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Church and abuse

Q&A with Joachim Kügler about his new book

There is a new volume in the Routledge Focus series ‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’! The title is Zeus Syndrome: A Very Short History of Religion-Based Masculine Domination, and the author is Joachim Kügler, who has featured earlier on the blog as one of our 2019 activists (see here).

Tell us about yourself. How does this book fit into your work more widely and how did you come to write this book?

I am a professor of New Testament studies with particular interest in religious history and topics of gender. Alongside this, I am also an ordained priest of the Catholic Church, and I am upset and outraged about the many scandals of clerical sexual abuse. This book has grown out of a decision to use my academic skills to find some answers to how such abuse happens – not only in the Church but in multiple social spheres. My first step was to go to the Egyptian and biblical source materials that I knew and to investigate the intersections of masculine domination, sexuality, and religion. I try to inform readers beyond the inner circle of academia to better understand what is going on and why. 

What is the key argument of your book?

The key argument is that we have to overcome masculine supremacy if we want to create a new kind of sexuality that serves as a language of love. As long as sexual activities and symbolisms primarily reflect and promote dominant masculine power and the submissiveness and subordination of women and of men who are symbolically feminized, we will continue to see rape culture phenomena at the core of our social interactions.

Please give us a quotation from the book that will make readers want to go and read the rest.

My quotation is on the perils associated with sexuality: “Penetration in particular is often deployed as a body-sacrament of masculine domination, and as a means to subjugate women (and men). But the generalized demonization of sexuality cultivated by Christianity under Platonist influence is no solution; it is even part of the problem.”

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Announcing the first colloquium of two: Coercive Control

Broken Glass

Kirsi Cobb and Holly Morse recently posted about their important project, “Abusing God: Reading the Bible in the #MeToo Age” (see here).

The first colloquium will take place both in person and online and is hosted by the University of Manchester on 10 September 2022 (10am to 4pm). It features a line-up of terrific speakers, presenting and co-producing in pairs. The event is designed to foster collaboration, co-learning, and research-based positive action.

Registration is now open! Registration is free. Please find the Eventbrite link here.

(There will be a second colloquium in due course. The focus of the second colloquium will be hypermasculinity.)

For more information, please email: abusinggodahrc@gmail.com

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Announcing… an event for postgraduates, postdocs and other ECRs (early career researchers) working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts

Save the Date… register expressions of interest… spread the word…

An event for postgraduates, postdocs and other ECRs (early career researchers) working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts.

When? 14 – 15 November 2022 (times to be confirmed)

Where? At the University of Leeds (venue to be confirmed). This will be an in-person event only and all participants are encouraged to take part actively in all events.

What? Short presentations by participants, guest presentations by invited speakers, networking, focused discussion groups, informal conversations. 

Why? Research on abuse and trauma in religious contexts comes with profound and distinctive sensitivities and difficulties. While categories such as ‘spiritual abuse’ are becoming more well understood and widely used, and with research on abuse in religious contexts growing, support networks are still sparse.

The aims of this event are:

To bring together postgraduates, postdocs and other ECRs working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts.

To create networks of collaboration and support.

To share information about existing resources and services that participants have found meaningful and helpful.

To identify what is still needed in terms of information and support and to discuss ways to meet these needs.

On November 14–15, activities will be led by Chrissie Thwaites and Laura Wallace. Both are postgraduates in the subject unit of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. Because both are busy with internships at present, please direct initial enquires and expressions of interest to Johanna Stiebert, co-director of the Shiloh Project: j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk

If you are a postgraduate, postdoc, or ECR working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts and you’d like to take part in the events of 14-15 November 2022 at the University of Leeds, please get in touch, with a short description (one paragraph) of your research. We will endeavour to fund or subsidise participants’ travel (within the UK) and accommodation costs, as well as refreshments during the event. Numbers will be limited. All participants will make a short presentation to the group (10-15 minutes) about their research. 

If you would like to nominate yourself, or someone else (a researcher, activist, practitioner) to make a short presentation at the event (e.g. about strategies and/or resources for working on topics of abuse and trauma in religious contexts), please be in touch, describing the proposed speaker and providing their contact details. We will cover participants’ travel (within the UK) and accommodation costs, as well as refreshments and a modest honorarium. 

To find out a bit more about the project…

This event is part of a large grant called ‘Abuse in Religious Settings’ (AIRS) funded by the AHRC. It is supplemented by another AHRC grant, with the title ‘The Shiloh Project’, on sacred texts and rape cultures. The AIRS grant is led by Professor Gordon Lynch (University of Kent) and the Shiloh Project grant is led by Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds). 

