Should the SCCA play its home matches at Cousldon?
The short answer to this is, “it depends”. Not very helpful, I admit, but unfortunately short answers are no good at all in situations like these.
My longer answer follows.
Systematic Long-term Abuse in Context
If I’ve learned anything after almost 25 years working in social services and related environments it’s that abuse of vulnerable people by those who with a duty of care towards them is commonplace. Be it physical, sexual, emotional, financial, that such abuse occurs is far from an aberration and very much the norm. I can’t think of a single place at which I’ve worked where abuse by a nominal 'carer' didn’t crop up in some form. Sometimes by a professional colleague, more often by somebody working in a voluntary sector, religious or social organisation. And that’s without considering abuse by family members.
I wouldn’t conclude, therefore, that there must be seriously wrong at Coulsdon just because Howard Curtis’s abuse occurred there.
That said, my experience as a Social Worker (I’m no longer registered as such) has also taught me that abuse never happens in a vacuum. Ever.
Consciously or otherwise, long-term abusers create support mechanisms to facilitate their abuse. In extreme cases that could be alliances with others who are actively engaged in the same abuse. It could be others who know what’s going on but who are motivated to say nothing for various reasons. Most frequently it’s others who choose to minimise the seriousness of what is occurring and others who choose to look away, thereby ensuring that they don’t ever find out what’s going on.
Statement of fact: Long-term systematic abuse within an organisation can only happen if the organisational structure tolerates and facilitates that abuse.
For clarity, this doesn’t mean the organisation or anybody within it (other than the abuser him or herself) actively chose or intended for the abuse to happen. On the contrary, it’s about organisational culture. It’s about a culture being allowed to develop that enables a person who has power to feel – to know, in fact – that they can do what they like and they will get away with it. It’s about a culture that leads to people without power to feel that they can’t complain, that they won’t be believed. It’s about allowing a culture to develop that tells everybody at all levels within the organisation that someone/some people is/are untouchable.
Again for clarity, nothing in the above paragraph implies that an abuser is allowed to operate because the organisation and/or the other people within it are wicked or malicious or stupid. On the contrary, in my experience they are often aghast at what has occurred.
In many cases those around the abuse – and the organisation itself for that matter – can considered to be victims too. They were also lied to. They were taken also advantage of. Their trust was also exploited. They were naive, maybe. They had an amateurish attitude towards safeguarding and safeguarding procedures almost certainly. But then that’s very probably precisely what they were – amateurs. Well-meaning amateurs, no doubt, but amateurs nonetheless.
When it comes to allowing a culture that enables abuse to occur, amateurism is no defence. Good intentions are no defence. They are the underlying cause.
Organisational culture and abuse
The fact remains that long-term systematic abuse happens within organisations because nobody was proactively taking steps to ensure that it does not. There is no development of a culture that,
- has a clear sense of “appropriate behaviour” between members (regardless of level/role);
- prevents the division into powerful and powerless;
- allows and more importantly encourages the reporting of concerns and complaints;
- ensures that awkward questions aren’t dismissed merely because they are awkward; ensures openness;
- rejects deference;
- refuses to tolerate secrecy.
When abuse happens within an organisation, there is only one guilty party: the abuser. That doesn’t mean that other individuals and the organisation itself don’t have questions to answer.
Why did this happen? Did anybody know? If we didn’t know, why didn’t we know? Most importantly: Can we, hand on heart, say we did everything possible to ensure that it didn’t happen and What are we doing to ensure that it doesn’t happen again?
Needless to say, very often these questions are often not asked. It’s much more comforting to resort to the “one bad apple” narrative. Unfortunately it is precisely this lack of proactive investigation and inquiry that leads to the abuse being allowed to happen in the first place.
What does this mean for the Surrey County Chess Association and Coulsdon?
Howard Curtis was active in the religious movement. He was also active in the chess club. The Surrey County Chess Club engages with Coulsdon chess club (I’m avoiding use of Coulsdon Chess Fellowship in an attempt to avoid confusion between it and the Coulsdon Christian Fellowship) in various ways. Should it continue?
To address the issue of SCCA’s future involvement with Coulsdon chess club we have to ask:
- Did Howard Curtis’s behaviour within the religious organisation spill over into the chess club in anyway? If not, why not? Was it merely good luck, or was there something different about the organisation of the chess club as compared to the organisation of the religious organisation?
- What is the precise relationship – structural, staffing – between the chess club and the religious organisation?
- What aspects of the organisational culture of the religious organisation facilitated Curtis’ abuse?
- What steps have the religious organisation taken to reduce to an absolute minimum the chances of such behaviour being repeated?
- What steps have the chess club taken to reduce to an absolute minimum the chances of such behaviour being repeated?
It is perfectly possible that there are reasonable and satisfactory answers to all these questions. It’s perfectly possible that there’s every reason for the SCCA to continue to engage with Coulsdon chess club. For what it’s worth, my hope is that this is where we’ll end up. We’ll only know if we can/should reach this conclusion if we ask the questions, though.
It remains the case that those answers may - I emphasise may - be unconvincing and less than fully acceptable to the SCCA. Perhaps there are no answers at all because Coulsdon chooses not to take part in any such investigation. If so, then, no, the SCCA should not continue to engage with the chess club there.
Should SCCA continue to play its home matches at Coulsdon?
So to return to my original answer, "it depends".
It depends on answers to questions that the Surrey County Chess Association must ask. It depends on SCCA not looking away. It depends on the SCCA not saying “this has got nothing to do with us”. It depends on the SCCA not repeating the behaviour of others that facilitated the abuse in the first place.
I’m afraid I’m not confident that the SCCA is able to handle such matters. I’m mindful, for instance, that a few years back it didn’t make much of a fist of dealing with a county captain who had been banned from a chess website for cheating. What chance, then, of the SCCA being able to address long-term systematic abuse in its midst?
I don’t mean this as a criticism. These investigations are neither easy nor pleasant. There’s no reason at all to assume that a county chess association would have personnel with the skills and experience to handle something of this nature. In a way that’s not so important. Is the SCCA motivated to do something about the situation? That’s the question that really matters. I’m not sure I’m confident about the answer there.
Nevertheless, this is where we end up:-
The question for the SCCA is not "should we play at Coulsdon?" That comes later.
Right now, the real questions are: "Does the SCCA have the desire to investigate?“ ”Will the SCCA be proactive?“ ”Will the SCCA refuse to be part of a culture that facilitates and enables abuse to perpetuate?"
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The disturbing story of Howard Curtis
A correspondence with CCF
A Surrey state of affairs
A cult and an ultimatum