A Cultural Geography of Survivor Communities – Part 6E: What Makes Systemic Abuse and Historic Oppression Different from Isolated Incidents of Abuse?


What Makes Systemic Abuse and

Historic Oppression Different from

Isolated Incidents of Abuse?

Part 6E. This post on systems-related terms sets up the final segment in Part 6, where we will look at better ways of “restorative justice” for situations to situations involving systemic abuse and historical/societal oppression, through truth-finding before reconciliation.

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This post may seem to be a detour, but I sense it is necessary if we are to better understand internal dynamics of differences within various streams of the Christian #MeToo movement – which is the topic of Part 8. Representatives in some streams seem to want to address abuse only as isolated incidents, without engaging the institutions and ideologies involved. Also, they are actively disengaging from survivors, advocates, and practitioners of other streams who could (and likely would) be of help to them if they chose to look at the bigger picture of abuse in systems. i believe it’s possible to understand their point of view better when we see the expanded list of concepts they are avoiding, despite the limited list of ones they are advocating. To those of us in this for the long haul, systems make a significant difference.

Throughout Part 6, we’ve looked at various elements of legal tools and resolution processes that can be misused to shut down victims and avoid accountability by perpetrators and their protectors. We’ve considered some aspects of individuals, ideologies, and institutions similarly used to mess with a genuine resolution process.

Recalling the situation at Willow Creek from Part 6C, there the women survivors of sexual misconduct and misuse of spiritual authority were wise in their rejection of those individuals’ accusations and the institution’s offers. I believe they were considering the bigger picture in what they called for instead: truth-finding before reconciliation. This sounds more like big-picture “restorative justice” than arbitration, conciliation, or mediation do – more TRC/Truth and Reconciliation Commission than ADR/Alternative Dispute Resolution.

What makes restorative justice different from dispute resolution? What could that process actually look like? How does it relate to situations of systemic abuse and historic oppression? What examples can we study? We will get to that in Part 6F. Meanwhile, this post provides the elements that help differentiate how TRC deals with systems of abuse, where ADR tends to address only incidents of abuse.

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The Spotlight Investigation Lights the Way

to Understanding Significant Differences

The way we understand our task directly affects our actions. If we’re trying to deal with just one situation, we’d do things differently than if our calling is to address something with magnitudes of larger scale.

The 2015 movie Spotlight won the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture of the Year. It does an excellent job of introducing us to some distinctions between incidents of abuse, and systemic forms of abuse/oppression. The following excerpt comes from a January 2017 post I wrote on case studies in systems and ministry accountability. I’ve edited it only slightly for clarity.

In the movie Spotlight, then-editor of the Boston Globe, Marty Baron, talked about disclosure based on the purpose of the team’s research. At one point, they had enough to go with a story about Father John Geoghan and child sexual abuse cases within the Catholic churches of Boston — and reporter Mike Rezendes was anxious to publish it. But Marty Baron forced them to wait, and keep working on the report a few more months. He knew the information they had already could stop one pedophile priest, but if they wanted to prevent future child abuse, not just intervene in past abuse, they needed more to go with a story about the system that was covering up these cases involving as many as 90 priests.

So, it took about seven months total before the Spotlight research team hit the systems disclosure threshold. They published their initial mega-story on January 6, 2002, and their phones were busy constantly — mostly with leads from other victims. The Boston Globe followed up with over 600 articles and individuals’ stories over the course of that year, and several hundred more the year after that.

It may have been emotionally satisfying to have published sooner and outed Father Geoghan, but think of the far more positive and widespread impact worldwide of having deconstructed the whole system that shuffled around pedophile priests. It minimizes the damages done, marginalizes those victimized, and wrongly protects those responsible for incurring harm or accountable for its correction to:

* Rush the process in order to give the appearance of “dealing with the problem.” Systemic abuse requires systemic solutions which are never quick fixes.

* Not consider the past (i.e., fail to intervene; minimize the damages done), or the future (i.e., fail to prevent; minimize moving forward).

* Fail to document the discernment process, decisions made, and actions implemented (or failures to do so), etc.

* Fail to appropriately publicize the process, findings, and follow-through of solutions. For instance, attempt to keep the process private when the abuse occurred in public, or reveal inappropriate details publicly when the identity of victims should remain private.

