abusers and rapists. And for the past 12 years I have searched for answers from every angle and discipline that I could find.
Here is what I have learned so far:
First, charismatic leaders are especially likely to find supporters. However, you don’t need to be a politician, a pastors, a coach or even well-liked for people to defend you. I have had people defend my mother who have never met her and do not even know her name. They just don’t like the idea of a mother being criticized openly for abuse.
The second thing that I learned is that the severity of the crime and the innocence of the victim often does not matter. For example, I spent three years of my life researching a group who continued to support a man who sexually assaulted a young boy because the kid wet his bed. The leader injured the boy’s genitals so badly, the poor kid had to be hospitalized. And even though the leader lied to his followers about his criminal record, sexually abused female group members and was arrested on other charges during his tenure – he never wanted for supporters.
So what is it about some people that gives them an almost compulsive need to defend abusers and rapists – even those who have admitted their crimes? After more than a dozen years of research I know only one thing – I have no freaking clue. And I am not sure anyone can adequately answer that question. In fact, I am mistrustful of people who think that they have a universal explanation for this weird need people have to defend the indefensible.
But the third thing that I learned is that while we have no really good explanations for why some people feel compelled to defend abusers, we at least have some pretty good ideas about how they do it.
I discovered that there were a number of researchers who had documented the kinds of excuses or justifications that criminals use to defend their behavior to themselves and others. Most criminals are not anarchists, after all. They generally have respect for some laws and for most law-abiding citizens. So how do they justify their own bad behavior or at least explain it to themselves? In fairly limited and predictable ways, as it turns out.
Defenders use the same techniques that abusers and criminals use to defend their behavior to themselves and others. Often, the abuser or criminal will provide his or her supporters with the defense strategy and a version of the story that is tailored to the defense. But some defenders don’t need the abuser’s help. They are very good at applying the strategies and shaping the story themselves.
In the last two years, I have compiled and synthesized the theories of a number of researchers into a list of twelve defense strategies, a dirty dozen if you will. (I go into detail about the researchers and their theories in the appendix of this article.) To make it easier for me to identify defense strategies, I divided them into three basic categories.
First there are denial strategies. These are denying responsibility, denying ill-intentions, denying harm, denying that there was a victim and denying that there was any other viable option.
Then there are contextualization strategies. These include contextualizing the abusive or criminal behavior in the whole of the offender’s life, or contrasting it with behavior that everyone agrees is far, far worse. Another strategy for contextualizing abusive behavior is to minimize it down to something that doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. Last, but not least, people try to contextualize abusive behavior in a larger context such as a cultural norm or even try to say that it serves a higher purpose.
Finally there are strategies of misdirection. This can be done in very obvious ways such as claiming that condemnation of NFL players who abuse their spouses is really about an attempt to destroy the game of football. Or it can be done by changing the point of view in the story – making it all about the abuser and not about the victims. And if all that fails, there is always misdirection by counter-attacking such as claiming that critics of child molesting priests are trying to destroy the Catholic church.
I have found it both useful and comforting to be able to identify the common defense strategies. For starters, I find that I am no longer as outraged or surprised by the horrible and crazy things that people say in defense of people who have done truly horrible things. I find that I just nod my head and say, “Oh, so he is pulling out old Denial Strategy #3.”
I believe that knowing about the basic strategies used by abusers of children and perpetrators of violence against women has practical benefits as well. As the old saying goes, forewarned is forarmed. If we can anticipate which strategies defenders will likely employ, we can formulate counter-strategies. More importantly, we can educate the public what to look for when they are listening to stories involving abuse. This knowledge can be a tool for analyzing confessions and apologies.
I need to establish some caveats before I explain more about each of the dirty dozen defenses. Here they are:
- This list is simply a way of helping us wrap our brains around how people defend abuse. It is a tool, not a manual or prayer book. In the past, some people have abused these sorts of tools. For example, some people have tried to use the stages of grief identified Kubler-Ross to force people to grieve in an orderly fashion. Please do use this tool in a similarly abusive manner.
- Since this is just a tool, a single excuse can have elements of one to several excuses from the Dirty Dozen. You may read the same excuse in two or more of the basic defenses. These basic defenses are wonderfully versatile and the more deeply a person is committed to a defense, the more likely a single excuse is to encompass more defenses.
- Sometimes, there are genuine mitigating circumstances and these will sound exactly like one of the dirty dozen defenses. I cannot give you a hard and fast rule for when something is a genuine mitigating circumstance and when it is simply a defensive strategy. But here is what I have found: Defenders are interested in shutting people up, and making things go away. Genuine mitigating circumstances do not allow criminals/abusers to dodge culpability for their bad acts and, more importantly, they do not attempt to silence victims and critics.
- This should not be used to condemn people who stay with abusive spouses or who make excuses for abusive parents. Victims do not need more critics.
- Here are a few notes about how I have presented this information. First, I have attempted to make clear that both men and women are perpetrators of sexual, physical and emotional abuse by alternating pronouns. However, I use examples found in current events whenever possible, and these have been overwhelmingly male.
In addition, because I began my research more than a decade ago with the goal of understanding why and how religious groups allowed ongoing abuse, much of my understanding of how defenders work and many of my examples will come from that field. And while I believe religious environments are uniquely vulnerable to abusers and criminals, I want to be very clear that I understand that the majority of abuse happens outside of religious environments. The fact that my examples are disproportionately religious is not a reflection of a bias against religion. Instead it reflects my fascination with and love of religions and my hope that they will one day be as safe as they already aspire to be.
Next up: More about Denial Techniques