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Kicking corruption in church and police 'closed systems'



A Victoria Police joke: 'Why do police show their badges when they walk into a police station? So they don't get treated like everyone else.' Many a true word said in jest.

Hillsborough Stadium disasterHaving worked in closed organisational systems like Victoria Police and various government departments, I have often reflected on how and at what point organisations and their employees become comfortable with the belief that their ideas and attitudes are better informed than those of the general populous — and that their survival is more important.

Once comfortable with that idea — what's next?

A very stark example of this are the recent court decisions relating to the Hillsborough Stadium disaster in 1989, where 96 people were killed.

The Liverpool Football club song assures its supporters they'll 'never walk alone' though their 'dreams be tossed and blown'.

The South Yorkshire Police motto is Justice with Courage.

After the Hillsborough disaster members of the South Yorkshire Police — some very senior — decided that blaming the victims and Liverpool football fans for the disaster and deaths, and harassing their families to secure their own personal and organisational safety, was the preferred path to take.

For 27 long years the parents, brothers and sisters of the deceased victims, the blameless, were forced to walk alone, and be subjected to attacks and harassment from the police, who actually were to blame, and who were employed to protect those who were fatally injured.


"Many such organisations pride themselves on what they see as their specific knowledge. They function with an unquestioning view of the world, holding their own truths to be self-evident."


More recently, in Australia, the Royal Commission into Family Violence and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse have asked of us as individuals and members of certain groups and organisations to try to understand how it is that we seemingly comfortably turn away from those in need of our help and protection.

A theory of group dynamics holds that all groups are formed for a stated and agreed primary purpose, to achieve a certain goal; but that it is not too long before the unstated purpose becomes the protection of the group itself, and the accepted behaviours within the group become those that ensure its survival.

It partly explains the disturbing situation where organisations such as police, religious groups, churches, schools and government departments who call into question the behaviour of others, demonstrate so little ability to critically reflect on their own motives and actions.

Many such closed organisations and environments pride themselves on what they see as their specific knowledge, being in control of their brief, and all singing from the same hymnal. They function with an unquestioning view of the world, holding their own truths to be self-evident. Expressing doubt is akin to treason, and whistleblower deterrence more often than not resembles communist re-education camps.

It was only a decade and a half ago that I asked a very senior policeman what the options were in dealing with a suspected outbreak of family violence involving a friend of mine. 'I just hope she's got a couple of big strong brothers,' I was told. 'That's the only way to sort that out. Bloody women always withdraw their complaint after a few days — all that paperwork done for nothing.'

There was a frightening certainty around such a shallow and ill-considered response. It asked no questions, sought no answers, entertained no doubt, its only informant being narrow and limited policing experience.

In life we often place greater value on certainty than uncertainty. Uncertainty dwells in unchartered terrain with little comfort to be found anywhere. Certainty, however, is that oh so comfortable place where we are right.

It seems to me that when we know we are right, our horizons are limited, and there is little opportunity to grow individually or organisationally. It is in times of uncertainty and doubt that we are presented with the opportunity to question, to learn and to grow.

Learning how to unlearn that which makes us certain and then leave that space open for enquiry, uncertainty and both personal and organisational growth may be the beginning of the path that leads us away from turning away.


Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan is a writer, a recovering Victorian Public Servant and author of When You Stop Laughing Go Home: Impressions of a Young Nation — Timor Leste 2010-2013.

Topic tags: Paul Coghlan, Hillsborough Stadium disaster, royal commission, family violence, clergy sexual abuse



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Existing comments

For many people there is only one way to view an event, a friendship, a current viewpoint etc. Witness the outcry against the journalist who questioned the 'myth' of ANZAC Day, There was no chance to explore the truth or otherwise of the questions he was asking, only instant dismissal by his employer. When there is no room to question the 'rules' the 'myths', the 'givens', there is an intolerance that punishes the innocent and rewards the guilty. Whistleblowers know this only too well. There are many, many people who are silent because their friends adhere to the belief that those who wear uniform or belong to a distinct and powerful group in society can never be or do wrong.

Laurie Sheehan | 05 May 2016  

Paul don't forget the role of the Murdoch press who pursued that lying line, too, so much so that Liverpudlians boycotted Murdoch papers to this day!