System insiders may well have blind spots when it comes to observing, analyzing, and interpreting their situation. So, these processes may benefit from involving outsiders who have expertise to evaluate these aspects effectively, as well as discern how relevant the solutions are in relation to the damages done in and through the system. However, a warning: Do not rely on individuals or organizations to investigate when they have a bias toward the accused abusers, due to connections that involve family relationships, friendships, institutional ties, finances, or shared prestige (such as having recommended each other’s books, done conferences together, cross-listed each other’s ministries, etc.).

Now, four years after the movie and 18 years after the initial Spotlight Team investigation, we are witnessing the continued exposure of multi-generational abuse and cover-up in the Roman Catholic Church. [Sidenote: For details on what happened to Cardinal Law and his diocese after the reports were published, see the book on which Spotlight was based, Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church, by the investigative staff of The Boston Globe. Be sure to get the 2015 edition, which includes a Preface from the movie’s director Tom McCarthy and screenwriter Josh Singer, and an Afterward by The Boston Globe staff.)]

Here’s where I believe this all comes together for integrating investigations with resolutions: Typical approaches to alternative dispute resolution seem to address an individual who has been abusive, and perhaps how that he/she has twisted the related institution to support and cover up that abuse. ADR may arrest that development – but it does not seem to deal with the underlying ideology/theology that buttressed the abusiveness, nor does it address the systemic and historic dimensions. It may cut out one, two, or a few parasites, but the body is still infested with hidden eggs, larvae, pupae, and other adults.

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A Tutorial on Terminology:

Systems, Systemic Abuse, Historical/Societal Oppression.

So – if we’re going to show how dealing with systemic abuse and historic/societal oppression differs from what often gets proposed by institutions that get caught – we need to define system and other terms. Here are some definitions and descriptions I use, followed by links if you’re interested in more detail.

Systems and Systemic Abuse

Systems are a specific set of seven parts – people, principles, practices, products, processes, partnerships, and impacts – that are all interconnected and function within some kind of boundaries as a unit.

In that sense, we can see a family, work team, church congregation, or non-profit board as a system. Its members (people) work together (partnership) from a particular worldview (principles) to accomplish goals (products) that are compatible with what they show that they value and how they typically behave (practices). It takes the investment of their intention, time, attention, and resources (processes) to build the level and quality desired in doing something that makes a difference (impacts).


Systems are about how the parts in a set interconnect and make the whole more than the sum of those parts – and systemic abuse is about how people with malignant intentions (1) manipulate the parts to order to take over the whole and then (2) manipulate the connections to keep the whole under control.

[SOURCE: Systems, Systemic Abuse, and Transforming Corrupted Systems ~ Part 1.]

Open System, Closed System, and Bounded Choice

Organizations that allow or endorse individuals who turn it toxic become a closed system. They rely on bounded choice to keep people orbiting around the status quo, with nowhere else to go.

An open system lets in new participants, new inputs, new energy. This allows the system and those within it to grow, get rid of pollutants, and take care of other tasks to keep things sustainable. In an open system, individuals have freedom of choice to discern and decide their own trajectory within all possible options.

However, a closed system is either self-contained – no new inputs, nothing old output – or at least socially isolated in ways that limit outside influences that would supposedly contaminate the purity of those living inside the system. A closed system creates what is called bounded choice.”

Bounded choice is a basic type of “conditioning” designed to control someone’s behavior. This removes freedom for self-determination, allowing individuals to operate only within specified choices. As they do that, it may look like growth or change because people are active, but actually, it’s just an orbit around the set of rules and regulations designed to limit personal freedom and keep people in line. So, even if someone is no longer tethered to the system, they’ve been trained to self-constrain themselves to negate any doubts, objections, or questions that arise. In other words, they keep on the same toxic trajectory, just because it’s become the only thing they really know.

[SOURCE: Deconstructing the Christian Industrial Complex, Part 4 – Psycho-Social Strategies and Structures.]

Historical/Societal Oppression

Over time, these malignant individuals and toxic institutions use a flawed, self-benefiting theology or philosophy to justify their self-benefit from the system. Their abusive influence then goes wider (societal) and lasts longer (historical), making it long-term oppression and not just temporary repression.

