The headlines lately are rife with announcements of the worst of the worst that bureaucracies do to people, and they span the bureaucratic range: governmental, corporate, and organizational.
The worst that I’m referring to in this post is sexual assault and abuse. I’ll not get into ranking “worsts;” death, and other forms of torture (because sexual assault and abuse are forms of torture) also rank as “worst.” But the stories I’ll touch on in this post are:
- The Oklahoma Sheriff case;
- The Texas underage polygamy story
- Pope Benedict’s apology to survivors of clergy sexual abuse
- KBR rape cases
Representative of governmental bureaucracy in this line-up, the Oklahoma Sheriff case that broke into the news yesterday has left some Oklahomans stunned, and no doubt at least a few in disbelief, even though that’s not included in the AP news story. I include it because there are always people who cannot bring themselves, or will not allow themselves, to believe stories of sexual exploitation, especially when the perpetrators are people they love or respect either from personal knowledge of them or by virtue of their position–e.g. sheriff. While wanting to be careful not to malign a man who is innocent until proven guilty, the possibility, probability, likelihood, etc. of the allegations being true speaks volumes about the kinds of structural flaws that can exist in bureaucracies that exist ostensibly to protect people.
A similar situation exists in the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints‘ community in Texas, in which underage girls have been “spiritually married” to older men with multiple wives. Spiritual communities, faith communities, with few exceptions claim to be about the best and highest in terms of morals and values, which, as with sheriffs and other law enforcement personnel, are properly involved in caring for and protecting those who are weak and vulnerable. In other words, both sheriffs and religious stand as fiduciaries, and when they exploit rather than protect, their actions constitute a betrayal of their relationship with their victims.
The one case in this group that’s somewhat different is that of KBR, the federal contractor in Iraq against whom there are now a dozen or so women employees who have reported being raped by male KBR employees. There’s not quite the same sort of fiduciary relationship between perpetrators and victims in the KBR case as in the FLDS and Oklahoma sheriff cases, though the company certainly had a fiduciary responsibility to its female employees, and beyond the company, the Department of Justice has responsibilities to the victims which it has abandoned. The KBR case, then involves both corporate and governmental bureaucracies that have circled the wagons and adopted postures designed to protect the rapists rather than the people for whom they are responsible.
The history of Roman Catholic clergy sexual abuse in the U.S. shows the same pattern: church hierarchy that long ignored the needs of victims and made it possible for abusive clergy to victimize ever more children by moving them from place to place and trying to protect the church-as-organization, rather than protect the church-as-its-people. The fiduciary responsibilities were, of course, the same or similar to those that apply to the Oklahoma and FLDS cases.
In all cases, there are features in the structure of the bureaucracies that have allowed this turning of responsibility inside-out, such that the government, business or organization operates 180° out of phase with its stated principles and mission. The question becomes: how can bureaucracies be structured differently to prevent that 180° shift? What transparency and accountability measures can be incorporated in bureaucracies that will deter or prevent such phase shifts? There are certainly effective measures available, and I’ll address those in a separate post. For now I want just to acknowledge the similarities across abusive bureaucracies, regardless of their being located in government, corporations, or organizations.
Something else to acknowledge, too, to close out this post: Pope Benedict XVI‘s apology to survivors of clergy sexual abuse. Whatever my disagreements with him–and they are many–he has done an important and wonderful thing through his public apologies, but most especially through his meeting one-on-one with a number of survivors. To literally reach out to them, to look them in the eye, and to let himself be touched directly by them is a great, compassionate act of healing. Having worked with victims and survivors of sexual abuse and assault for twenty years as a counselor and psychologist, I can say unequivocally that what Pope Benedict did is what most victim/survivors yearn for: someone who will take responsibility, feel some of the pain, and apologize.
Would that all powers-that-be, in all bureaucracies where one of their own has done wrong, would do likewise.