10-Aug-20 Abuse in Religious Organisations

Source: British Museum, cited in BBC

On 5 August 2020, the BBC reported leaked excerpts from a forthcoming report by independent investigator Vicky Lawson-Brown into abuse of women and children within the ‘Jesus Army’ or ‘Jesus Fellowship’.

Established in 1969 at a chapel in Northamptonshire, the Jesus Army grew quickly, drawing in the homeless and substance misusers, among others, to live in tight-knit households and communities.

Members worked in the church’s many businesses and farms, often unpaid. Many recount an atmosphere of bullying, humiliation, severe physical and sexual abuse, particularly of women and children, who were seen as subservient to men in the group. Forty-three people who were active in the Church have been named as alleged perpetrators, including the founder, Noel Stanton.

Allegations of abuse were reported on a number of occasions to the group’s leadership. The report names five male leaders who failed to act on these allegations, and therefore, it is argued, were complicit in the abuse continuing.

Although the Jesus Army has now closed, the Jesus Fellowship Church Trust (JFCT) continues to manage a portfolio of properties and assets totalling tens of millions, many of which it has been seeking to divest in recent months. It is hoped that much of this money can be used to compensate victims financially: the Jesus Fellowship Survivors Association represents around 800 individuals.

Since the allegations of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church started to garner media attention in the 1980s and 1990s, a number of theories, notably focused on sexuality emerged: under scrutiny was the institution of a male celibate priesthood and an alleged disproportionate representation of gay priests and male victims. Yet these theories reflected widespread homophobia by inferring a link between homosexuality and paedophilia. (Tracing the emergence of the ‘paedophile’ as currently understood in Western discourse, Angelides (2009) argues that the category of the ‘paedophile’ was homosexualised in order to demarcate ‘normal’ from ‘pathological’ masculinities). Research in 2010 from Harvard Medical School states that, “it is generally agreed that pedophilia is a distinct sexual orientation, not something that develops in someone who is homosexual or heterosexual”. Symmetry or asymmetry between the gender of the perpetrator and the victim is separate to adult sexual orientation (if the perpetrator is attracted also to adults).

Moreover, since these early scandals, we have come to realise that sexual abuse can be found in state and non-state institutions across society: in the family, religious organisations, schools, hospitals, youth offender institutions, sports, or in residential care, to name a few.

Clinical psychologists and psychotherapists will provide detailed analysis of the profile and characteristics of ‘paedophiles’, but as a criminologist, my interest is in the social factors. First, feminist scholars have for decades been telling us that sexual abuse and violence is about power. It is perpetrated largely by males because we live in a patriarchal society and because male sexuality (in normative terms, not necessarily embodied in every living male) is associated with dominance and objectification. Notwithstanding genetic factors, environmental and cultural factors must play a significant role in how male (and female) sexuality is enacted, for good and for ill. This in turn must be an explanatory factor for the disproportionate representation of males among child sex offenders, even accepting possible under-reporting of female perpetration.

Second, publications by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in the UK shows us how the nature of institutions – their structure, their values – can facilitate, or at least hinder the identification of, abuse. Projecting IICSA findings to the Jesus Army, for example, it is likely that perpetrators were outwardly devout Christians who offered refuge; who represented truth, certainty and authority to members; who were charismatic; who asserted traditional patriarchal ideas about female and child submission and sexual passivity; who manipulated loyalties and used emotional blackmail to silence victims. The institutional context meant that victims risked disbelief, ostracism or further punishment; non-perpetrating leaders may have felt reporting behaviour to external authorities risked the reputation of the church and the closed nature of these communities meant that allegations could be effectively contained.

Our sensitisation to institutional abuse is recent. Yet while we refer to cases as ‘historic’, we are actually talking about recent history and contemporary incidence. All the more reason why we pay attention to the research emerging from IICSA, to better safeguard children now and going forward.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

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