HISTORICAL/SOCIETAL OPPRESSION. When there is societal oppression, the things people typically fight for in order to obtain a democracy are the things that get restricted for one or more segments of society. The restrictions are historical—they last more than two generations. This means prejudice is “institutionalized.” So, there becomes a historic record of abuses, and an ideology that justifies the maltreatment of some for the supposed benefit of others. In other words, victims supposedly deserve what they get because they are inferior racially, morally, intellectually, physically, etc. Historical/societal oppression is a form of eugenics; it is the justification for physical, social, and/or spiritual genocide—killing the body or the spirit.

The main distinction for the purpose of this training series, is that historical/societal oppression holds back some demographic segments of a society, while totalist psychology exerts total control over all segments of a society. In both types, justice and peace-making efforts require looking at a much bigger picture than if only a Pyramid of Abuse were involved. Repair and reconciliation will first require truth-telling about the historical records of wrongs. This includes putting into the public spotlight issues of agency and culpability by key individuals and institutions, plus complicity by entire social segments who benefited from the harm done to those who were stigmatized. Peace is not achieved otherwise.

[SOURCE: Chapter 12 in forthcoming Futuristguy’s Field Guides #1, How to Identify Systemic Abuse and Analyze Systems That Harm.]

And …

A study of societal oppression looks at larger-scale toxic systems, such as an industry, society, or alliance of countries. It considers the historical elements involved. For instance, how this system came into existence for the benefit of some social demographic groups, to the harm of others, and how it is then maintained over multiple generations. Societal oppression typically involves multiple social domains—political, economic, cultural, media, educational, religious, etc.—and has a strong ideological base to it that justifies why certain classes of people should be privileged while others should be oppressed. In the largest scale that combines both systemic abuse and societal oppression, the control is even more pervasive. This means nearly all social demographic groups and all their generations are under the authoritarian rulership of a small class of people. These elite dictators are chosen based on their power, wealth, knowledge, family social status, charisma, etc. This is typical of a totalitarian country. It relies on methods of total psychological control and an extensive hierarchy of people who enable and enforce the control in every aspect of the state or society. Once we begin talking about toxic systems and historical oppression, we eventually find ourselves right the middle of discussions about the details of what freedom means, and the control methodologies used to restrict or remove freedom. So, those are the topics of Essentials #1 and #2.

[SOURCE: “Introducing Key Concept Frameworks” in forthcoming Futuristguy’s Field Guides #1, How to Identify Systemic Abuse and Analyze Systems That Harm.]

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So What? What Differences Does This Make

for Survivors and Our Communities?

So – back to the opening question about what differentiates various scales of abuse? And add to this, How do these differences affect the nature of survivor communities?

Survivors may begin their journeys of recovery and advocacy by dealing with their own situation of abuse. But a change often takes place as they join with others in survivor communities: We’re in it for the long haul, to do something about the big picture. And that involves dealing with systemic abuse and historic oppression.

We need to keep this in mind as we consider the truth-and-reconciliation option for investigation and justice. It resonates better with this global perspective than do arbitration, conciliation, mediation. It’s also a significant dimension in what makes #MeToo a sustainable transformation movement that will benefit the many, and not just a temporary support group that helps out me.

Next: The better way of resolution to systemic abuse and historic/societal oppression through truth-finding before reconciliation.

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For Additional Reading

Field Guide “Essentials” — A Series of Three-Frame Tutorials on Dealing with Systemic Abuse. This “Essentials” post has a series of three-frame tutorials, or “Threetorials,” as I have sometimes called them. In the 10 Threetorials posted, the first slide usually gives a definition of the concept framework, or a summary quote about it. The second slide usually gives some kind of visual image, chart, or graphic, plus a few details. (Note my Fotolia licensing information at the bottom of such slides.) The third slide expands on some of the most important points in the first two slides.

The above post gives an overview of concepts related to systemic abuse and historic/societal oppression. The green section (Essentials Slides #12 through #20) of Futuristguy’s Field Guides — Essentials Tutorials #1 and #2 gives more detail on the progression from personal to organizational to societal to total and historical control.

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