October 9, 2020 dailies church abuse advocacy

Investigating the truth is hard (Day 5)

The last movie I watched before lockdown was Knives Out, which is a very good murder mystery movie (97% on Rotten Tomatoes). I’m glad I got to see it because the other two movies I watched were mildly disappointing (Little Women) and devastatingly, depressingly, life-alteringly bad (The Rise of Skywalker), so it was nice to end on a good note.

Sometimes advocacy feels like being in a murder mystery. Someone in this room murdered Mr. Black, but who? Who is lying, who is telling the truth, who is mistaken? Everyone is a suspect; no one can be trusted. People guess wrong and scapegoat each other.

…Or perhaps Mr. Black is only sleeping?

Another analogy: it’s a bit like a logic puzzle. Alice, Bob, Charlie, and David had wine and cheese for dinner; based on the following clues, who had which kind of each? Sudoku or crosswords might be more familiar examples. There are possibilities and constraints; a well-designed puzzle has only one solution.

Yet another analogy: there are infinite lines in a plane, but once you have two points specified, only one line will fit them. (Now add a third dimension and you get possibilities again.)

This is the work of investigation: in the beginning there are infinite possibilities. But add constraints and evidence and some become more and more probable, while others become less and less.

In real life, facts are hard to come by. You have an email record? Yes, but it’s possible the email bounced. Perhaps it went to spam or an old address and recipient never read it. Maybe he saw the sender or read the first line and discarded it. Perhaps he read but misunderstood it. Maybe he forgot it. Maybe his admin read it. Possibilities. (I don’t mention the forgery possibility because it is rarely brought up when it ought to be and is often brought up when it shouldn’t be.)

Instead of facts, usually we have assertions from different sources. You can assign some a priori probabilities to the assertions based on how generally likely they are, but in abuse and misconduct cases, by definition the allegations seem unlikely. Yet they are most often true: false allegations are not common, despite what pastors seem to think.

I think this kind of work is particularly ill-suited to members of your typical non-profit Board. These are usually busy folks with executive experience who are all about vision-setting, networking, building connections and partnerships, and so on, generally with other talented and high-functioning people.

Abuse investigation is an entirely different sort of people skill—it’s understanding psychology and seeing how motives and incentives (even unconscious ones) can fit together. In this kind of situation, facts and probabilities must be divorced from reputations, which are weaponized by predators. Victims and sources are often dealing with (C)PTSD and other symptoms of trauma—not at all the kind of person your typical exec is used to talking to.

So why do I do this stuff? It’s not fun. It’s very personally painful. It’s disillusioning and disappointing, for the most part. But I guess I do it because I think my brain is suited for it, and with churches dropping the ball, someone has to.

Questions? Comments? Drop me a line on Twitter.