Thursday, 7 April 2016

Abuse as Crime Against Truth

It's very distressing to read frequent stories of abuse or allegations of abuse by individuals and institutions. Since the revelations about Jimmy Savile these stories seem to have become endemic. Behind each story is pain: the pain of the abuse itself, the pain of not being believed and having evidence publicly picked over, and the pain of being rejected, blamed or further abused by institutions hell-bent on protecting reputations and insurance costs. There's also the pain of those accused wrongly and the near impossibility of restoring a reputation thrown into question; again, lives are indiscriminately picked over and the public is not always able to distinguish proven from alleged behaviour.

These two extremes of pain - that of the victim not believed and that of the person wrongly accused - throw into relief the real nature of the crime of abuse. Because of its covert nature and the shame and difficulty in speaking about it experienced by many victims, abuse plays with truth in a way that is perniciously corrupt. Its hiddenness spawns untruth upon untruth. Ultimately, in many cases, it is simply not possible to get to the truth or to do so in a way that provides sufficiently convincing evidence. This playing with the nature of truth is what does such lasting, deep damage to both victims and the wrongly accused. Abuse is not only a crime against an individual, it is a crime against a community, putting intolerable strain on normal relationships and tearing up the rule book when it comes to trust. Over many years, often via a many-layered journey of painful, slow attempts at investigation, the abuser appears to 'win' by destroying the possibility of ultimate truth-telling and, with it, the capacity for trust and faith. There have been suicides.

So there are rightly severe penalties for those who abuse. There  ought to be tougher scrutiny and severe penalties for institutions that frustrate investigation, dissemble and cover up pointers (especially early ones) to abuse. This is not about suspecting abuse in places where there is none or about regulating behaviour in over-constraining ways, it is about a seismic change in institutional culture.

At the heart of physical, psychological or sexual abuse is the misuse of power and the creation of corrupt networks where power is inappropriately exercised. Healthy organisations have good levels of awareness about how power is exercised and how this differs from the exercise of influence. Power does not ultimately allow those over whom is it exercised space for choice, influence does and can use choice as a positively or negatively motivating factor. In all organisations both power and influence are present in complex ways that are related to the core purpose of the organisation. To create a culture that lowers the incidence of abuse requires honest acknowledgement of the ways power is used, with robust, transparent safeguarding checks and regulatory processes in place. 

Perhaps more significant, however, is the role of influence in an organisation. Influence is directly related to character. Being this or that sort of a person in this or that kind of context sways the opinion, motivation and behaviour of others. What do members of an organisation think about the exercise of power in their context? What is their attitude to whistle-blowing, bullying, gender relationships and minority voices? Most importantly, what behaviours are regarded as unacceptable or damaging and why? Healthy organisations spend time and resources promoting this kind of open discussion and look for behavioural changes as a result. Without this kind of education and re-education, opportunity for abuse will continue to occur and, as seems to have been the case in too many places, flourish.

What are the danger signs in an organisation?
  • Defensive attitudes to questions, suggestions and criticism
  • Refusal to take seriously concerns or complaints
  • Similar concerns raised about behaviour by unrelated sources
  • Frequent occurrence of low-grade bullying or humiliation
  • Covert, hidden behaviour or behaviour that obsessively seeks anonymity
  • Buck-passing and inability to resolve issues
  • Lack of freedom of expression
  • Lip service to and over-reliance on policies that are not properly carried out.

It will be interesting to see what the Goddard Enquiry uncovers. From current reports, it appears to be the case that abuse and its concealment occur either where there is an obvious imbalance of power (eg. the care system, the judiciary, schools and over-stretched police forces) or where belief systems are involved (eg. politics, religious groups, media). In the case of power imbalance, rather than simply escalating regulation of these bodies (though that may be appropriate) it would be good to see a thorough-going examination and incorporation of leadership structures and practices from institutions that show a low incidence of abuse - that could mean similar institutions from other countries or dissimilar institutions demonstrating high degrees of effectiveness in related fields. 

In the case of belief systems impacting on the incidence of abuse there must be, first of all, an honesty about the extent of abuse and the ways it has/has not been addressed at the highest level in these organisations. Only when this is achieved can these groups begin to address the painful and difficult questions about how belief and behaviour are related. In particular, such groups should focus on the way that authority, leadership, sexuality, gender roles and image are portrayed, enacted and talked about in their organisations. This is something which, although externally required, can only be achieved through changed attitudes among those in power and a willingness to listen to voices previously discounted or overlooked so that fresh truth and a more rounded story begins to emerge.

Here are two examples of projects I have recently come across that are working toward cultural change at opposite ends of the age spectrum: 4YP Bristol's project The Bristol Ideal which works in schools to help children explore healthy relationships and Age Action Ireland's Do Something which does inspirational work across generations. Both projects demonstrate an approach that shows commitment to the value of communication in bringing about much needed cultural change. 4YP works in the area of effective, accessible health education and advice for young people. Age Action's website also hosts a blog about issues to do with ageing - well worth a visit in my opinion! Click on the links below for further information.

Age Action Workshops

Schools Project to Prevent Abuse


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