A “Systems Approach” and Some Historical Background on Dealing with Abuse and Violence

To deal with “systemic abuse,” we must understand systems, victimization, and what makes individuals and institutions vulnerable.

By Brad Sargent with input from Julie Anne Smith.

Cross-posted as a guest post at Spiritual Sounding Board.

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How will our church serve those who’ve suffered the harm of childhood sexual abuse, and seek to prevent it from happening to others? On this difficult but foundational issue of human dignity and care, will we choose conscience and compassion – or corrosion and complacency? The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide and the range of other resources from GRACE equip us with clear definitions, well-organized knowledge, and practical skills to follow a right and righteous path on these global problems of violence and abuse.

In the previous post, I gave a brief preview of key features for The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide from a systems perspective, and listed other resources from GRACE and New Growth Press. In this post, I will add my thoughts on the big picture of systemic abuse, why we’ve needed a set of resources to deal with it, and share some personal and historical perspectives on how the Policy Guide and other books produced by GRACE represent answers to some longstanding prayers.

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What is a “Systems Approach” to Dealing with Abuse?

Early on in the Introduction, the authors of The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide show they use systems thinking.

“The mission of GRACE is to empower the Christian community through education and training to recognize, prevent, and respond to child abuse. In the GRACE team’s experience, we have met many sincere Christians who want to protect the children in their care and respond well if any harm ever came to these children, but they also know that doing so is easier said than done. People who harm children create and/ or exploit whole environments that make child advocacy difficult. This guide offers support and help to those who want to overcome these challenging realities.” (Page 2, emphasis added.)

By a “systems approach” and “systems thinking,” this is what I mean:

Systems are a specific set of elements—such as people, actions, structures, and impacts—that are all interconnected and so they function as a unit within some kind of boundaries. The parts in the set interconnect and make the whole system more than the sum of those parts. Systemic abuse happens when people with self-serving motives or otherwise malignant intentions (1) manipulate parts to take over the whole and (2) manipulate connections among parts to keep the whole under control.” (Futuristguy’s Field Guide #: Systemization—Figuring Out Toxic Systems, chapter 2.)

So, in the case of child sexual abuse, the people and actions parts of this system involves not only perpetrators and those they victimize, but also any others who perpetuate the impact of the crime through active cover-up, willful ignorance, and/or silencing victims and their advocates. Such actions (and in-actions) affect the very structure of the organization; they infuse futurist opportunities for abuse and cover-up into it.

This creates a systemic abuse cycle: Lack of intervention when it is needed makes prevention less likely to happen. The lack of protection and prevention steps makes abuse (and therefore, intervention) more likely. But when there’s been a track record of failure on intervention and prevention, the whole system has become corroded. Perpetrators, who have motivation to hide who they are and what they do, have an open season to continue their abuses—and the system that protects them instead of survivors and potential victims, is itself complicit.

This is why the relevant boundaries for dealing with systems of abuse involve more than just a church or a ministry, and even any denominational entities. They include the criminal and civil justice systems, and these days may also involve news and social media outlets. We have civic responsibilities attached to issues of abuse, and this is why it is not only theologically unwise and ethically wrong to attempt dealing with known/suspected abuse situations solely “in house.” The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide regularly refers to both theological and legal mandates that are binding on us as Christians.

It takes systems thinking to analyze a situation, connect the dots between various elements involved, and figure out how to bring any darkness into the light. This one of many lessons we learn from the movie Spotlight, about The Boston Globe’s 2002 investigative team report into the systemic cover-up of child sexual abuse by 90 Roman Catholic priests in the Boston diocese. This movie depicts how investigators collected and processed personal interviews and other forms of evidence as a team, and the threshold of information needed to “crack” systemic abuse and expose the web of lies involved in covering it up.

It took about seven months total before the Spotlight research team hit the systems disclosure threshold. They uncovered the interlocking directory of leaders in religious, legal, police, and other institutions who’d created a cover-up system or contributed to maintaining it. Then they published their initial mega-story on January 6, 2002, and their phones were constantly busy for days afterward—mostly with leads from other victims. The Boston Globe followed up with over 600 articles and abuse survivors’ personal experiences over the course of that year, and several hundred more the year after that. [For more details, see the book on which the movie was based, Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church, by the investigative staff of The Boston Globe (2015, updated edition, Back Bay Books).]

