Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Ruth Krall, "Bearing Witness, Part Two — Speaking Truthfully" (2)

Vincent van Gogh, "The Good Samaritan," original in the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons for online sharing.

The posting that follows is the second half of Ruth Krall's essay "Bearing Witness, Part Two — Speaking Truthfully." The first part of this essay is here. As that previous posting indicates, this is the fourth in a set of essays Ruth has published discussing what it means to bear witness as one engages in the work of compassionate peacemaking. In this second half of her essay about speaking truthfully as one bears witness, she probes questions about how clinicians and others both safeguard the privacy and integrity of those who have entrusted their stories to them, and, at the same time, handle the professional and moral obligation to prevent harm. Ruth's essay follows:

Compassionate Peacemaking: Healing the World's Wounds One at a Time

Part One: Bearing Witness

Bearing Witness, Part Two — Speaking Truthfully

Ruth Elizabeth Krall, MSN, PhD

Women’s Story-Telling: Violation and Violence

As a community mental health practitioner and therapist, I heard many women's stories. I was told them in a confidential relationship of trust. As a friend, I heard many more stories. And finally, as a college teacher, I both heard and read a gazillion more stories.

Cameron's words reinforced my professional education and clinical training. They accompanied me as I made decisions about talking with other people about what I knew and/or about what I heard others say. It was not a hard leap for me to learn that personal friendships as well as professional confidential relationships also included issues of trust and trust betrayed. Learning about a student's abortion, her story was not mine to tell. Learning about a friend's experience of date rape, her story was not mine to tell. Learning about a colleague's unfaithful and battering spouse, the story did not belong to me. Learning of a fatal diagnosis, the story was not mine to spread. Learning about a friend's delayed and much longed-for pregnancy, the story was not mine to tell. Learning about a colleague's newly funded and very prestigious sabbatical grant, the story was not mine to spread.  Over the years I became more and more cautious about telling other people's stories without their explicit permission to do so. As Cameron suggests, I took the stories others told me inside my heart and held them there as I pondered their meaning.

When I first began to hear the stories of affinity sexual abuse by clergymen and church leaders — directly or indirectly — I became unwilling to gossip about these stories. I did pay attention, however, and sought to clarify, for myself, where truth lay and where there was only idle speculation or malicious gossip. I eventually created a small community of colleagues and friends — all clinically trained who understood confidentiality. Here I could abstract the stories and ask if anyone else was hearing these kinds of stories. Here I slowly built a professional community of activism in which these stories could be abstracted into a generic story and told in order to warn and protect other women.

There are three aspects to this issue, in my opinion. The first is the need to respect the needs and wishes of the story-teller. The second is the need to avoid defaming the character of those individuals the narrative story casts as victimizers. The third aspect is to inform and to warn vulnerable individuals.

There is no easy path that considers all three of these aspects as essential ones to consider. There is no easy truce among them when they conflict with each other.

I am not a detective; I am not a journalist: I have no valid way of judging the credibility and truthfulness of any particular story. It is clear that I have opinions about the stories I hear — in part based on the nature of my relationship with the story-teller.  But I am not God; my information is often incomplete.

This means, for example, that I am not a judge. It also means that I do not make the story my own. However, if I hear ten stories that the hypothetical Very Rev. Emmanuel Smith is abusing kids, I have a moral and professional obligation to act. In some situations, involving other professionals, I have confronted abusing persons head-on — being careful not to betray the sources of my information. In some situations I have asked the accused individual if the story I've been told is true. Depending on the nature of abuse, I may be required by law to report Emmanuel Smith to criminal justice officials. In other circumstances I may be morally obliged to report him to his professional credentialing organization.

If I learn about institutional cover-ups of abusive behavior, I may choose to work with the story-teller to think about how to confront the institution in appropriate ways. I may also choose to work with other professionals to uncover additional information so that together we can urge institutional change.

I do not have a personality that goes looking for fights. I do not enjoy institutional conflict. However, I believe that each member of an institution is responsible for its collective morality and ethical institutional behavior. Uncovering or tripping over the abuse of power and others' acts of institutional malfeasance, one simply has an obligation to act.

