Institutional Betrayal

By: Betsy Pownall

Institutional betrayal is a term that refers to a betrayal of trust or harm by an organization or institution upon the individuals it is responsible for. It can occur at work, school, religious institutions, or any organization. UO Professor Psychology Emeritus Jennifer Freyd developed the theory and defined it as “a wrong perpetrated by an institution upon an individual dependent on that institution”.

Institutional betrayal can take several forms that include:


Negligence or failure to prevent abuse is one of the most common forms of institutional betrayal. For example: when a school fails to address bullying or harassment which can deeply affect a student’s sense of self.

Punishing Victims and Whistleblowers

Institutions that take action against individuals who report wrongdoing or abuse perpetuate a culture of silence and fear within the organization. This behavior can range from victim-blaming to firing, retaliating, and pressing charges against employees who speak out about unethical practices.


Institutional betrayal can involve efforts to cover up wrongdoing to protect the institution’s reputation at the expense of the victim. For example: property owners living near toxic landfills prior to them being labeled a Superfund Site, such as Rocky Flats Plant in Boulder, Colorado, or the Love Canal Niagara Falls, NY.

Failure to Respond Adequately

If an organization doesn’t respond promptly to allegations of wrongdoing or abuse, it can make individuals feel betrayed. Inadequate responses could involve ignoring complaints, skipping investigations, and giving minimal assistance.

Normalizing Abusive Content

This includes institutions downplaying or ignoring abusive behavior or practices, making them seem acceptable or routine, which will create a toxic environment. For example: the abuse that has occurred within religious organizations in the name of god.

Some general characteristics make institutions vulnerable to institutional betrayal. These characteristics include:

  • Membership requirements: a clearly defined group with strict requirements for membership often precedes institutional betrayal, as conformity is valued and members have the potential to self-police.
  • Prestige: When institutions or their leaders play an elevated role in the community, their potential to perpetrate abuse may be deeply hidden. Leaders may lead with an assumption of trust and dependency which can be problematic when abuse is occurring, as to report the abuse would mean breaking an important relationship
  • Priorities: If Performance and reputation are valued over the well-being of members, the potential for abuse and the cover-up of abuse is high. Institutions may emphasize “maintaining appearances” above all else.
  • Institutional Denial: This is best described when an institution has had allegations of abuse waged against it and it  “others” the victims, casting doubt on the truthfulness of the allegations of abuse.

Coping with institutional betrayal can be challenging. Here are some strategies:

  1. Seek support
  2. Tell your story
  3. Advocate for change: many survivors become advocates for change to prevent future abuse from happening.
  4. Self-care
  5. Legal recourse: consulting with a lawyer can help victims explore their rights and choices

The impact of institutional betrayal can be deep and long-lasting to the individual. It can cause emotional distress, mental health issues, a diminished sense of trust in the individual, and social anxiety. 

Advocating for change and holding others accountable can give individuals a sense of agency and empowerment and has the potential of restoring trust in institutions that are meant to protect and serve others.

The Center for Institutional Courage (CIC), founded by Jennifer Freyd, PhD in January 2020, is a non-profit dedicated to research and education about institutional betrayal and how to counter it through institutional courage. CIC believes, “courage sees a figure where our institutions act courageously: with accountability, with transparency, actively seeking justice, and making changes where needed despite unpleasantness, risk, and short-term costs”.


“What is Institutional Betrayal and How can it Affect You?” (2023) ImPossible Psychological Services. 

 Center for Institutional Courage,