So, systems thinking isn’t just about analysis—it’s about solutions. And, in the case of child sexual abuse, solutions may require intervention, protection, and prevention at multiple elements in the system. This is why writing a policy is a crucial part of creating a safe and sustainable church or ministry system. Policies well done preserve community knowledge and wisdom. They pass on an important, updatable legacy to next generations so there is no need to “reinvent the wheel” every time there’s a change of personnel. No tool guarantees full safety, but with such tools, a church’s or ministry’s organizational system is more likely to be healthier and last longer.

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Some Historical Perspective on Issues of Abuse and Violence

I freely acknowledge that child sexual abuse is not easy material to address. Why was I willing to invest the time needed to go through it and review it? There are important personal stories to my motivations. Part of my answer goes back to 1987, and some even deeper parts to a decade earlier.

Developing Compassionate Resources

A very unexpected thing happened to me in 1987 at a training conference for Christian leaders and ministry workers. Several years ago, I wrote about the experience in my series on Peacemaking and Becoming People of Peace. Here is an excerpt from that post, dealing with a situation that shows many parallels in how to minister with systems thinking. Perhaps it will spark an interest in some readers here to consider new ministries arenas of “life dominating issues” where they might get involved.

I heard Harold Ivan Smith talk about Tear Catchers: Developing the Gift of Compassion, one of his many books on dealing with grief, loss, and suffering as well as ministering to those in distress. He shared how tears form, and the different chemical compositions of various kinds of tears. I was struck when he talked about tears of emotion, which have a particular compound in them such that they aren’t reabsorbed into our bottom eyelids, but roll down our cheeks instead. “It’s like God meant for such tears to be seen by others,” he noted.

In the middle of his talk, he spoke about different ministries of compassion. Then he calmly said something along the lines of this: “You know, we are six years into the AIDS epidemic, and many people face passing into eternity, potentially without Christ, but the Church has pushed people away. Where would Jesus be in the midst of this, and what should we as Christians do? Someone needs to do something.”

No guilt, just statements of facts. But those three little sentences about a topic no one in churches was talking about reset the course of my life for the next 10 years. I did not know a single person with full-blown AIDS at the time, or even anyone infected with HIV. But I knew in my spirit that I was one of the someones being called to do at least something.

So, I started studying everything I could about HIV/AIDS, went to some basic trainings put on by local hospitals and non-profits, and kept watching for some kind of ministry training to engage with specifically Christian perspectives. Finally, in 1989, I heard about a Christian AIDS ministry conference in Seattle. I knew I needed to be there. And there I met people with HIV infection, ARC (AIDS Related Complex, a term then used for an in-between stage), and full-blown AIDS. Having faces of friends to put with this disease changed it from something abstract out there in the world to someones concretely in my world.

This led to my writing and editing resource materials for ministry to those infected or affected by HIV; compiling the communiqués for a small national referral network of AIDS ministries; and eventually spearheading what apparently was the first seminary training conference on HIV ministry for academic creditthat was groundbreaking in 1996, 15 years into the epidemic. Which all makes sense with my gifts and abilities. as I often end up working in support roles so that others can do front-line service.

In 1997 I was led into other areas of ministry, but took into those experiences what I had learnedincluding the following snapshots of ministries of compassion in the Scriptures and early church history, which I shared in the AIDS ministry newsletters.

So, from 1987-1997, I applied systems thinking by developing a set of resource materials for those infected and affected by HIV disease. It included personal stories, bibliographies, historical perspectives on epidemics, theological perspectives on suffering and hope. The purposes were support- and solutions-oriented—encourage those directly affected, inform any who would listen, and challenge all to constructive action. It was systems thinking in ministry, applied to the situation of HIV disease at the individual, family, social, and congregational levels.

Friends Who are Survivors

I mentioned that I had other, earlier reasons for my willingness to review the Policy Guide and related resources. One is that I’ve found over the years that a large percentage of my friends are survivors of violence and abuse, including childhood sexual abuse. The current estimates for the U.S. are that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will experience sexual abuse before age 18.

My friends know I’m open to talking with them on just about any topic, and that I seek to listen for understanding their situation in order to be as supportive as possible to them. So, I know from hundreds of hours of conversations with friends who are sexual abuse and violence survivors, both women and men, what difficult effects this has put into their ability to trust, their identity, their friendships and community relationships, even their sense of life purpose. They share how it has worked its way out as nightmares, flashbacks, chronic depression, anxiety, eating disorders, messed up sexuality, thoughts of suicide. The ripple effects can last for years. No one deserves this, not ever.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious affliction, regardless of where or when the traumatizing experiences took place. If you have adult friends who are survivors of violence and abuse, a great resource for both you and them is the National Center for PTSD. It is posted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and is one of the most comprehensive and practical sites I’ve found for understanding PTSD, for those suffering from it — and those who are their family, friends, advocates, and therapists. Many of their resource articles in the Public section are available in both English and Spanish editions.

