Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?
I currently work as the Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent. I’ve been an academic at different universities for nearly twenty-five years now (that time’s gone very quickly…!) and over that time my work has crossed over a number of disciplines including sociology, history and practical theology.
Although my research has been on quite an eclectic set of issues, a fundamental interest I’ve had through this work is on what values shape people’s lives and the role that moral meanings play in society. Over the past eight years, I’ve become increasingly interested in issues of historic abuse, particularly in how abuse took place in welfare initiatives that were ostensibly seen as morally defensible in the past. Part of what I’ve learned through that process is to recognise how welfare interventions like the industrial school system in Ireland or native residential boarding schools in Canada weren’t necessarily seen as morally unproblematic in the past, but that these systems carried on for a range of reasons despite knowledge of their failings. Recognising this is important. Sometimes organisations look at histories of institutional abuse in their work and argue that this took place in the context of well-intentioned initiatives that were simply less enlightened than today’s standards. The reality is often more complex and more uncomfortable than that.
Over the past seven years, I’ve become increasingly involved in researching the history of British child migration schemes that sent around 100,000 children to other parts of the British Empire and Commonwealth between 1869 and 1970. These schemes were often funded by British and overseas governments, but run by leading charities and major churches. I’m particularly interested in the schemes which operated in the post-war period which ran increasingly against the grain of progressive child-care thinking of that time, and in understanding the institutional and policy factors which made that possible.
How does your research or your work connect to activism?
I’m really interested in how we can take academic research on institutional abuse and make it accessible to different public audiences. I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved in a number of projects along these lines. In 2014, I worked with researchers in Ireland and the digital channel TrueTube to put together a film on women’s experiences of life in Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. I’ve co-curated a national exhibition about the history of British child migration at the V&A Museum of Childhood, and learned a lot through that about how objects and images can be presented in ways that make people more aware of complex and emotionally difficult histories. As a spin-off project from that exhibition, I was able to work with the production company 7digital to commission a number of leading British folk musicians who created a collection of songs, ‘The Ballads of Child Migration’ which has been released as an album and been performed at different venues around the country. I see part of this work – particularly in relation to the child migration schemes – as raising awareness of a history that’s not always well known. Another part of that is trying to think about what the factors are that give rise to institutional abuse, some of which might still be relevant today.
More recently I’ve become involved in supporting the work of two national child abuse Inquiries which have looked at the historic abuse of British child migrants as an expert witness. Working with another colleague, Stephen Constantine, we spent most of a year doing archival research that informed the report on British child migration by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. I learned more through that work about how historical research can go beyond just providing context for public investigations into historic abuse to develop more forensic analysis of archival sources which helps to show how and why systems of care failed. By looking at organisational correspondence and reports in Britain and Australia, for example, it was possible to piece together how the British Government had failed to put proper safeguards in place to ensure that standards of care for British child migrants were adequate.
Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?
I came from a non-traditional background as a student and am always conscious – despite the pressures of modern academic life – of the considerable resources we still have in our universities. I’ve always thought that our research should be put to the service of wider communities and that this work should feed back into how we think our academic disciplines should be cultivated and taught.
I’ve been working with the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry over the past year and the work I’ve done with them is going to come into the public domain next spring (so can’t talk about it much yet, unfortunately!) – but I hope that will take forward a bit further some of our understanding of the circumstances in which British child migrants were abused. I think there’s a growing critical mass of people doing very important work on religion and abuse across a range of settings and I want to continue to think about how I can best support that. I’m also going to start publishing work more specifically on historic abuse of child migrants sent overseas by the Catholic Church and (hopefully) the Church of England which will hopefully be available over the next year. More ideas are the pipeline as well…