Eventually, as friends and colleagues learned I would not take, without their permission, their private pain and their personal stories of being abused into the public realm. I began to hear many more stories of religious leader and religious institution abusiveness. This continuously raised the question of what was needed to stop such abuse. Without understanding the direction my life trajectory was taking, I became a sexual violence expert inside my religious community and eventually inside my small hometown. I was asked to sit on committees to create solutions. I was asked to speak, preach, and teach about affinity abuse inside my denomination. I told the truth as I understood it, but I often spoke it slant. I protected the identities of my informants and abstracted their stories. I was not a believer in public denunciation of abusive individuals by advocates and helpers. I was, however, an advocate of survivors being enabled to tell their truths as they understood them. In short, I was unwilling to tell a victim's stories for him or her. I was, however, willing to support individuals as they told their own stories. I was willing to point them to other professionals such as attorneys and institutional resource persons such as Title IX coordinators and professional counselors on a college campus.

In speaking publicly about sexual abuse in a generic fashion, I used a clinical model in which therapists write about diagnostic issues that they encounter in their clinical practice — but they do this in such a way that no one can identify a specific client or a specific group of clients or even a specific institution.

What happened in the wake of those church-wide committees, sermons, lectures, and weekend conferences for survivors blew me away. Not only did my professional awareness-raising and activism work elicit more storytelling by survivors of violation, but I began to hear violence narratives from other clinicians and ministers as well. Other professionals were as perplexed about how best to proceed as I was.

The story of sexual violence inside the boundaries of my particular religious denomination was everywhere on the landscape. It now seemed to me that it lay there in plain sight of anyone who looked for it. And it was mostly an administratively known secret. Eventually it became clear that church administrators knew the story of perpetrators and victims and were deliberately keeping the information hidden. In addition, they were refusing to act to protect victimized individuals and vulnerable individuals who were potential victims. Perpetrators were being protected. Ministry credentials of abusive individuals were being protected. It became quite clear to me: victims were not being protected by confidential professional rules or by institutional management practices of secrecy and cover-up.

This work exposed me to personal, professional, familial, and institutional secrets I never dreamed of. This time in my life was a volcanic eruption of a hidden narrative that not even the most malicious church gossips could have invented.

There were ethical issues about speaking and not-speaking that littered every corner of my professional life. Speaking up, I betrayed my personal beliefs about confidentiality and my understanding of Cameron's wisdom about not telling other people's stories: not speaking up, I felt as if I abandoned and betrayed victims and became complicit with those who were knowingly silent in my church. I felt both contaminated and corrupted by the stories I knew. I felt morally dirty. All that I knew for certain about my own inner spiritual life was that I did not want to be passively complicit with these violent stories I knew.

I had to re-think Cameron's essay. I had to re-think my internal rules about speaking out and staying silent. Eventually, I realized I could abstract the information and still speak the up-until-now unspoken truth about what was happening. I did not need to tell Mary's story or Sam's story or Aunt Mamie's story. I did not need to name the names of victimized individuals.

I could tell my story — as a listener, as a consultant, as a lay preacher. And my story involved the story of listening to sexual violence narratives and physical abusiveness narratives inside a faith community that openly preached compassionate love, active nonviolence, and conflict resolution while in the same breath it denied the amount of affinity violence that was happening. I felt strongly that (without betraying survivors of sexual violation inside the boundaries of our shared faith community) I needed to confront the denial and the long-existing patterns of institutional enablement. I needed, however I could do so, to tell the story of a religious community in which the stories and the experiences of sexual and physical violence were all too present.

Confronting the perpetrator was not my job. This job belonged to his or her victims. In some situations, it was the job or organizational executives and personnel administrators.  Or, depending on the circumstances, it belonged to law enforcement agencies. Professional counselors, family members, and friends could provide survivors with the needed support.  But it was highly unrealistic to expect sexual violence victims and survivors to take down a church establishment that was enabling their abusers.  

Subsequently, when perpetrators and their enablers came after me — seeking to destroy my reputation and end my employment — I pushed the pause button. I stopped all United States and Canada-based conference and workshop appearances.

