Sexual abuse is a horrible, life-changing thing to go through. But many survivors get the support they need to move on with life.

However, in some situations, the institution in which sexual abuse occurred – a religious institution, university or country club, for example – may actively work to hide the abuse. Cover-ups of sexual abuse are widespread. But why does this occur?

How institutions can engender abuse

News of sexual abuse is damaging to institutions. They may lose support and membership. They may suffer financially. And often, there is irreparable damage done to the institution’s reputation.

But institutional cover-ups are dangerous.

For instance, abuse cover-ups within the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion are often handled internally – not by the police. The victim may be reprimanded for keeping the abuse a secret. The institution views the abused as a sinner – not a victim.

The Catholic Church has been rocked by widespread abuse that has been occurring for a long time – but has only recently come to the public’s awareness. Pope Francis recently condemned sexual abuse in the church and expressed shame for the widespread abuse and subsequent coverups in the Catholic Church. He also thanked survivors for their courage in speaking out.

But many argue that the Vatican does not do enough to address clergy abuse. It wasn’t until the 1980s that sexual abuse within the Catholic Church received widespread media exposure.

The 2015 movie Spotlight highlighted one story of media attention exposing clergy abuse within the Catholic Church. In 2001 and 2002, the Boston Globe uncovered the story of widespread abuse within the Catholic Church that the Church had tried hard to cover up.

Sex abuse thrives in secretive institutions that are insulated from the outside world. Sex abuse thrives in powerful institutions where leaders are never questioned and held in high regard. Sex abuse thrives in institutions that limit the access of members and protect abusers. In the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, members are encouraged to only associate with other members of the faith – not outsiders.

A path forward

When more light is shed on the pervasiveness of institutional sexual abuse, abusers and institutions will find it more and more difficult to hide the behavior. And survivors will empower each other to speak out, seek support and take action.

If you have experienced sexual abuse, you are not alone – and you don’t need to suffer in silence. Legal help and support are available to anyone who has experienced abuse by clergy, doctors, teachers, coaches and others.