Redeeming Power: Overcoming Abuse in Church and Society
Submitting InstitutionSt Mary's University, Twickenham
Unit of AssessmentTheology and Religious Studies
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Medical and Health Sciences: Public Health and Health Services
Summary of the impact
In Autumn 2011, Dr Stephen Bullivant was appointed Director of the
European Society for Catholic Theology's research project into 'the
nature, function and location of theology, with particular attention to
the power of theology to overcome power abuse in Church and Society'
(InSpiRe 2013), and with a special focus on the nature and causes of
clerical sexual abuse.
Given the gravity and urgency of the topic, the project's 'impact aims'
have been to engage two particular non-academic audiences: the Catholic
hierarchy, and those involved in setting church policy regarding
safeguarding and the handling of abuse allegations; and the wider Catholic
public (i.e., the Church as a whole). Its intention is to introduce both
to the wealth of academic research being conducted in this area, and from
which the Church can and must learn.
Although the research project was only recently concluded — and several
of the main outputs have yet to appear — a significant amount of both
kinds of impact has, even at this very early stage, already occurred.
Since the project launch in September 2012, major figures from the world
of Catholic safeguarding, at both national and international levels have
been involved in various ways. Most notably, the Vatican's own chief
prosecutor of abuse allegations has described the project as constituting
'an important moment to move from the hierarchy to the theologians' for
proper reflection 'on this most tragic wound in the Church and in society'
(Vatican Radio 2012a; 2012b; see section 4, below). The project has also
received notable coverage from the international Catholic media.
Bullivant has been employed by St Mary's University College since
September 2009, as: Research Fellow (0.3 FTE), Graduate Assistant (0.4
FTE) and Lecturer in Ethics (0.3 FTE) (2009-10); Lecturer in Theology and
Ethics (1.0 FTE; 2010-13); and Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics (1.0
FTE; 2013-present). In September 2011 he was appointed as a committee
member of the European Society for Catholic Theology (ESCT), as its
delegate to the International Network of Societies for Catholic Theology
In recent decades, questions of power, and its capacity for abuse, have
emerged as urgent themes for theoretical and practical reflection within
the global Catholic context. This has, of course, been prompted both by
widespread revelations of sexual abuse, and by allegations of subsequent
cover-ups, mishandlings, and safeguarding failures. The monumental tasks
of, on the one hand, documenting and understanding these abuses, and on
the other, of seeking ways of 'healing' or 'overcoming' them — to the
extent that this is possible — and of preventing their happening again,
have begun in earnest. In light of this, the Redeeming Power
project took as its primary aim the task of engaging scholars from a wide
range of disciplinary backgrounds, and bringing these into contact not
only with each other, but also with safeguarding and social work
professionals, and those in key positions of oversight within the Catholic
hierarchy on this matter.
To accomplish this, an initial network of interested parties from a
number of European HEIs was created, with theologians and social
scientists from St Mary's University College (UK), Heythrop College (UK),
Durham University (UK), University College Dublin (Ireland), KU Leuven
(Belgium), Opole University (Poland), and Trnava University (Slovakia).
Following an initial planning meeting at St Mary's, hosted by InSpiRe, in
March 2012, two outward-facing events were organized: a launch conference
at St Mary's on 4-5 September 2012; and a one-day conference in Bratislava
in October 2012. A third conference, co-hosted by Redeeming Power
and DaKaTeo (the Catholic Theological Society of Philippines), was held in
Manila on 19-20 July 2013. Participants at the Redeeming Power meetings
have included both world-leading scholars of the abuse crisis, and those
at the 'sharp end' of the Catholic Church's institutional response.
Several of the main papers from the launch conference will be appearing
in a special issue of the European theology journal ET-Studies in
late 2013, co-edited by Bullivant. The conference proceedings from the
Bratislava event have already been published (in Slovak) in book form. A
book proposal for a major edited volume drawing largely on papers from the
Manila conference, entitled Theology and Power: An Intercontinental
Conversation (co-edited by Stephen Bullivant, Agnes Brazal, Daniel
Pilario CM, and Eric Genilo SJ), is currently under consideration by a
major international academic press.
Major findings from the research project include:
- The urgent need for the Catholic Church, at a hierarchical and
institutional level, and theologians in general, to engage with and
learn from the emerging findings from the social sciences on the topic
of sexual abuse.
- A new focus on structural and/or systemic factors in
causing/facilitating abuse, as opposed to blaming abuse on 'bad apples'
in otherwise well-functioning organizations.
- Significant parallels between abuse crises within the Catholic Church
(and other religious bodies) and other, secular institutions (e.g., the
Savile affair at the BBC; the Sandusky case at the University of
Pennsylvania), both in terms of sexual abuse itself, and subsequent
mishandlings of allegations and cover-ups. This suggests that focusing
exclusively on 'Catholic-specific' causes or catalysts of abuse
(celibacy, 'clericalism') is misguided.
- The extent to which cultures of secrecy and silence facilitate abuse
and its cover-ups; the need for increased transparency.