This event is aimed at researchers at relatively early stages of their career working on topics of abuse and trauma in religious contexts. It aims to create networks of support and collaboration and to identify existing resources and sources of support, as well as needs for researchers of abuse and trauma in religious contexts that are not met, or not met adequately. Together we will discuss how best to meet these needs.

We acknowledge that researchers working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts encounter sensitivities and difficulties of particular kinds. We acknowledge that researchers working in such areas may themselves be victims or survivors of trauma and abuse, or encounter stress and trauma in working with victims and survivors. Additionally, there may be secondary and intersectional contributing factors and it would be good to discuss and address these, too. Hence, other factors may exacerbate difficulties particular to the research: financial strain, anxiety about employability, minoritized status on account of mental wellbeing, disability, gender, gender identity, sexuality, racism, ethnic marginalisation, classicism, to name a few.

Sad Angel (CC.BY-NC-SA 2.0, cropped)

We hope to create a safe and constructive space to take such conversations forward.

Please help us spread the word and please contact us if you would like to participate. 

Please direct all initial enquiries to Johanna Stiebert: j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk

For more information on the project ‘Abuse in Religious Settings’, please contact: airs@kent.ac.uk

[The feature image (of the STOP sign) is by allaboutgeorge, CC-BY-ND 2.0, cropped]

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“Worse than the trauma itself was the hara [sin] of not being believed”

This blog post is by the Reverend Sarah Pidgeon-Walton. Sarah is a former Crown Prosecutor, and is now Assistant Curate at an Anglican parish in Auckland, New Zealand and an assistant chaplain at Auckland Prison (a men’s maximum-security prison). She is enrolled in a Master of Theology with the University of Otago and her Masters thesis is entitled “Nobody Heard Us”. In this blog post, Sarah discusses epistemic injustice, trauma and “hearing into speech” through the lens of feminist intersectional theology in the context of the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care (NZ). She draws on the work of philosopher Miranda Fricker, whose scholarship was also discussed in our recent Shiloh post by Tasia Scrutton.

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More than 1,686 survivor witnesses have given testimony about their experiences of abuse to the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care in Aotearoa New Zealand. The inquiry is investigating abuse of children and vulnerable adults in state care and in the care of faith-based institutions from 1950-1999.[1] Some survivors have appeared at public hearings to give their harrowing evidence in the hope it will bring about change. Many survivors have spoken about not being believed, having no one they trusted to tell, or what appeared to me as having their disclosure thrown in their face. They have spoken of the mamae (Māori for “hurt”) this has caused them, which is sometimes experienced as a hara (Māori for “sin”) that feels worse than the abuse itself.[2]  My own experience of hearing the testimonial evidence is one of descending into darkness, as survivors gave graphic accounts of the abuse they had suffered. But the importance of hearing the evidence and bearing witness outweighed any discomfort I felt. 

The difficulties and disbelief that survivors of sexual abuse can face when they try to tell their truth is hardly new. Nonetheless, the emerging national conversation on abuse in Aotearoa New Zealand gives Christians pause to really think about these issues theologically. Particularly, as a member of clergy of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia (the “Anglican Church”), I am particularly interested in what my church can do to assist survivors proactively with their disclosures and help them gain access to trauma-informed care.

Those in institutional care in Aotearoa New Zealand are usually the most vulnerable: they often come from underprivileged backgrounds, sometimes lack an education, or are rendered vulnerable due to their age, gender, or sexual preference. A disproportionate number are Māori (who might already be experiencing historical intergenerational trauma), Pasifika, the disabled, and those suffering from mental illness. An intersectional feminist theological approach informs us that the compounding effect of all these oppressions[3] often diminishes a person’s power in relationship to hierarchies,[4] and can act to discourage those affected from speaking up for fear of not being believed.[5] This is because, in the context of disclosures, it can be too easy to make snap judgements about a person’s credibility based on such things as their reputation, position in society, and the standing of those who support them.  We can also be persuaded more by the narratives of adults than those of children, due to adults’ superior communication skills and their social status. This means that those who are underprivileged owing to one or more intersecting features of their identity are less likely to be believed as purveyors of truth.

