Sinners and saints
Kathleen McPhillips is looking into the murky world of child sexual abuse within the church culture.
Seated in the public gallery at the recent NSW Special Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church in the Newcastle Maitland Diocese, amid the victims of paedophile priests, was Dr Kathleen McPhillips.
With Kathleen's research focusing on gender and religion in secular Australia, she gained university ethics approval to attend the special inquiry and came away with a wealth of insight.
"I sat in the public gallery taking field notes. It was at times very moving, very raw, listening to the evidence and the failure of the church to respond properly," says the Catholic-raised Kathleen, who was familiar with the church's culture of secrecy.
Kathleen's research will concentrate on analysing institutional practices and responses to child sexual abuse within a gendered framework.
The issue of secrecy and silence in male clerical cultures will be examined and a comparative analysis of police and church cultures will also be explored.
Kathleen says the Commissioner's report, which is expected to be released in February 2014, will be very important to research outcomes, especially given that much of the evidence was complex and contradictory.
Is it difficult to research and write about this painful issue?
"Of course I feel it, the injustice of what happened to the children and their families enormously, but as a researcher I have learnt the value of maintaining some distance as an important ethical stance, especially in order to stay open-minded and curious and focused," Kathleen says.
"It is so important to record this event: it is historical and monumental for this region and we need to understand what went wrong and how to protect children, who are one of the most vulnerable groups in society."
And as a newly qualified psychotherapist with her own private practice, Kathleen is well equipped to "manage the emotional stuff". She says the special inquiry has been an invaluable opportunity to understand the intersections between religion, gender and trauma from both institutional and personal perspectives.
Kathleen, who has published widely in the field of women and religion, is also one of six chief investigators in UoN's Religion and Radicalism Research Network (RRRN) (formerly the Religion in Political Life research program – the name change now better reflects the network's research focus) led by Dr Tim Stanley and funded by an internal Faculty of Education and Arts grant to the tune of $100,000 over two years.
The Newcastle team of RRRN investigators includes Associate Professor Roland Boer, Professor Hilary Carey, Emeritus Professor Terry Lovat, Professor Marion Maddox and Professor John McDowell.
Kathleen's project in the RRRN team has been to work on two book projects titled Women, Religion and Politics.
Kathleen and Professor Lisa Isherwood from Winchester University, are currently editing the essays that cover law, religion, the environment, philosophy and politics from feminist and post-secularist perspectives.
The aim of the collection is to investigate the status of women in post-secular societies with particular regard to the experiences of women in religions.
Kathleen's work examines federal anti-discrimination legislation in Australia and the impact of the exemption clause of religious groups from these laws, particularly on women.
"As more and more social policy is contracted to religious groups it is vital to assess and research the politics of running social services, given that many religious groups have conservative views on gender and sexuality," she says.
Prior to this project Kathleen had been working on Mary MacKillop, Australia's first national saint, looking in particular at the political uses of sainthood in the construction of ideas of nationhood and the meaning of sainthood for a largely secular nation.
Kathleen's PhD, for which she wrote an ethnography on a feminist religious group, looking at the development and expression of new religious ideas and their experience of the sacred that emerged from refiguring divinity and identity, is from the University of Newcastle.
So when she returned to UoN in 2010 after stints at ANU and UWS "it was a little bit like coming home".
"The school of Humanities and Social Science is a great school and FEDUA is a very supportive faculty.
"The Religion discipline is not often visible within universities but at Newcastle we have a dynamic group of scholars who are at the forefront of new thinking about religion and social change."