Men Who are Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse

I believe it is important for both men and women to write on this subject, and discuss it frankly and compassionately, and become personal advocates for survivors and activists for prevention. This affects all of us, all across the board in church and community, and it will take all of us to shine the spotlight on sexual abuse and systemic cover-ups.

But, I’ve also noticed how the majority of those writing reviews for The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide are women, so I wanted to talk briefly about boys and men who are survivors, and refer to some posts I wrote about this. When I was involved with men’s movements of the 1980s and ’90s, it became clear that far more of our grandfathers, fathers, uncles, brothers, and sons had experienced sexual abuse than we realized.

A big part of that was in the definition of “sexual abuse” and the pressure to conform to unhealthy stereotypes of masculinity. “Boys will be boys” and “Take it like a man” invalidated defining what happened as abuse. “Being squirrely” or “horseplay” or any other deflection kinds of justification excuses like we heard during investigations of reported sexual abuse by Jerry Sandusky and the systemic abuse and cover-up for his action by officials at Penn State. This kind of hyper-masculine culture makes for an unhealthy, unsafe environment. Again, the movie Spotlight puts a human face and personal stories to this. Some pedophile priests chose boys as victims, knowing boys were more likely to experience shame and keep silent about the sexual abuse.

From those decades of men’s recovery ministry, I realized the importance of understanding what my college friend Linda O. said, “Manipulators and martyrs go together in matched pairs.” Perpetrators of abuse know how to pick their victims—in many cases, children who are susceptible for various reasons. This is not to blame the victim for what was done to them, it is just to note that experienced perpetrators recognize signals children send out that indicate they’d make an easier victim. Those dynamics are similar to what I’ve seen happen with malignant ministry leaders and spiritual abuse. For more about this, see my series: “Set-Ups for Being Picked Off by Authoritarian Leaders,” Part 1: Susceptibilities to Seduction by Those with No Conscience, and Part 2: Dynamics of Fatherlessness and Susceptibility to Substitutes.

My Sister’s Pioneering Ministries Advocacy and Education, 1975-2010

Finally, I’ve been aware of the need for such ministry resources on childhood sexual abuse for over 40 years. That’s because of my sister Romae [pronounced like row + MAY] and her diligent work with survivors of violence and abuse to make a difference in their lives.

n the mid-1970s, she had a friend who was a survivor of domestic violence. She stepped into roles of support, advocacy, and activism for her friend, and invested time in patiently educating me all along the way. In fact, her work expanded from domestic violence to sexual assault issues, including being a child sexual abuse prevention trainer for churches, schools, and community organizations. She was glad to go wherever there was an opportunity to train people on these vital subjects.

These are all still fields of ministry with no to low visibility in churches, but high impact for those who need to experience compassion in action. Romae was heartsick to find consistently that theologically conservative, evangelical churches were the least responsive to opportunities she offered to equip staff and congregations to welcome and help those affected by these traumatic issues. Still, she persevered in her calling to support survivors and prevent more victims.

She saw prevention of problems as being just as important as intervention when there were problems. In light of a prevention mindset, she brought life-affirming skills and nurturing into her job as a teacher, into her long-time leadership in Girl Scouts, and in her godmother role of mentoring 20/30/40-somethings in her church parish and community. Building health into next generations was one way she took concrete action to demonstrate her hope for a better future.

Romae maintained that balance of ministries for prevention and intervention all of her adult life. Sadly, she died at age 60, but left a huge legacy of investment in the lives of others.

If you’d like to know a bit more about Romae, see Tributes for Two Teachers ~ Domestic Violence Awareness Month 2015. There is a section in that post on “Things I Learned from My Sister About Advocacy for Survivors of Abuse.”

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Disclosure: I received a complimentary eBook copy of The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide for Churches and Ministries from Litfuse in exchange for writing a review. I also purchased the full Child Safeguarding Package from the publisher, New Growth Press, which included a print copy of the Policy Guide plus the four GRACE mini-books.


2 thoughts on “A “Systems Approach” and Some Historical Background on Dealing with Abuse and Violence

  1. Pingback: A “Systems Approach” and Some Historical Background on Dealing with Abuse and Violence | Spiritual Sounding Board

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide, by Boz Tchividjian and Shira Berkovits | futuristguy

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