References to the research
• Braunsteiner, Gloria and Bullivant, S. (eds.). 2012. Prekonávanie
zneužívania moci v Cirkvi a v spoločnosti (Trnava, Slovakia: Dobrá
kniha) [conference proceedings of Bratislava event]
• Bullivant, Stephen. 2013. '"Always in need of purification" (Lumen
Gentium 8): Vatican II and abuses in the Church', keynote paper
given at 'Theology and Power' symposium, Manila, the Philippines, 19-20
July 2013 [included in planned edited volume]
• Kruip, Gerhard and Stephen Bullivant (eds). 2013. Redeeming Power:
Overcoming Abuse in Church and Society, themed issue of ET-Studies,
03/2013, [including introduction by Bullivant, 5 papers from Twickenham
launch conference, and event report (in German) of Bratislava conference].
ET-Studies is an international, peer-reviewed journal, published
by the European Society for Catholic Theology.
Details of the impact
Although still ongoing, Redeeming Power has already had
significant, international impact, especially in relation to the Catholic
hierarchy, and those with oversight over the Church's response to
instances of abuse (and allegations thereof).
The launch conference featured around 60 delegates, coming from Austria,
Belgium, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, Peru, the Philippines, Poland,
Slovakia, the UK, the USA, and Vatican City. In addition to
university-based scholars from a large number of backgrounds (theology,
religious studies, canon law, secular law, education, bioethics,
paediatrics, psychology, sociology, and social work), the conference
attracted significant numbers of safeguarding professionals. Among these
were psychologists working with abuse survivors, the Safeguarding Officer
for the Archdiocese of Birmingham; and three current members (and one
former one) of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission
(NCSC), including its current Chairperson. The NCSC is an independent body
established by the Catholic Church in England and Wales in response to the
Cumberledge Commission's final report (2007), with oversight over the
Church's safeguarding policies and procedures (see http://www.catholicsafeguarding.org.uk/).
Among the keynote speakers were Monsignor (now Bishop) Charles Scicluna,
who was at that time the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's
'Promotor of Justice' (i.e., its head prosecutor of abuse allegations),
and Bishop John Arnold, who is one of two representatives of the Catholic
Bishops' Conference of England and Wales on the steering committee of the
The one-day Bratislava conference, Prekonávanie zneužívania moci v
Cirkvi a v spoločnosti, brought together leading Slovak academics
with politicians, and journalists, to explore the theme 'overcoming abuse
in Church and society' with specific reference to the Central European,
post-communist situation. Finally, the Manila conference on 'Power and
Theology' included a half-day public event for over 100 theologians,
students, and Catholic educators (including papers from Bullivant and Pia
Matthews from St Mary's).
As mentioned above, a key 'impact aim' among the delegates at the launch
conference was the wider dissemination of academic research into the
nature and context of sexual abuse, in order to inform Church responses.
Part of its impact strategy, therefore, involved building — and thus
fostering dialogue — with key national and international figures. Even at
so early a stage (at the time of writing, only one of the main research
outputs has appeared in print), there is evidence that this strategy has
borne (and this, will continue to bear) notable fruits at both
international and national levels.
At an international level, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith's Mgr Charles Scicluna spoke to Vatican Radio from the launch
conference (as part of a half-hour feature programme on Redeeming
Power, also including an interview with Bullivant). Having mentioned
that the Vatican's own February 2012 'Toward Healing and Renewal'
conference was the Church hierarchy's 'opportunity to reflect on this most
tragic wound in the Church and in society', he emphasized the landmark
nature of Redeeming Power as:
...an important moment to move from the hierarchy to the theologians.
I think that slowly, slowly, we're getting towards a response which is
truly ecclesial — we're in this together, in suffering the wound and
trying to respond to it — I think that's a very important aspect that I
bring away from the conference, to share concerns. [...] We need the
input from psychology, sociology, psychiatry, we need the human sciences
to not only diagnose, but also to have a prognosis and also an efficient
therapy. (Vatican Radio 2012a; 2012b).
In addition to this half-hour feature broadcast on 6 September 2012,
Vatican Radio also published a series of articles deriving from it on its
website (in a variety of world languages). The conference also received
coverage in The Tablet (UK), Tertio (Belgium), and in a
number of other news outlets via the Catholic New Service (USA)
(see section 5, below).
Closer to home, emerging directly out of the project — and the specific
engagement with safeguarding professionals fostered by the launch
conference — in summer 2013 the National Catholic Safeguarding
Commission invited Dr Bullivant to conduct a 10-year analysis and
review of its abuse allegation statistics for England and Wales. This
project, which the NCSC is funding, is being undertaken in Autumn 2013,
and its findings and recommendations will be made public with a press
conference in early 2014, and will form the basis of the NCSC's Annual
Report for 2013/14.
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Head of Theology and Religious Studies, Mary Immaculate College,
Ireland, and President of the International Network of Societies for
Catholic Theology Chairperson, National Catholic Safeguarding Commission
- Van Lierde, Emmanuel, 2012. 'Theologen pakken misbruik aan', Tertio,
19 September, http://theo.kuleuven.be/nl/nieuws-theologen/dillen.pdf
- Vatican Radio, 2012a. 'Redeeming Power — beyond the sexual abuse
crisis', 6 September, http://en.radiovaticana.va/storico/2012/09/06/september_6,_2012/en1-618918
[Half-hour feature on launch conference, including interviews with
- Vatican Radio, 2012b. 'Mgr Scicluna: Tackling Accountability in the
Church', 5 September,
- Wooden, Cindy. 2012. 'Conference participants look at relation between
power, abuse in the church', Catholic New Service, 6 September,