Systems, Systemic Abuse, and Transforming Corrupted Systems ~ Part 1

Recent events have made systemic abuse a more common term in news reports and on social media. Though we’re using the phrase more often, I’m not sure most people have more than just a vague idea of what it means. We’d benefit from a more detailed understanding of systems and systemic abuse, if we’re committed to “Do Good Plus Do No Harm.” So, that is where my Futuristguy’s Field Guides Training Series begins.

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Systems and Systemic Abuse

Basics About Systems

A while back, my friend Julie Anne Smith at Spiritual Sounding Board asked if I had a definition of “systemic abuse and cover-up” that she could quote for a blog article she’s been working on. I told her I’d get back to her, as I’d need to talk about a couple different terms in order to get to what she was looking for. Here’s what I came up with, which is an extract from the chapter on “paradigm systems” for dealing with spiritual abuse from a systems perspective.

If we’re going to talk about systemic abuse, first we have to grasp the core concept of systems. Here’s how I describe them:

Systems are a specific set of seven parts—people, principles (beliefs), practices (values and actions), partnerships, processes, products (tangible items or intangible goals), and impacts (personal, social, organizational)—that are all interconnected and function as a unit within some kind of boundaries (one organization, or an entire industry, as examples).

In that sense, we can see a family, work team, church congregation, or non-profit board as a system. Its members (people) work together (partnerships) 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). [Click on image for a clearer view.]

Seven Elements in Organizational Systems ~ (c) Brad Sargent, Images licensed from Scott Maxwell/Fotolia.

While we can observe the individual units within the whole, and their actions, we can also analyze the larger system to interpret what elements influence those actions of individual people and other parts in it. Think of it as sliding our scale of view from the micro to the macro – examining the pieces and then the whole – like moving from a microscope to look at the smallest of things on earth, to a telescope to look at the largest things in the heavens.

Other researchers may come up with a different approach or different set of elements to explain how systems work. But for me, the key thing in systems is that all of these of these parts are tied to one another, so they’re interactive. That means if we tug on any one of these elements, the others will get stretched some, too.

Or, to demonstrate this idea with how a wire mobile works, the pieces are made to hang in ways that counterbalance each other. If we add a weight to just one piece hanging from the mobile system, that piece becomes heavier than it was designed to be. That then throws the rest of the mobile out of balance, dragging it in a different direction along the lines of where the additional weight is. Similar things happen if we remove one of the pieces — the mobile tilts due to imbalance.

Systemic Abuse

So, with all that in mind, my short description of systems and systemic abuse for Julie Anne was this:

Systems are about how the parts in a set interconnect and make the whole more than the sum of those parts. And systemic abuse happens when people with self-serving motives or otherwise malignant intentions (1) use their power, prestige, relationships, and/or money to manipulate parts to take over the whole and (2) manipulate connections among parts to keep the whole under control.

When I talk about the people who instigate and perpetuate systemic abuse, I use terms like perpetrators, protectors, promoters, and pawns. The perpetrators benefit the most from warping a system to meet their desires. They cultivate (“condition, groom”) and enlist others to keep things going, either by providing real or perceived benefits to those who carry out their strategies. Those perks could include economic value, political-cultural-social status, and/or psychological esteem. So, basically, those who hijack a system offer their accomplices various forms of prestige and power.

Systemic abuse always includes a degree of relational manipulation to get people hooked in and keep them there, as well as deception in order to hide the truth. So, the longer that people who abuse the system hold on to power, the more their underhanded processes and procedures get fused into the working strategies and structures of the system. If these people get removed from the system or leave on their own accord, those toxic ways of doing things don’t simply disappear, because they were created to cover people’s tracks in the infrastructure.

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Transforming a Corrupted System

These hidden structural elements only get addressed by intentional actions that put the spotlight on what’s been done in the dark, and then dealing with them systemically. In other words, repent — change the course of our trajectory from destructive to constructive. I suggest two lenses for viewing the transformation process in stereo:

  1. Repentance and Remediation
  2. Humility and Conciliation

The first is more corporate and organizational, the second is more personal.

