Is child abuse systemic in the Catholic Church?

When we examine systems, we look at four aspects: events, patterns, structures and mental models. Events are single occurrences like a win at the races or an accident at a railway crossing. Events occur as a result of luck or human failure. Patterns are the regular occurrence of events: jockeys regularly winning money by betting on horse races or repeated accidents at the same railway across. These patterns are result of the third element of systems: structures. Structures come in many forms. In the case of the railway crossing could be the configuration of the road for the visibility of the crossing itself. In the case of the jockeys, it could be an informal group that colludes to ensure certain horses win. In a more general sense, structures can be physical elements such as the layout of an office, rules, regulations or policies in an organisation or an organisational culture, which is an informal set of rules that people act by often without actually acknowledging them. The final element of systems is the mental models of those who work in the systems. It is the way that people think and the values and attitudes they hold that ultimately keep the structures in place.

Archbishop Pell has stated that child abuse in the Catholic Church is not systemic. However, it does have many of the elements that define systems. In this case we can safely ignore events and move straight to patterns. There is now ample evidence of widespread pedophilia going back many decades in the Catholic Church. This constitutes a pattern which can only be produced by structures within the system. When the Archbishop says child abuse is not systemic he may be confusing systemic with “officially sanctioned”. But it would be hard to argue that there is not a culture, not only of child abuse, but of covering it up within the church. It is well understood that cultures are one of the most important determinants of behaviour in any organisation.

This causal loop diagram shows how this process works and perpetuates itself.

It is a sad fact that many organisations that care for the young and vulnerable are likely to attract pedophiles and the Catholic Church is no exception. The presence of pedophiles within the church has led to a culture of secrecy, evidenced by the refusal to report pedophile activities to the police. This culture of secrecy leads to the relocation of offenders. However the more this is done, the more there is a need for secrecy and the need for secrecy itself leads to more relocations and increases the culture of secrecy. The culture of secrecy itself and protection provides the paedophiles, means that the organisation is more likely to attract people with paedophile tendencies. This in turn increases the number of paedophiles in the church.

Each element of this particular causal diagram acts as a reinforcing element, namely it increases the incidence of the behaviour that causes. There is nothing in this particular causal diagram that dampens the effect of pedophiles within the church. The logic of the diagram suggests that the problem may be getting worse over time rather than better.

And finally we come to mental models, the values attitudes and beliefs that are held by the people work with him in the system. From his public utterances, many people would assume that the Archbishop does not accept that there is a significant problem with pedophilia in the Catholic Church. With the most senior church official in the country holding the servitude, there is unlikely to be little  stomach for change within the church.

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