Anthony Grimes | 05 May 2016  

Thanks Paul, I found this article fitted into my view of the world, (though it is a bit scary to admit this). I suspect for most of us, our first experience of being controlled by an anonymous force, was at school where we had to learn to navigate the wilds of the school yard that was essentially controlled by fear. But it is here that I offer a glimmer of hope. With more than a decade of working in schools around the world, I have seen a change in the ways that teachers and parents and students are navigating differences. It is through the amazing arts of listening and speaking. Listening to what people are speaking about and asking questions that allow a deeper discussion to evolve. It is slow, but then again, is not the evolution of our species a micro crawl through the universe?

Vic O'Callaghan | 05 May 2016  

Paul's article is a timely reminder to all of us who quite naturally crave certainty in an unpredictable world. Whether the certainty be political, cultural, technological, sociological, theological, or cultural, that 'certainty' that allows us to function daily can also prevent us from seeing that the 'certainties' of others can be equally functional and, worse, it inhibits our ability to accept that we may actually be wrong and that the Truth is not as simple as our limited 'truth and that 'the Lord hath yet more truth and light to break forth from His Word'. The best of scientists, sociologists, politicians, writers, historians, theologians, know this and remind us. The worst continue to contend that the world is flat, that the earth is the centre of the universe, that Newton's laws are the final say, that vaccinations are dangerous, that our 'race' is superior, that this or that culture is intrinsically superior, that our particular political or theological conviction must be right. The existential position is no more the be all and end all than any other position, but it has a lot going for it.

Ginger Meggs | 05 May 2016  

A super article; thank you Paul. It reminds me of what has been going on in the RC Church since 1969 in response to the overwhelming rejection of Humanae vitae in the pews. We know from the historic recordt hat the encyclical itself was based on a fear of change and fear of undermining authority, That led to 4 decades of appointment of "safe" Bishops almost purely to toe the line. It has run the Church into the ground. Thank God that Francis has now essentially killed it off, and we can rebuild a thinking, merciful and unafraid Church.

Eugene | 05 May 2016  

Just a quick comment on a good article by Paul Coghlan. Most public services in Australia have good whistleblower laws BUT THEY ARE RARELY SUCCESSFULLY APPLIED to protect the whistleblower. At every step of the way, the disclosure of information on higher level misconduct or corruption is routinely covered up by more senior managers and reprisals are then taken against the discloser. Few cases ever get to the industrial courts, and if they do so manage it, even the judges there are often subjected to similar departmental or political pressure to favour the defending department's case. So Australians need to refrain from self-righteously pointing out corruption in Indonesia or elsewhere overseas. Corruption is alive, well and widespread right here in all of Australia's public administrations.

John Cronin, Toowoomba | 05 May 2016  

Certainties can provide comfort and security. When people are part of a group that commands automatic respect within society, being part of the group and protecting their place within it may become more important than anything else. When police act corruptly our protectors are failing vulnerable people who need protection the most. When the church acts corruptly reverence for God is compromised. Doubting and inquiring minds need to have space and dreams.

Pam | 05 May 2016  

As Lord Acton (1834 - 1902) famously observed: 'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' Absolutely.

Gordon Rowland | 06 May 2016  

Great conversation piece, Paul - I love your work. Don't be too hard on the senior cop, he is only venting his frustration on what's not working and he has never been exposed to a conversation about 'what works'. A different conversation would explore 'harm and relationships' and would focus on 'what a good outcome would look like and what do we need to do for this to happen'. Cops are just part of a 'broken system' and issues of clerical abuse within the Catholic Church can't be understand nor addressed without the right conversation. What is needed is 'leadership that facilitates dialogue' so that what is important to our humanity doesn't get lost in the noise. If you and I were to invent a new order in policing [governance wider than formal policing] I bet we would put relationships and connections as our central focus. We would also see problems in terms of possibilities; value collaboration over cooperation and see engagement [as opposed to involvement] as fundamental to this exercise, starting the conversation with what we really believe is important. Having spent 30 years as a cop, I have learned a thing or two about the right conversation.

Terry O'Connell | 08 May 2016  

"'closed systems'" There is probably no system that naturally closes in on itself than an Established Religion. The natural herd or tribal instinct provides safety in numbers and the reassurance of connections with like-minded companions. If political power is achieved dissenters can be punished and "Faith" can be equated with 'loyalty' to 'the party line'. Followers can be pressured to think only within the ideas of the 'Establishment', - to be educated, marry and associate only with fellow 'believers', and to regard and treat non-members as threats to their group. This inward-looking attitude has resulted in too many of the inter-religious clashes of our and other times.

Robert Liddy | 09 May 2016  

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