Before I began the work of advocacy on behalf of the survivors of affinity violence, I had believed in the teachings of my church about non-violence. I had believed in the wisdom and integrity of my church and its leaders. Finding that integrity absent, I needed time to mature into the work I’d begun naively and trustingly. When the institutional church's purity patrols came after me and my employment, I decided that "enough was enough." If someone sought me out, I tried to be helpful. But I did not put myself in the position of expert witness. My support for victims who consulted with me remained in place. What paused was my informed witness about the type and amount of affinity violation and interpersonal abusiveness inside the Anabaptist-Mennonite community of faith.

In retirement that has changed.  Once again, I am professionally free to speak out and can more freely seek to make a difference in institutional responses to abusive personnel. Now, however, instead of being inside positions of power and influence, I live on the margins of my faith community. Now, I speak and write, therefore, from the margins rather than from the center.

I am suspicious, therefore, of gossip wearing the guise of concern. I am even more suspicious of gossip wearing the mantle or self-righteousness. I have come to see gossip as one form of bearing a malicious false witness.

As clinicians, as survivor advocates, and as institutional change agents, we need to tell and debrief our personal and professional stories to each other. Clinical supervisors need to hear what actually happened in a clinical appointment so that they can be helpful. Clinical notes need to be specific enough that treatment plans can be monitored and evaluated. Clinical grand rounds need to be steeped in truthful narratives so that they can benefit the patient. It is important to note that the content of these professional activities occur within a commonly accepted framework of professional confidentiality.

For example: in my first major administrative clinical position, I learned why doctors and nurses have separate dining areas in hospital cafeterias. People such as guests or family members want to overhear professional conversations and may, unknown to the professionals involved, be deliberately listening in and overhearing confidential information. The private dining room option allows professionals to have space and time for informal private consultations — a space where they can debrief a difficult situation or a time when they can ask a colleague for an informal opinion. This may appear to be gossip if overheard by non-professionals. However, it is part of the professional culture to hold these private conversations in confidence.

I once worked with a very busy physician. I quickly learned that when he invited me to have lunch with him, it would be in the doctor's private dining room and that he would pay for the lunch. This was, I assumed but never asked, a tax-deductible lunch. I was not expected to reciprocate. I also learned that he usually had a specific topic in mind for these conversations. I learned, over time, to trust these prvate space working lunches as a way for him to provide me with clinical information or supervision.  These lunches allowed him to ask me to clarify issues about his patients — questions that on his part were largely intuitive and sometimes urgent ones.

Truthfulness as Creed

The more we cling to interpersonally respectful truth-telling as our creed, the less likely we are to maliciously gossip about others. The more that we think about the sources of our information, we realize that we need to ask several questions before sharing this information more widely:

Is the information factually true?
Is the information confidential?
If confidential, is the confidentiality legitimate or corrupt?
Does the information we hear or uncover contain hints and intimations or actual details and factual information about wrong-doing?
Does the information we hear or learn contain errors that need to be corrected? If so, we need to go back to the source of our information and correct it.
If we learn about wrong-doing — behavior that harms other people (or even our own selves) — what is our obligation to private and public truth-telling?
What kind of personal or professional behavior enables malicious gossip and overt or covert wrong-doing in institutions? What is our obligation to truth?
When is it appropriate or necessary to become a whistle-blower?
What does it really mean when we say that personal and institutional integrity and accountability matter?
In a historical era where clever — albeit misleading — advertising, outright propaganda, and fake news are deliberately panned off as truth and utilized maliciously as a way of manipulating others for personal or political gain, what is our personal and professional responsibility to search out truthful information? Do we have an obligation to protest such manipulations of truth?

Those of us who seek to be justice-workers and healers in situations of affinity violence; those of us who seek to correct other kinds of organized social injustice: we will inevitably confront questions of factual truth. We will also inevitably confront our own need to debrief the violence we learn about in our day-to-day lives.

