October 18, 2010

Keeping silent in the face of abuse makes you as bad as the abuser.


In light of the rash of recent teen suicides in the United States, the secular media have been reporting story after story dealing with the dynamic of bullying and the psychology of bullies, victims and bystanders. We are being told that had just one person stepped forward to either confront the bully and/or offer support to the victim, there might have been a more positive outcome for all involved.

Unfortunately, bullying continues to this day in our schools, in our workplaces, and yes, even in our Church communities where adults often serve as weak or negative role models. While bullying is the primary problem, bystanders are spreading this infection in our communities.

There is a world of difference between being an active witness to bullying and abuse, and being a bystander. Active witnesses risk when acting against injustice, and in doing so demonstrate their care and compassion. Bystanders, on the other hand, are neutral at best, but more often demonstrate attitudes and behaviours consistent with the bully.

By choosing to remain silent, the bystander contributes toward a damaging "bystander culture" of non-involvement, thus tacitly perpetuating the unjust behaviour of the bully.


A bystander who has already decided to be an uninvolved spectator, will look the other way, pretend ignorance if called upon or, worse, nod in approval of gossipers, even when he or she is repulsed by what they hear.

Choosing to do nothing, in the midst of rumours and unfair judgments targeted at the victim, is just as bad as bullying, say experts like Barbara Coloroso who has written a book on the topic (The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander, 2003). It is worsened when the bystander becomes an ally to the bully by perpetuating gossip and hurtful remarks about the victim.

Wouldn't it be praiseworthy if bystanders chose instead to become active witnesses who are motivated by justice? An active witness can make a tactical decision, based on the facts, to intervene, either immediately or later. It is acceptable and, sometimes even advisable, to speak up later if one needs time to gather and consider the facts.

But is it commendable to remain a bystander when the facts have been gathered and the truth has been established; especially when these facts and truths support the victim?


Catholic social teaching is helpful for examining the dynamic of bullies and bystanders. The plight of the poor is frequently mentioned in the same breath as the plight of the vulnerable. It is entirely possible to be in a group that is not economically poor, but nonetheless vulnerable, especially when it comes to their relationships with people who have power over them. Catholic social teaching calls us to stand up and speak against all injustices, and that includes bullying.

Women and children are a case in point. Our Catholic tradition teaches us that we should put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. There are none more vulnerable than those who have been victims of clergy sexual abuse, and then further victimized by additional bullies and bystanders.

It is time for people, clergy and laity alike, to become active witnesses who are motivated by true justice as advocated by Church teaching. Jesus confronted the bullies who were about to stone a defenceless woman and, in doing so, courageously stood for justice. Are we not all called to his spirit of courage to confront bullies, defend the dignity of the victimized and help both bully and victim grow in becoming truly human?

(Delmer Wagner is a retired Catholic director of education. During his 30-year career, several of his articles on Catholic education and administrative leadership have been published both nationally and internationally.)