Epistemic Injustice

So why is it that so many survivors are not believed when they disclose abuse? I find Miranda Fricker’s work on epistemic injustice especially helpful on this question. Fricker’s scholarship explores ethics, epistemology and feminist philosophy. Fricker argues that there is a distinctly epistemic type of injustice, where someone is wronged specifically in their capacity as a person who knows things. In other words, epistemic injustice involves the injustice of assumptions about who holds knowledge, and the common prejudices about who can be believed. [6]  Fricker’s work has been developed by others to focus, for example, on epistemic injustice suffered by people with health issues (including mental health), where their knowledge of their own condition(s) and their general credibility have been doubted for reasons such as their lack of professional expertise, their age, or their mental illness.[7]

Fricker identifies a strand of epistemic injustice that she refers to as “testimonial injustice,” which happens “when [identity] prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word.”[8] For example, if the hearer holds racist views, they would be predisposed to disbelieve the disclosure of a person of colour; if the hearer thinks that all children lie, they would be less likely to believe a disclosure made by a child. In critiquing Fricker’s work, José Medina argues that we cannot ignore the role of credibility excesses in respect of some persons for producing credibility deficits in others.[9]

Hermeneutical injustice” is another key concept identified by Fricker, which occurs when there is a “gap in collective interpretative resources [which] puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences.”[10] In cases of abuse perpetrated against children, hermeneutical injustice is in operation even before a child tries to give evidence of their abuse and trauma. This is because a child trying to speak about the trauma of their abuse does not readily have access to the terminology of trauma-informed discourse. Public awareness and knowledge of the causes of trauma and its impacts has grown steadily in recent years, but it is unlikely that a child will be familiar with the concepts and language that others (particularly adults) might take for granted. So, how is a child supposed to express their experience and feelings to people they feel safe with?

A further development to Fricker’s work has been the term “wilful hermeneutical ignorance,” defined by Gaile Pohlhaus Jr as a situation where “dominantly situated knowers refuse to acknowledge epistemic tools developed from the experienced world of those situated marginally. Such refusals allow dominantly situated knowers to misunderstand, misinterpret and/or ignore whole parts of the world.”[11] One example of wilful hermeneutical ignorance offered by Rachel McKinnon is the refusal by some to admit the existence of a rape culture in North America,[12] which in turn refutes any knowledge or testimony in relation to sexual violence and thus perpetuates the oppression of women.[13] This wilful hermeneutical ignorance can sometimes be a result of  what Kristie Dotson refers to as “testimonial quieting,” where the speaker is not regarded as a knower due to identity prejudice and is therefore ignored completely.[14] Dotson’s term, “testimonial smothering,” is also helpful – this occurs when a person believes that an audience is hostile to what they have to say and therefore they withhold or smother their own testimony.[15]

Fricker identifies yet another form of epistemic injustice, which she calls “identity power.” [16] This relates to the social power held by those in positions of authority such as teachers or church leaders. If someone who is responsible for abuse is in a position of authority, they benefit from “identity power.” In other words, they have power and authority because of their position within other power relations and structures which uplifts their social standing. This means that they are more likely to be believed over those they may be abusing.

Some survivors at the public hearings of the Royal Commission have stated that not being believed is a basic form of injustice that caused them significant harm, particularly in their already vulnerable state. This is in line with Fricker’s analysis, which suggests that “the harm [of not being believed] can go so deep, it can cramp self-development, so that a person may be, quite literally, prevented from becoming who they are.”[17]

Many of those testifying at the Royal Commission have had to overcome multiple barriers and obstacles (such as those identified by Fricker) that have served to silence or marginalize their voices in the past. The Commission offers victims the opportunity to have their voices heard and their stories acted upon – it has made recommendations to ensure that other victims do not experience the silence and disbelief they had to endure. These recommendations by the Commission will aid the disclosure of abuse, offer dignity to survivors, and promote better access to trauma-informed care.

Hearing survivors into speech: A task for feminist theologians and the Church

Feminist theologians generally foreground their work with the experience of women and girls and their lived reality.[18]  I argue the experience of women and girls who are survivors of abuse by Church workers (as well as the experience of others who have been abused in this way) could likewise underpin theological reflection and inform our praxis as theologians and members of the Church. As we respond theologically to issues of epistemic justice, abuse and trauma arising from the evidence before the Royal Commission, I think Nicola Slee’s approach to feminist theology as public theology offers useful insights. Slee says we need to use a “methodology of deep conversation … to include a listening both to persons and to cultural patterns … but most particularly to the social and personal lives of the marginalised and disenfranchised from the centres of speech and power, whether by gender, sexuality, race, age, class, physical ability, mental health or any other social marker, and a ‘hearing into speech’[19] of their lives, concerns and knowledge.”[20]