I am not sure of the wisdom of my life. But for more than thirty years I paid attention to Cameron's wisdom and instruction. Some first-hand stories were given to me in confidence. It was a sacred duty to recognize that I did not own these stories and that I should never pass them on without permission. Other stories were passed along inside personal or professional gossip channels. Here, over time, I learned to assess the motivations of the narrator. Whenever possible, I investigated the content of the story for myself.  

There is one caveat to "Cameron's rule." It is a clinical professional caveat. Learning about someone's intention to harm him or herself or learning about someone's intention to deliberately harm someone else, we must break silence and we must intervene by alerting appropriate authorities. We must assess the danger quotient and we must act. In addition, if we know or believe violence is imminent against a third party, there is a professional obligation to warn that individual so she or he can take steps to protect him or herself. (xlviii)

I can apply this to a non-professional relationship. If I learn that my hypothetical best friend Susie has just made a specific plan to kill herself tomorrow morning, I can and should notify someone who both can and will intervene. In psychiatric hospital wards— where suicidally lethal patients are an ordinary reality, such patients are put on a suicide watch — which involves constant monitoring and active interfering with the desire to die.

If I learn that Susie is planning to kill someone else tomorrow, I must notify police. If I have witnessed evidence that Susie is planning to engage in massive acts of murderous politically-motivated violence (such as the Boston Marathon bombing incident), once again, I must immediately notify police.

If I learn that Susie in the past (or currently) has sexually molested a child or an adolescent, I not only can notify the police or child protection agencies; I should notify them. A child's safety is more important than my friendship or clinical relationship with Susie. Taking care of the child's welfare is essential. This is the reason for mandated reporting of child abuse. With mandated reporting, professionals are protected when they do report.

There is a general principle: negligent enablement of violence and malicious harm done by family members, friends, professional colleagues, bystanders, and other associates creates a moral and ethical issue for all bystanders. The person who enables violence, in my opinion, is as morally and ethically culpable as the person who actually enacts the violence. In addition, morally and ethically deficient enablement includes passive negligence as well as more active and deliberate institutional cover-up activities.

Knowing, for example, about the cover-up of sexual violence inside religious institutions or learning about the sexual trafficking of children by clergy members means that one must speak up. One must become a whistle-blower.

One can, in these kinds of situations, become an enabler of injustice or one can act. There is a minimum amount of wiggle room between these two options.

The moral action is to become involved on the side of justice and on the side of accountability. The immoral action is to remain silent.

I am drawn to Thich Nhat Hanh's wisdom. In the sexual violation narrative, I need to recognize that given the right circumstances, I could be any one of the narrative's characters. I could be a victim; I could be a victimizer; I could be a passive bystander; I could be a hostile witness. I am drawn, therefore, to his teaching: a compassionate heart is essential to the work of the peace-maker and to the adjudicator of justice for the survivors of violation.

Peacemaking is not making nice-nice. Active peacemaking involves paying attention, learning to see with the heart, and developing a willingness to get one's hands very dirty. It involves learning to speak truthfully about very difficult human issues. It means taking risks to intervene in order to protect the most vulnerable among us.  t means learning to live comfortably with power — so comfortably that one can compassionately speak truth to power. Most of all, I suppose, it means learning to recognize and to manage our rage at institutionalized corruption and interpersonal injustice so that we and others are not destroyed by it.

Because of our cultural tendency towards moral outrage and disdain for perpetrators and their victims, it is essential work to consider the pathway to healing for victims and their perpetrators — a path to personal healing which does not demand forgiveness from victims but which insists upon truthfulness and accountability from perpetrators..

Yet, whenever we enter the work of healing with survivors of violence and victimization, we, at the very least, must allow for the potential of conversion in perpetrators. It is clear to me: this restoration and reconciliation work with perpetrators is not the work of survivors. This is the work of committed spiritual healers and knowledgeable peace workers.

Holding perpetrators and their institutional enablers accountable for their abusive actions is very different from participating in acts of revenge. It is the ongoing work of the peace and justice advocate to know and embody the difference.  


xlviii. For a technical discussion of this issue, see "Mental Health Professionals' Duty to Warn," at the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

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