Thursday, July 27, 2023

Conceal or Reveal? How Catholic Clergy Sex Abuse Went Unreported

Let us talk about sexual abuse of minors for a moment. It is an uncomfortable topic, made even more uncomfortable by the fact that the sex abuse scandal in the U.S. Catholic church broke after two decades of sex abuse being known in communities and by the church. What happened? Knowing the answer is useful for protecting the vulnerable in society and for understanding how societies and communities interact.

Recent research published by Alessandro Piazza and Julien Jourdan in Academy of Management Journal provides important answers. Their approach was intuitive and important. If members of the same large organization (the Church) are responsible for the same kind of abuse in many communities, but this is kept quiet in some communities but not in others, maybe it is valuable to find out what kind of communities protects the organization and lets its employees victimize its vulnerable members?

What they found is depressingly familiar to anyone who studies organizations and communities. Communities who identify with the organization protect it – so although a majority Catholic community would have many more potential victims and families reporting abuse, a greater proportion of Catholics in the community actually protected the church against having misconduct made public.

Well-organized communities also protected the Church. Many voluntary associations and informal meeting places indicate a community capable of much joint social action and self-improvement. In the case of abuse by local clergy, this positive community characteristic instead turned negative. Rather than acting to reveal the abuse, the communities showed inaction.

Finally, community homogeneity also predicted communities that protected the abusers and the Church. Specifically, ethnic homogeneity (for example, nearly all White) was an indicator of communities that would be unlikely to making public cases of sex abuse.

Why did this happen? Homogeneity, organization, and identification are characteristics of communities that are capable of a great deal of organized action, but in the abuse case, they instead seemed to display organized inaction. But let us not make a theory of grand conspiracies of communities against vulnerable members: a simpler explanation is probably correct.

Speaking out is costly. It is especially costly when the complaints are sensitive, as in sex abuse. It is even more costly when the accusation is directed at a highly respected pillar of the community, as when the abuser is clergy. The costs increase when community homogeneity and organization create the suspicion (and often, reality) that others will organize against the whistle-blower, and when community identification with the organization makes such counter-organization a near certainty.

So, parents would be quiet, journalists would not write stories, editors would not allocate space in newspapers, and the Church would quietly reassign and sometimes defrock the perpetrators. For decades. We need to understand this because the processes are general, and they can happen for similar or different kinds of abuse, and for similar or different organizations.

Piazza, A., J. Jourdan. 2023. The Publicization of Organizational Misconduct: A Social Structural Approach. Academy of Management Journal forthcoming.