March 22, 2017

The Healing Journey for Abusers & Those Who Didn't Intercede

This week, we continue our series with Elizabeth Clemants who takes on the very hard work of addressing the healing journey for those who have caused harm or who have stood by while abuse was occurring and did nothing. Not easy -- but the more healed each person on this planet is, the better off we all will be!


In order for a family system to heal from the impact of child sexual abuse, it is important to understand the full extent of the harm that occurred. This means giving voice to both those who were directly harmed (Green circle) as well as those who experienced the toxic reverberations of the abuse (Blue circle). 

Additionally, the full prospect of healing from CSA is best realized by giving space to those who cause harmed – either directly or indirectly – within the family system.

There are two types of harm that we talk about in CSA - the actual physical-sexual harm, and then all the reactions to it afterward, from all the different people involved. Many people who identify as victims of CSA report that a greater harm was the response of another family member upon learning about the abuse. In recognition of this, Hidden Water has two other healing circles: the Purple Circle for those who caused the direct harm of CSA, and the Orange Circle for non-offending parents and care-givers.  

Whether you are the survivor or the perpetrator of harm, there is the same reaction to a shame event (see previous post):  denial, minimizing, justifying, deflection, blaming the victim, engaging in addictions, or shutting down in other ways.  

But for the one who caused harm, the second stage of healing is different: taking responsibility for the impact of your behavior, and feeling remorse

The third stage of healing is making a genuine apology, and making amends, but until the person has taken responsibility for the impact of the behavior and felt remorse for that impact, a genuine apology isn’t possible.  

For this reason, we have the Purple and Orange healing circles.  These healing circles provide a safe environment for those who have caused harm to move through the stages of denial, minimizing, deflecting, blaming, and do the very difficult work of stepping into feeling the impact of ones behavior and feeling remorse.  

These circles are powerful opportunities to look at your own behavior, owning it among people who have also caused that kind of harm, and coming to a place where you can make that acknowledgement to the victim - if that is appropriate.  

In the Purple Circle, participants facing the remorse and pain of having caused such harm is often coupled with the recognition that they have themselves experienced this harm.  The block to owning the impact seems to be an unwillingness to acknowledge their own experience.  When the person can face their own experience of CSA, the pain they caused another seems to fall on them like an avalanche.  From there, they can pick up the pieces and really feel the impact of their behavior.  Some people who have harmed a child will never do this work.  I reserve the word perpetrator for someone who is unwilling, or unable to look at the impact of their behavior.  I have deep compassion for how hard that work truly is - and I also see that until someone does it, they may be in danger of harming another. 

It has always been interesting to me how many survivors of CSA speak to the real pain of the abuse being the way their family responded to them, in particular the non-offending parent.  Somehow we hold a very low standard for the one who harmed us physically, but the non-offending parent is held to a higher standard which requires a great deal of consciousness to respond appropriately.  

Often that non-offending parent stays in relationship to the perpetrator and asks the survivor to move past it so life can go back to “normal”.  This is sometimes that non-offending parent’s child, spouse, sibling or parent - and the non-offending parent struggles to know how to negotiate protecting their child, and not losing the relationship to the perpetrator.  

The work that happens in the Orange Circle is two-fold.  First the non-offending parent needs a chance to feel the impact of their non-action or their attitudes toward the issue.  This is difficult, especially since it is often many years of trying to push it into the background and move on from it that have left the family in this position.  Second, the circle asks the non-offending parent what can be done now to recover from damage done.  Once you see that every day, every comment, all the silence that continues to go on continues to damage the family system.  It is often this non-offending parent leadership that is needed here to heal the system.  

Next week, we will talk about the Family System Circles - which comes after the four healing circles, and why that is the natural evolution of this work.  It is not always possible, but when it is, we start to see the true ability of a family system to heal from Child Sexual Abuse.      

Read Part 4: Restoring Families: Healing for Everyone


Elizabeth is a social worker at heart. She has always been interested in the intersection of social work and the law. To that end, she attend Columbia University School of Social Work where she graduated with an MSW and a Minor in Law. She immediately went to work in the field of conflict resolution and has been practicing ADR since 1997. She has founded three programs in conflict resolution, of which Hidden Water is one, where she serves a Board President. She also founded and runs Small Business Arbitration Center with the aim of offering truly affordable, binding conflict resolution services to small businesses and their clients. Elizabeth is also the principal trainer at Planning Change, whose mission it is educate and empower individuals to affect meaningful change in the conflicts around them. In addition to the programs, Elizabeth works as a mediator, a coach, a shaman and speaks regularly at events and conferences. 

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