Common Dynamics (DARVO)

The research on how to respond to sexual misconduct in religious communities is vast and cannot be thoroughly reviewed here (see “Resources” for some possible starting points). For the purposes of this document, we’d like to highlight one salient and powerful concept which illuminated many of the dynamics we experienced. DARVO, a concept introduced by researcher Jennifer Freyd, is short for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.” Our sangha was first exposed to this concept through a training by Jan Chozen Bays of the FaithTrust Institute. DARVO is a common defensive tactic of offenders who find themselves being held accountable for their actions. It is also frequently adopted by their allies or bystanders. It is not necessarily a conscious strategy.

  • “D” stands for “deny.” Denial can be an outright denial that something happened or a minimization by claiming that what happened wasn’t serious. It can also include framing the victim as a willing participant or as someone who also bears shared responsibility for their abuse. 
  • “A” stands for “attack.” Attack entails the use of language to further harm the victim and their support community. It includes the use of bullying, intimidation and threats to make the person harmed back down and think that even if they are in the right, they won’t be successful in being heard and will be punished for speaking.
  • “RVO” stands for “reverse victim and offender.” As the offender is being held accountable for their actions, they suggest that in reality they are the one who is being persecuted. They may also bring forward all of the alleged harm the victim will do by speaking the truth. 

It is predictable, though saddening, when a teacher who has transgressed engages in these tactics, however consciously or unconsciously. But sanghas should also be prepared for the possibility that other beloved teachers, whether they be co-teachers or peers in other Buddhist institutions, will exhibit these behaviors as well, magnifying the transgressor’s own DARVO through their acts of omission and commission. In our experience, other teachers’ adoption of DARVO behaviors can in many ways be more painful and more spiritually wounding than the initial transgression. This is part of what makes responding to misconduct so difficult. The initial abuse can be hard enough to understand and deal with, and DARVO efforts serve to further distress those already in crisis.

The chart below is a summary of how DARVO can operate in instances of sexual misconduct, even when some basic facts (“a teacher transgressed boundaries, and that’s not OK”) aren’t in dispute. We hope it will be of benefit in understanding how these dynamics can manifest. If you have witnessed or been on the receiving end of these strategies, you are absolutely not alone.

Strategies of DARVO

Appropriate responses

Particularly damaging if adopted by other teachers or leaders in the lineage

The organization’s obligations, ensured by the board

Call the transgressor’s behavior an “affair”

Call the transgressor’s behavior “abuse,” “clergy abuse,” “sexual misconduct,” “professional misconduct,” or “clergy misconduct” (all of which are synonomous in this context)

Declare that investigation of details are invasive and unnecessary; question the student’s memory

Investigate the facts to understand the severity of the harm and the need for corrective action

Prioritize the requests of the transgressor and their family

Follow best practices, given the rules about misconduct and the research about its effects 

Claim that accountability and transparency are harsh and unspiritual

Operate from the belief that accountability and transparency are the best way forward for transgressor, sangha, and victim

Claim that the student bears some responsibility for the situation

Recognize that a spiritual teacher bears the full responsibility for maintaining appropriate boundaries, in light of the impossibility of consent; insist the harmed party bears no responsibility for their abuse

Let the transgressor apologize and unburden themself on the transgressor’s timeline

Let the transgressor speak only after their words are vetted by the survivor and the survivor’s therapist

Urge the sangha to return to normal quickly and to not "dwell in the past"

Provide long-term opportunities for discussion and healing for those most affected, while also supporting new and revived "normal" activities for all

Characterize public statements about the abuse as harmful to the transgressor and their family

Recognize that a public statement (e.g., on the website), while painful to all, is necessary to prevent future abuse and to recognize the professional nature of the breach

Position themselves and the transgressor as victims of individuals or a board following best practices of response

Ensure that the board can carry out its duty of care and not hand over power to those who demand it

Next: Sangha Responses to Misconduct: Tips for Informing and Communicating