As a member of the Anglican Church, I believe that “hearing others into speech” necessitates a willingness to put unconscious biases aside, to recognize the power that abusers with “identity power” typically use to control the narrative. A desire to hear others into speech prompts a need to adopt a posture of truly listening to survivors; it also requires a willingness to be educated about barriers to disclosure for abuse survivors and how these might be combatted, as well as the impacts of trauma on survivors. The developing body of feminist trauma theologies can also help to reflect theologically on the trauma suffered by abuse survivors and to inform a trauma-informed approach for the Anglican Church to engage with survivors of abuse. Karen O’Donnell, for example, has developed a method to underpin trauma theology work. In her book co-edited with Katie Cross, Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture & Church in Critical Perspective, she outlines some features of feminist trauma theologies and a proposed method for constructive theology.[21] The five features of feminist trauma theologies O’Donnell puts forward are summarized by Carla A. Grosch-Miller as follows:

1) they begin from a place of honest confrontation with God;

2) they are “porous” and open theologies that ‘hold to the goods of Christian tradition, while allowing space for something new to be spoken’;

3) they draw on experience, constructing narratives that testify;

4) they defy convention and seek to disrupt the established order that enables the oppression of women; and

5) they are community endeavours, “standing shoulder to shoulder at the foot of the cross” like the Marys.[22]

From these features of feminist trauma theology, O’Donnell derives a threefold methodology that “begins with a thick description of lived experience, moves to critical reflection on experience and how it is perceived and treated in culture and Christian tradition, and develops as a community building project.”[23] I consider that O’Donnell’s methodology, armed “with a theological vision of healing and redemptive possibilities,”[24] could be adapted to help ground the response of the Anglican church to abuse and trauma in Aotearoa New Zealand. Additionally, the church should integrate indigenous and Pasefika modalities of healing trauma, as well as underpinning their work with te ao Māori and Pasefika concepts, values,[25] and theologies. Lastly, the lived experiences of survivors and the knowledge they hold along with that of other experts in the field will always be invaluable.


[1] The Commission can also hear but not investigate more recent claims on a limited basis (see Terms of Reference – Abuseincare.org.nz).

[2] Counsel assisting the Royal Commission, Māori public hearing at Ōrākei marae (a marae is a communal and sacred meeting place established by Māori who are local to the area) on 18 March 2022.

[3] See Kimberlié Crenshaw, cited in Katy Steinmetz, “She Coined the Term ‘Intersectionality’ Over 30 Years Ago. Here’s What It Means to Her Today”, Time, 20 February 2020, at https://time.com/5786710/kimberle-crenshaw-intersectionality/ (20 March 2022). See also Kimberlié Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8. Available at: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8

[4] Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Susan M. Shaw, Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide (Fortress Press, 2018), 41.

[5] This was a recurrent theme of the Māori Public Hearing at Ōrākei marae and other public hearings before the Royal Commission.

[6] Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford: Oxford university Press, 2007), 1.

[7] See, for example, Harvi Carel and Gita Györffy, “The Art of Medicine: Seen but not heard: children and epistemic injustice”, The Lancet 384, No. 9950 (4 October 2014): 1256-57; Harvi Carel and Ian James Kidd, “Epistemic Injustice in healthcare: A philosophical analysis,” Medicine Health Care and Philosophy 17, No. 4 (2014): 529-40; Paul Chrichton, Havi Carel and Ian James Kidd, Epistemic Injustice in psychiatry, BJPsych Bulletin 41, No. 2 (2017) 65-70; Tom Todd, “Epistemic injustice” in the administration of mental health legislation,” Psychosis, 2021, 13, No. 1, 85-88.

[8] Fricker, Epistemic Injustice, 1.

[9] José Medina as cited in McKinnon, “Epistemic Injustice,” p. 440, n 12.

[10] Fricker, Epistemic Injustice, 1.

[11] Gaile Pohlhaus Jr cited in McKinnon, “Epistemic Injustice,” p. 442, n 18.

[12] Rape culture is also an issue in Aotearoa New Zealand. See, for example, Zoe Ferguson, “Rape Culture and Consent in New Zealand,” RNZ, 7 December 2014.

[13] McKinnon, “Epistemic Injustice,” p. 442.

[14] Dotson cited in Ibid., p. 444, n 21. 

[15] Dotson cited in Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 4

[17] Ibid., 5.

[18] See, for example, Valerie Saiving,”The Human Situation: A Feminine View” The Journal of Religion, Vol. 40, No. 2, (Apr., 1960), pp. 100-112 and Linda Hogan, From Women’s Experience to Feminist Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995).

