The University of Newcastle, Australia

Gender, power and religion

Dr Kathleen McPhillips is looking into the difficult issue of child sexual abuse in religious organisations in Australia. As a sociologist of religion, gender and mental health, Kathleen has been investigating the impacts of child sexual abuse on survivors as well as the responses from institutions.

In 2013 she attended the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry held in Newcastle and heard evidence from authorities in the Catholic Church about why they did not report incidents of child abuse by local priests, to the police. In 2017-8 Kathleen attended the trial of Archbishop Philip Wilson, the most senior Catholic cleric in the world to be charged with and found guilty of failing to report incidents of the sexual abuse of young boys. And between 2014-2017 Kathleen attended many public hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Kathleen has a wealth of experience and insight into the factors that caused these disastrous events and the catastrophic impacts on individuals, their families and communities. Her work in trauma theory and the sociology of gender and institutions places her in a unique position to assess the work of the Royal Commission, which is the most important inquiry into the condition of childhood ever to be help in Australia and the world. As a landmark inquiry, it has become a major source of data and research on understanding the causes and impacts of the abuse of children.

Kathleen’s work on religious organisations also looks closely at the relationship between religious groups and the state and the various and common claims to religious freedom that are made. She is currently editing an international volume on gender and religious freedom with Springer Press which she hopes will draw attention to the ways in which conservative religious organisations use the discourse of religious freedom to embed gendered patterns which often discriminate against women and gender diverse groups. She is also looking closely at how religious organisations act as a ‘state within a state’ and have their own laws, rules and ethics, and what happens when these laws contradict the laws of the land.

Kathleen has worked closely with a number of research teams at the University of Newcastle including the Religion in Political Life research project and the Religion and Radicalism research project. In 2018 Kathleen won funding to launch the Interdisciplinary Research Trauma Network which brings together researchers working in different fields of trauma including history, sociology, criminology, social work, public advocacy, law and psychiatry. This has produced a very rich conversation in a number of different forums.

Kathleen is a member of the Centre for the History of Violence and the Society Health and Disability Research Group.