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  • The Trauma-Informed Classroom
  • Kathleen McPhillips (bio)

Short Takes: Teaching the Child Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Classroom

The current crisis engulfing religious organizations on the exposure of systemic corruption concerning the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults over the last five decades continues to cause grief and ongoing harm to thousands, possibly millions, of people around the globe. This includes not only the catastrophic impacts of child sexual abuse on victim/survivors and their families and communities but also damage to institutional reputations and certain religious communities, whose weak, duplicitous, or nonexistent responses to these crimes have led to continued miscarriages of justice. Literally immersed in a worldwide cultural trauma, it is vital that feminist scholars of religion find ways to teach this crisis in ethical and informed ways, so our students understand the causes and effects of child sexual abuse as well as the responses from governments, affected institutions, and the public. Scholar teachers working in universities in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States authored the six short essays in this section, which demonstrate the issue’s global reach. Each author highlights different methods they are using to examine this crisis and discuss how to develop responsible and effective curricula, how to teach in a trauma-informed classroom, and how to frame religious-based gendered violence across disciplines, including theology, religious studies, sociology, criminology, and social work. A warning to readers: information in this section may cause distress. If this occurs to you, please reach out for assistance by contacting local help lines. [End Page 127]

As a sociologist of religion and gender and an expert in the field of historic institutional child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, I have taught this difficult topic to hundreds of undergraduate students over the last seven years as well as supervised postgraduate students undertaking research in this area. I position the child sexual abuse issue as a discourse of power and knowledge, and I aim to provide students with ongoing tools of analysis to understand the phenomenon of institutional abuse as a social and historical construction. First, I situate the child sexual abuse crisis in the larger context of institutional legitimacy and authority in modernity. This is particularly the case for religious organizations whose mission has been to articulate a moral voice to a secular society yet whose failure to protect children while enforcing silence around disclosure has had catastrophic impacts on both survivors and communities. Institutional failure is best understood as multifactorial, and I draw on sociological, theological, legal, and historical analysis to construct an account of institutional power and privilege, and in particular, the ongoing need to elevate protecting the institution’s reputation above ensuring children’s safety. Here, I use, for example, the work of Thomas Doyle, Richard Sipe, and Patrick Wall; Erving Goffman; Marie Keenan; and Kieran Tapsell.1 Second, I position the crisis as a result of culturally based, organized patriarchies in which clerical men have exclusive access to power and status, including sexual privileges operationalized by the elevation of priesthood to a special ontological status that has rendered highly trusted clerics and their behavior unquestioned. I [End Page 129] draw on sociological studies and scholarly research here.2 Third, I refer to feminist theology and theory to examine how the crisis is a result of patriarchal theologies that have skewed understandings of sexuality—in particular, women’s sexuality and embodiment as the source of guilt and shame—and led to misogynist theologies and discourses.3 Finally, my students and I explore the role gender has played in the crisis. The fact that boys have been particularly vulnerable to institutional child sexual abuse has somewhat reversed the historical patterns of sexual abuse of girls in families and communities.

In my classes, I employ multiple kinds of resources for teaching this topic, which I find useful in ensuring that students have access to a wide variety of sources. First among these sources are documents from public inquiries that investigate in detail how survivors experience the aftermath of abuse and how institutions respond to disclosures of abuse. Hundreds of such inquiries have taken place around the world, and many of the organizations that conducted...


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pp. 127-132
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