“I’m Sorry That Happened To You” And Clergy Abuse

(iStock)
(iStock)

When confronted with the world’s atrocities, people often do not know what to say. They reach into their internal word bank and search for something solid and durable to utter out. They figure that support is supposed to be solid and durable — it is support after all! Bereft of the ability to relate, they try to think of phrases that they’ve heard before. And then out it comes, the ubiquitous, “I’m sorry that happened to you.” This phrase is recommended by a number of online resources as a good standby for responding to sexual violence survivors’ stories. But this just isn’t working for a number of us. It conveys little, if anything, of true empathy and understanding, especially when uttered robotically.

“I believe you” were the only three words I needed to hear around this time last year. Yet, you would be surprised how difficult it was to find anybody willing to utter them. People are afraid that if they believe the victim, they will be wrongly ‘convicting’ an innocent perpetrator (dispel that myth, now, please), or that they will be enabling the victim to not take responsibility for her own “contributions” to the situation (dispel that myth, too, please). They are also afraid that if they openly believe the victim, their synagogue/community experience will go less smoothly and it will become entangled with “politics.” They want to stay out of the situation by not having an opinion (or sharing an opinion) and in doing so, they inadvertently enable abusers and contribute to the hopelessness and suicidality of victims. It takes courage and wisdom to utter the phrase, “I believe her” or “I believe you” — and that says a lot to the victim about who you are as a person.

Instead, what I heard too often was the awkward, “I’m sorry that happened to you.” This is understandable, as I’ve seen this phrase recommended to supporters of rape victims/survivors. Yet, I always found it odd, like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Something was not right. Something was missing.

I found it a little odd because rape and abuse don’t just “happen,” there is a perpetrator. Where is the accountability in this phrase? Nowhere. It completely lets the perpetrator off the hook. Both “denial of victim” and “denial of perpetrator” are extremely common and damaging responses to sexual violence survivors. This ubiquitous phrase may inadvertently erase the perpetrator and thereby implicitly deny the victim. In abuse cases involving popular members of clergy, this can be particularly problematic, as just being believed is often traumatically difficult, and survivors often feel completely alienated by the rest of the world.

Perhaps it is more appropriate to say “I’m sorry that happened to you” after a person was struck by lightning or survived a tornado or an attack by a random stranger. “I’m sorry that happened to you” makes more sense in an impersonal context. But intimate partner violence and chronic sexual abuse have a perpetrator, a predatory relationship, and they feel deeply, horrifically personalspiritualized sexual abuse even more so. And broadly speaking, rape is most often committed by a person known to the victim — and likely to you as well. It would be more apt to say, “I’m horrified that he did that to you. That is not okay! He’s an evil bastard!” and to share in the victim’s shock/anger/pain and model appropriate emotions (such as indignation and sadness). This also conveys that you *believe* the victim. It didn’t just happen to me, he did it. It was not an accident, misunderstanding, or mistake.

Rape and abuse don’t just ‘happen,’ there is a perpetrator. It didn’t just happen to me, he did it. It was not an accident, misunderstanding, or mistake.

The clergy abuser works to fabricate a reality that is tailored to each individual victim. They co-opt the victim’s spirituality, psychology, sexuality, and more. It is not something that just “happened.” It is a highly personalized, and intentional, attack. In this context, saying “I’m sorry that happened to you” is eerily reminiscent of “I’m sorry you got upset.”

A flowery or robotic, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” sounds like yet another subtle way of removing accountability from my perpetrator and avoiding the discomfort of really, truly believing me and having the courage to openly acknowledge his true character and the egregious wrongness of his actions.

I’m never angry when people say this because I know that they often mean well and probably learned it with good intentions. But I do distance myself from such people, and find other support instead, as this phrase shows me that the person is probably not adequately prepared to handle my truth — and that they might not even believe me. Why would I waste my time engaging with a person who does not believe me? No thank you!

For people who genuinely want to be supportive and do not know what to say, I suggest that you go with one of the phrases on this list instead. These phrases work really, really well. And remember, three simple words (if you mean them) can save a life. “I believe you.”

I believe you.
I believe you.
I believe you.

Finally, please remember, it is imperative that your actions and words align. For instance, if you say “I believe you” while maintaining a friendship with the rapist or abuser, you are not someone safe to the victim and are behaving in a duplicitous manner and contributing to their traumatic experience. This is one of those situations where not taking a side is siding with evil. And yes, there is such a thing as evil and there are truly bad actors in this world. Stop projecting your conscience onto sex abusers.

Stop projecting your conscience onto sex abusers.

Long Story Short: “I’m sorry that happened to you” is a uniquely poor choice of words to use with clergy sex abuse survivors. This phrase fails to convey the two things that we need the most: (1) Accountability for our perpetrators, (2) Real belief. It also fails to acknowledge the deeply personal nature of the crime. Instead, there are many more useful and helpful things that you can say.

About the Author
Sarah Ruth Hoffman is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She writes what she would have found comforting and useful to read during her lengthy exodus from a sexually exploitative relationship with a pulpit rabbi. She hopes that this blog will help the public to understand the dynamics of clergy sexual abuse, whether the victims are adults, or children. Much of what is written can apply to non-clergy relationships as well. If any one person is helped by any of what is written, then the purpose of this blog has been fulfilled.
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