Lens #1: Repentance and Remediation

But we cannot make intentional corrections when we don’t know what we’re turning from or what we need to turn toward. So, transforming a corrupted system requires our investigating how abuse got infused into all seven parts (people, principles, practices, products, processes, partnerships, and impacts) and the interconnections among them, and then cleaning out the connections. This involves identifying details of how elements in the system were co-opted in ways that misused the resources and caused harm to shareholders (those involved in providing services or products) and stakeholders (recipients of those services or products).

More specifically, in the big picture of things, a genuine repentance process requires gathering of evidence, discernment, decision making, implementation of corrective actions, and ongoing evaluation to ensure future damage is prevented. What does that process look like? What follows is an overview of the ideas and details behind systems transformation.

I describe “organizational repentance” as a transformational process of repair that looks at past and present aspects of all seven systems elements and how they worked together to inflict damage. It  requires:

(1) removing self-induced obstacles that mar the possibilities for a positive, preferable future of people both inside and outside of the system, and

(2) repairing or replacing them with a system of corrective solutions.

Systems transformation involves both attitudes and actions on the part of people affected. It includes both remediation (i.e., remedies for harmful actions and their impact) and restoration to address the past, present, and future. It uses both private and public measures that are parallel to the arena(s) in which the damage occurred, in proportion to the degree of damage inflicted, and last an appropriate length of time. More specifically, this means:


Taking an appropriate amount of time to consider all seven elements in systems – both the individual and institutional/organizational sides of things – to understand who was involved, what destructive impacts their victims suffered, and the multiple ways that this damage came about and was sustained in/through the system.


Sorting through offenses to distinguish those that occurred in private, and those that occurred in public – or had an eventual public impact – and determining appropriate arenas for solutions to be implemented, where and how to communicate about them, and levels of action that fit with the abuse context.


Taking relevant, concrete steps of remediation to intervene in the infliction of any more harm in the here-and-now, and to repair the damage that has already been done in the past and up through the present.


Seeking to engage in a constructive change process with all the parties involved. Due to the nature of the damage inflicted, this may have to be done one-to-one and not in a group setting – and letting the victims decide whether those who perpetrated and/or perpetuated the abuse are present or not.


Taking relevant, concrete steps of restoration to make things right for the future, and to shift the system in order to prevent further infliction of harm.


Responding in a timely way to people inside and outside the system who have legitimate questions. This includes reported victims and members of their support network, accused perpetrators and their representatives, members of the public and the press, and other shareholders and stakeholders.


Noting and archiving the entire consideration process and timelines involved, the conclusions, the concrete steps taken, the subsequent evaluations of progress, the responses of individuals with concerns and how they were addressed, the course corrections taken, etc.

This careful, transparent approach lays the foundation for dealing with systemic abuse by investigating the elements involving both malignant people and toxic systems. It’s not meant to be a game of “Gotcha!” But neither is the investigation supposed to drag out forever. When do you know you have enough information to proceed?

That’s a crucial question. My answer is this: When you’ve unraveled the elements and connections enough to uncover the systemic infrastructures of abuse, not just identify the perpetrators and accomplices of abuse.

“Spotlight”: An Example of Research

for Repentance and Reparations

Here’s an example from the 2015 Academy Awards Best Picture winner, Spotlight. In this movie, 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 child sexual abuse cases within the Catholic churches at 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 in order to publish 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’ personal experiences 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 the one priest, Father Geoghan. But, think of the far more positive and widespread impact worldwide of having deconstructed the whole system that shuffled around pedophile priests. For 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.)

However, 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.).

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Figure #2-02: Summary Chart: Seven Elements in Organizational Systems. Images (c) Scott Maxwell / Fotolia, and licensed to Brad Sargent.

  • 2-1 #5908818 — Full Spectrum All For One One For All
  • 2-2 #5913433 — Full Spectrum Legal Meeting
  • 2-3 #5913763 — Full Spectrum Teamwork Help Up Golden Business Bar Graphs
  • 2-4 #5913662  — Full Spectrum Arrow Team
  • 2-5 #5908795 — Full Spectrum Teamwork Gears
  • 2-6 #5908842 — Full Spectrum Business Progress
  • 2-7 #5908754 — Full Spectrum Vote

Baby playing in a crib, #11960153 (c) Ruta Saulyte / Fotolia, and licensed to Brad Sargent.