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Child Abuse in Community Institutions and Organizations:
Improving Public and Professional Understanding


Our original interest in this area was sparked by carefully listening to the themes presented by survivors of institutional abuse. They described familiar themes such as loss of trust, shame and humiliation, fear or disrespect of authority, attempts to avoid any reminders of the abuse, and vicarious trauma stemming from disruption to their family and personal relationships. Whereas such recognized hallmarks of abuse were typically present for victims abused within an institution, the manifestation of these common consequences of sexual victimization were markedly altered. Beyond these familiar themes, survivors also described unique trauma-related symptoms specifically associated with the institution where the abuse had occurred. These themes usually related to the fundamental purpose of the institution, with its particular role being highlighted as an integral aspect to the legacy of the abuse. For example, individuals abused by teachers often expressed fear or disinterest in learning, sending their own children to school, or entering any academic setting. In effect, survivors are not only confronted with coping with the devastating impact of the abuse, but with betrayal by the valued social institution and loss or impairment of its role in their lives as well. The following paragraphs illustrate these major themes and how they differ for victims of abuse in institutions and organizations.


Loss of trust and fear of intimacy are commonly reported problems faced by abuse survivors, which have a profound effect on their interpersonal relationships.[i] Many victims highlight the pain of betrayal and the undermining of their ability to judge who is and is not trustworthy. For victims abused within an institution, betrayal often extends beyond the interpersonal realm to include the social institution to which their abuser belonged. Victims’ trust is further eroded when they are disbelieved or the situation is poorly dealt with by the original institution or other institutions, such as the judicial system. Over time, survivors describe a more global loss of trust that extends to other institutions sanctioned by society, which they attribute to the continued lack of preventative and remedial measures.


Similar to victims of abuse by a family member, survivors of abuse in non-familial settings report feeling that they were somehow responsible for the abuse. They feel that they did something to bring it about at the time, which offenders may encourage in hopes that self-blame will prevent disclosure. They also experience guilt for having not done more to stop the abuse. Individuals who were unaware at the time that they were being abused may also experience feelings of shame and humiliation once they realize what happened, particularly if they were “willing” participants. Survivors also feel conflicted if they derived any pleasure or special attention from the abuse, which increase their feelings of shame, guilt and self-blame.

In addition, children abused in non-familial settings misattribute such acts to their personal faults or weaknesses, thereby increasing their feelings of shame and humiliation. In other cases they may receive special attention and benefits from the abuser, leading to an inaccurate self-image and further humiliation. Moreover, children who attempt to discuss the events with others (either to disclose or to question its appropriateness) may find themselves at odds with their family or important community institutions, which may seek to protect the accused in an effort to protect the role of the setting. One survivor describes this process as “losing acceptance from society in general. You are very much an outcast.”


Fear or disrespect for authority may result directly from the abuse or more indirectly from subsequent events, such as disclosure, reporting, and court proceedings. Whereas children are taught to respect and obey adults in positions of authority, perpetrators often abuse their authority to coerce and manipulate them through threat or reward of course grades, positions on a team, and similar control. As a result, children may fear individuals in positions of authority or may lose respect for them as a result of their abuse of power. In addition to direct harm, the disclosure process and subsequent events may cause some victims to form a negative perception of authority figures (i.e., feeling re-traumatized by the investigation and legal process), especially when little effort is made to provide needed help for their own recovery. Again, these obstacles are similar to those faced by children abused by family members, but are often distinguishable in terms of their manifestation.


Survivors spend considerable effort trying to avoid any reminders of their abusive experience, because any reminder may trigger painful flashbacks and frightening, intrusive thoughts. For example, individuals who were abused in a church setting described avoiding anything related to church and religion, in the process losing their faith in God to protect their well being. Similarly, victims of abuse by teachers described being unable to attend school, or being afraid to send their children to school due to reminders and fears.


Harm that occurs as a result of abuse within institutions and organizations is not restricted to the victim’s trauma alone. Other children in the institution are often aware of the abuse, even if they themselves are not abused, and may exist in a state of perpetual fear of becoming the next victim. Children who witness ongoing abuse of others are harmed by such exposure, and may experience problems of equal severity to those of the victims themselves.[ii]

As well, families of victims and survivors of institutional abuse often suffer various consequences, which they may fail to acknowledge. Parents may feel a mixture of guilt, shame, and humiliation regarding their actions or inactions, perhaps blaming themselves for failing to recognize the abuse. Moreover, post-abuse events following disclosure or discovery cause a great deal of tension in the family as each family member tries to cope not only with the child’s difficulties but also with their own reactions. In some circumstances current (e.g., parents and siblings) or future family members (e.g., spouses and offspring) may be the direct recipients of abusive behaviour by the prior victim as a result of having been abused in childhood. Even in the absence of such behaviour, adult survivors are often eyed with fear and recrimination because of others’ beliefs that they may turn to abusing others, a life sentence that many survivors feel imprisons them and further blocks attempts at closeness and trust. Finally, current and future family members may suffer vicarious symptoms connected to the abuse itself, such as their own loss of faith, distrust of organizations, or feelings of betrayal, guilt, or anger.

As a summary, the following table outlines many of the issues, feelings and difficulties identified by survivors of abuse in institutions and organizations. Although the table does not reflect all of the possible harmful outcomes, it provides a summary of the scope and magnitude of their trauma.

Commonly Reported Symptoms and Emotional Reactions to Abuse

  • Alcohol Abuse

  • Behavioural Problems

  • Confusion about Sexuality

  • Criminal Behaviour

  • Degradation

  • Drug Abuse (marijuana, LSD)

  • Employment Difficulties

  • Feeling Empty Inside

  • Guilt

  • Homelessness

  • Inability to Trust

  • Interpersonal Relationship Problems

  • Intimacy Problems

  • Lack of Self-identity

  • Memories/Flashbacks

  • Poor Self-esteem

  • Robbed of Innocence

  • School Dropout

  • Self-Blame

  • Self-Doubt

  • Sexual Problems

  • Shame

  • Stigmatization - Homosexuality Label

  • Trouble with Parents, Boy/Girlfriends, Wife/Husband


i. Davis, J. L., Petretic-Jackson, P. A., & Ting, L. (2001). Intimacy dysfunction and trauma symptomatology: Long-term correlates of different types of child abuse. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 14, 63-79.

ii. Suderman, M. & Jaffe, P. (1997). Children and youth who witness violence: New directions in intervention and prevention. In D. Wolfe, R. J. McMahon, and R. DeV. Peters (Eds.) Child abuse: New directions in prevention and treatment across the lifespan. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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