Centering the Survivor

As is established elsewhere in this project, because of the power dynamics in a situation of teacher abuse, no meaningful consent from the student is possible. That means that 100% of the responsibility for the harm falls on the teacher. Justice-making and healing therefore require that priority be given to the needs of the survivor. 

The first step in centering the needs of the survivor is for members of sangha leadership to educate themselves. Most people in their ordinary lives do not need to understand the subtle dynamics at play with clergy misconduct. When a situation like this emerges, it is thus vital that all leaders educate themselves (or refresh their education) on clergy boundaries, transgressions, and best practices in response. The student harmed may also not yet fully understand the nature and severity of what happened to them and can also benefit from this education, lovingly shared over time.

Dr. Marie Fortune, in her book Responding to Clergy Misconduct, recommends ways an organization can enact justice-making that center survivors. Her experience and research suggest that survivors’ needs tend to fall into seven areas. These areas are listed here, along with commentary drawn from the experience of our sangha:

  1. Truth-telling. A survivor needs to be able to tell their story, in their own way, to people they choose, and especially to people with power such as board members, teachers, investigators, or authorities in the Buddhist mahasangha. Providing safe spaces and bearing witness to their experience is invaluable. Individuals can offer to listen; sangha leaders can organize listening circles. 

  2. Acknowledging the violation. But the student needs more than listening if the student and the sangha are to heal. The student needs support—preferably unequivocal and public support—from those in power. The leaders of the sangha (and mahasangha) need to name the situation as abuse, state that the student was wronged, and state clearly that such conduct by a teacher is not to be tolerated. A written statement carries more impact than verbal assurances. Silence or vagueness may be interpreted as acquiescence to the abuse. The sangha leadership should reach out to any larger membership bodies with which the offender may be affiliated to notify them of the breach. 

  3. Compassion is to suffer with the victim. The student needs the leaders (1) to understand how the student has been deeply harmed and (2) to feel that suffering as their own. Unfortunately, the first inclination of those who had previously developed a close relationship with that teacher (but not with the student) may be to express compassion only or primarily for the teacher. It is essential for leaders to resist this form of attachment-driven neglect of the student’s need for emotional support.

  4. Protecting the vulnerable. Both while dealing with the current abuse and thinking about the future, the sangha must place the top priority on the safety of those who have been or could be harmed. Leaders who instead prioritize protecting an organization’s assets or reputation or the abuser and their family have not understood the depth of harm caused by abuse.

  5. Accountability. It is imperative that leaders understand that holding the offender accountable for their behavior is a compassionate action and essential to healing and justice-making. Accountability does not mean simply an apology—especially if that apology is made before the extent of harm is understood. It means that the offender is asked to take full responsibility for all the harm done and bear the consequences.

  6. Restitution. Restitution isn’t merely about making amends but about making every effort to “make whole.” Leaders need to do what they can to restore what was lost. This can include paying for the student’s therapy or other expenses. Ideally, the offender should also offer restitution. The sangha needs to make every effort to ensure the sangha is a safe and welcoming place for the student to continue practicing, if they so choose.

  7. Vindication is not vengeance. Justice-making is centered on relieving the burdens unfairly imposed on the student. Negative repercussions for the offender, while no doubt unpleasant to them, are required for true accountability, and true accountability is required for any lasting healing or any hope of reconciliation. 

Of course, the student should also be encouraged to express their particular needs to the leadership. We recommend self-education as the first step, however, because it can be hard to make clear and informed decisions during the emotional and spiritual turmoil that immediately follows abuse. This list can offer a helpful starting place, especially if the student is still coming to terms with the nature of the relationship and abuse.

Next: Sangha Responses to Misconduct: Power Structures and Power Struggles: The Role of the Board 

Published June 12, 2022