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Why is Institutional Betrayal so Traumatic?

Overworked - businesswoman with strong migraineSince the posting on psychcentral a year ago of the article called Organizational Infidelity Amplifies Sexual Trauma, there has been a great deal of attention paid to the poor handling of sexual trauma by institutions such as universities, the military and the church.

That article cited a study showing that victims of sexual trauma who also reported having a sense of institutional betrayal showed more severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress such as anxiety, sexual dysfunction and dissociation.

Recently there have been legislative efforts to impose guidelines in the handling of sexual assaults on campuses as well as efforts to find the best ways to address problems in the reporting, investigation and prosecution of sexual misconduct within the military, universities, and the church. These efforts were prompted by the low rate at which sexual assaults were reported and if reported the low rate at which those cases were acted upon. For example, although 20% of students were sexually assaulted at college, only 12% of the victims actually reported the assault. And although rape in the military  had increase 50% over the previous year, only one in 100 was prosecuted.

Attempts to address institutional betrayal have focused on prevention, changing the institutional culture, structural changes in investigation and prosecution, adding necessary resources and policies for following up on reports, and the interface between the institution and law enforcement.

Institutional betrayal and family betrayal

Many factors play into a person’s response to trauma including some having to do with the psychology of the individual and their own history and resiliency. Being betrayed by your organization or institution seems to me to involve a number of other psychological layers all of which exacerbate the sexual trauma and make the recovery from it more difficult. All of these aspects have parallels to what happens or doesn’t happen in a family in which a child is abused or traumatized.

Safety and the failure to protect

It makes sense on the face of it that sexual trauma in a supposedly safe environment would be more traumatic. The expectation of protection and the betrayal of that expectation would add an element of traumatic stress. In the past I have done extensive work with families in which a child is abused by a family member. In the handling of such cases by the child protection agencies and by the law, the parent who fails to protect the child or even who knowingly exposes the child to abuse is seen as being abusive in their own right. The non-offending parent is supposed to be the caregiver, the protector. The violation of the expectation of security shakes the child’s or adult’s reality. Rocking the foundations of someone’s sense of reality is a highly traumatic form of mental abuse. When used in brainwashing it often involves committing unthinkable acts in front of the person in order to make then so mentally shaken that they become malleable. This is sometimes called “ritual abuse.”

So the contrast between what victims expect from the institution (safety from harm or exploitation) and what actually happens renders the person more shaken and less able to rely on their own mental processes to help them cope. It jars loose their sense of reality above and beyond the impact of the actual assault. For children in a family this kind of betrayal is an attachment injury or relational trauma which has lasting effects on emotional development.

Failure of support after the fact and complex PTSD

Among the key factors that affect how well a child can cope with a traumatic event of any kind is the response of the parent or caregiver, the way the child is handled after the event occurs. Other things being equal, the child who receives a lot of support, comforting, sympathy validation and help after a traumatic experience will bounce back faster and have fewer long terms effects. The child who is not appropriately comforted and validated will likely be more damaged.

In the case of institutional betrayal– the experience of betrayal by the church, the school, the military– the failure after the fact is much like the betrayal by parents who fail to adequately support a child following a traumatic event. Adults, like children, may be better able to quickly recuperate following and event like sexual assault if they are able to go to someone in charge, be believed, get appropriate supports and be vindicated. If they are sent away or ignored and if the person who assaulted them is not held to account, their recovery is bound to be compromised and lead to symptoms akin to complex PTSD.

Of the two aspects of organizational betrayal, I am inclined to think that the failure after the fact may be potentially more damaging than the failure to prevent or protect in the first place. The healthy person can recover from trauma in the right context. We are all able to understand that there are people in the world who are up to no good. And as adults most people can even understand what it is like to be in a “culture” in which the norms are pretty rough, as long as the powers that be are willing to take a stand when a line is crossed. So although someone may be deeply shaken, they can also be very resilient if they get the right emotional supports at the right time. The failure to prevent a trauma can be understood and accepted, as long as the institution or organization does not look the other way or abandon the victim.

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Why is Institutional Betrayal so Traumatic?

Linda Hatch, PhD

Linda Hatch is a psychologist and certified sex addiction therapist specializing in the treatment of sex addicts and the partners and families of sex addicts. Linda also blogs on her own website at

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APA Reference
Hatch, L. (2016). Why is Institutional Betrayal so Traumatic?. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 16, 2019, from


Last updated: 23 Aug 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 23 Aug 2016
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