[19] “Hearing into speech” is an often-used phrase in feminist theology and was first used by Nelle Morton in The Journey is Home (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1985. Slee says it is a phase that is used “to refer to the liberation required to enable women, and other powerless groups, to move from a condition of silence to effective speech about their lives. Nicola Slee, “Speaking with the dialects, inflections and rhythms of our own unmistakable voices: Feminist theology as public theology”, Anita Monro and Stephan Burns, Public Theology and the Challenge of Feminism (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2015), pp. 15-34, at pp. 18, n 22 and p. 30.

[20] Nicola Slee, “Speaking with dialects,” 18.

[21] For a discussion of the elements of a constructive theology see Karen O’Donnell, “The Voices of the Marys: Towards a Method in Feminist Trauma Theologies,” in Karen O’Donnell and Katie Cross, ed., Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture & Church in Critical Perspective (London: SCM Press, 2020), pp. 3-20 (esp. pp. 4-6).

[22] Carla A. Grosch-Miller, “Book Review: Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture & Church in Critical Perspective,” Practical Theology 14, Nos. 1-2 (2021), pp.175-177 (esp. p. 176); see also O’Donnell, “The Voices of the Marys,” pp. 13-14.

[23] Grosch-Miller, Book Review: Feminist Trauma Theologies, p. 176. See alsoO’Donnell, “The Voices of the Marys,” pp. 13-14.

[24] See for example the work of trauma theology pioneer Shelly Rambo, cited by Natalie Collins, “Broken or Superpowered? Traumatized People, Toxic Doublethink and the Healing Potential of Evangelical Christian Communities,” in Karen O’Donnell and Katie Cross, ed., Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture & Church in Critical Perspective (London: SCM Press, 2020), pp. 195-221 at p. 201.

[25] See, for example: Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry, He Purapura Ora, he Māra Tipu – From Redress to Puretumu (Wellington, 2021), Part 3, p 285.

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Call for Papers and more Information about Abusing God: Reading the Bible in the #MeToo Age

Broken Glass

Abusing God: Reading the Bible in the #MeToo Age is a collaborative network of experienced academic researchers, church practitioners, and key stakeholder charities. Led by Dr Holly Morse (University of Manchester) and Dr Kirsi Cobb (Cliff College), the Network develops contemporary research that responds to increasing awareness of and concern about gender-based violence. Within the academic research agenda centred around the Bible and abuse in Christian contexts, Abusing God works towards positive change.

The Sophia Network’s ‘Minding the Gap’ report (2019) recently demonstrated that although women make up 65% of the church in the UK, 62% of these women have experienced some form of sexism in church. This data, along with Refuge’s report of a surge in gender-based violence following global lockdowns and cuts to key support services during the Covid-19 pandemic, means that it is more urgent than ever that researchers and professionals engage in the support of survivors, and work together to bring about culture change around abuse, including within Christian communities.

The Network aims to respond in three key ways. First, it will facilitate transinstitutional conversations between academic, church, and charity practitioners. Secondly, the Network will host two colloquia on topics selected by our stakeholders – 1) the Bible and coercive control, and 2) the Bible and hypermasculinity. These events will pair academics with practitioners to develop reflective, collaborative research papers. In doing so, the Network will offer new contributions to the growing body of practice-informed research in the area of biblical studies, which takes its direction from church and charity practitioners who have expertise on the lived experiences of Christian survivors of abuse and their relationship to biblical texts. Thirdly, building on the foundation provided by this new collaborative research, the Network also aims to develop an education resource pack for use in schools and/or university chaplaincies in their work with survivors of gender-based violence, as well as for Bible study or small-group support work in churches. 

This resource material will offer recommendations on how to approach biblical texts about abuse and/or sexual violence with sensitivity to meet survivors’ needs in a way that is supported by both contemporary research within the fields of biblical studies and survivor care. While there has already been considerable work done in academic biblical studies contexts on the gender-critical issues raised by challenging biblical texts, there is comparatively little research on or attention to the impact these texts have on survivors of sexual and/or domestic abuse who have a personal Christian faith commitment, and even less work aimed at encouraging collaborative work between academic, church, and charity practitioners. The resources we aim to develop will respond to this critical need, by drawing upon both contemporary academic scholarship, and the experience of church practitioners and charities, to understand better how biblical texts have been used both to contribute to and to prevent gender-based violence.

To stay up-to-date with events and outputs, please email abusinggodahrc@gmail.com and ask to be added to our mailing list.

Call for Papers
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