This article is a reprint of a Virtus monthly bulletin written by Sharon Doty, a frequent author and contributor to the Virtus ongoing training program. Doty has a master’s degree in human relations and a diploma from the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics in Interdisciplinary Training in Child Abuse and Neglect, and she graduated with distinction with a juris doctorate from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. Doty has 10 years experience as a litigator and approximately 20 years as a staff person and volunteer in agencies advocating for victims of abuse and neglect in court.
“In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In our Protecting God’s Children for Adults sessions, we discuss two aspects of bystander engagement. First is the failure to speak up when an adult observer has a concern about the behavior of an adult toward a child. Second is engaging in gossip about the concern with no regard for the damage these conversations can cause.
In potentially abusive relationships, there is a range of behaviors – with elements that could be healthy and age-appropriate – and other elements that are child sexual abuse. There are many ways one could intervene. The difficulty is identifying the right circumstances to interrupt and the right action to take.
When we talk about the failure of adult observers to speak up, we recognize several factors that enter into the decision. There is a fear of retaliation, a concern that intervention will seem to be an accusation, the fear of “being wrong” about what’s happening, the fear of being sued for speaking up and not wanting to upset someone we know and/or with whom we work or volunteer. These concerns are universal.
Researchers considered what it takes for a bystander to overcome these concerns and take action. They found there are five steps to the process:
- Notice the event along a continuum of actions
- Consider whether the situation demands your action
- Decide if you have a responsibility to act
- Choose what form of assistance to use
- Understand how to implement your actions safely
Confronting the enormity of these questions often leaves people with a decision to do nothing. The decision to “communicate your concerns” demands we be among those who chose an action(s) that creates a safe environment and protects potential victims from harm.
Most people think that intervening means stopping an abusive action from happening. In our programs, we focus attention on the many opportunities to interrupt a risky situation before any actual abuse takes place. This is “primary” prevention. Stopping abuse before it happens is a significant way to make sure kids never experience that kind of harm.
Of course, if you suspect a child is being or has been abused, there is only one action to take – report the suspected abuse to civil authorities. On the other hand, if an adult’s behavior causes concern, it may be difficult to determine the best action.
Sometimes the answer is as simple as joining in the conversation or activity and diffusing the situation. Sometimes the concern requires you speak to the person or their supervisor to determine the best course of action. Dioceses, parishes, schools and other youth serving ministries can establish policies and procedures that encourage people to stand up and speak out when they see a cause for concern. Observers must be willing to tell someone who can make a difference in the situation and has the means to turn the tide and prevent a child from being harmed.
In the end it is good to remember the words of the father in Protecting God’s Children video when he talks about how many people came up to him after his daughter was molested by the priest and said they were concerned that something was happening. His anger is very visible as he asks for someone to explain to him where these people were before his daughter was molested.
We, as bystanders, can have a powerful impact on the outcome of a potentially risky situation. Action is needed and the time for action is the moment you have the concern. Do something safely and effectively to interrupt the situation.
Colleen Sulsberger is coordinator of the Office of Safe Environment for the Diocese of Sioux City.