Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Transitional Justice and the Historical Abuses of Church and State

James Gallen

Why does it seem like there is persistent disclosure but also dissatisfaction regarding non-recent violence and how it is addressed? In countries from Australia, to Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States, victim-survivors have been advocating for States and Christian churches to address allegations of non-recent violence, including child sexual abuse, forced transfer, and illegal adoption of children, unpaid labour, institutionalization in closed residential institutions, and, in settler colonial contexts, theft of Indigenous lands, genocide, and slavery.

In Transitional Justice and the Historical Abuses of Church and State, I seek to address this pattern of violence, and State and church responses to it, from a transitional justice perspective. Transitional justice involves a range of responses from societies to legacies of large-scale human rights abuses. Although traditionally associated with the aftermath of armed conflict or authoritarian dictatorships, its framework has begun to be employed in other national and religious contexts.

Each of these countries has engaged in a range of processes to address non-recent allegations of abuse: inquiries, accountability mechanisms, including civil and criminal trials, apologies from States and church representatives, compensation and redress, and measures aimed at reconciliation. In the book, I evaluate the potential for these processes to address non-recent harms across a range of jurisdictions and contexts. In doing so, the book builds on stated dissatisfaction from victim-survivors with their engagement with processes to date. I first came across this in Ireland, where I live, but soon saw similar trends of victim-survivors first being harmed and then feeling unseen, un-believed, and unheard in State and church responses across the world. For instance, Ireland’s approach to addressing abuse in residential schools, and allegations of mistreatment of women in Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes, have been criticized by the United Nations Committee Against TortureHuman Rights Committee, and Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

The book has four central claims. First, the perpetration of historical abuses forms part of a consistent and intergenerational pattern of violence in the name of Christian nations that continue to be reproduced in the present. Both church and state were interested in the construction of the ‘ideal’ human, enforced with norms of civilisation, shame, and control, with highly racialised, patriarchal, and class dimensions, and violent consequences for those who did not conform to the ideal. This history poses the question of how transitional justice can address abusive enterprises and structures pursued and endorsed by a religious and moral belief in the goodness of churches and nations.

Second, this book demonstrates that both Christian churches and states in responding to historical abuse in modern times, despite extensive time, energy, and resources, have largely sought to retain and consolidate power and avoid the challenges to the foundational myths and narratives of nation-states and Christian churches provoked by addressing historical abuses. I consider that limited re-distribution of power across the four dimensions identified by Mark Haugaard of power as the agency, power in structures, and epistemic and ontological forms of power, is a key factor limiting transitional justice.

Third, in applying the principles and frameworks of transitional justice to Western democracies and Christian churches, the book argues that its mechanisms of investigations, accountability, reparations, and apology are wholly necessary but also inherently inadequate to the task of addressing gross violations of human rights in any context. As presently designed and practiced, such mechanisms may serve the needs of victim-survivors on an episodic basis. However, to adequately address inter-generational and systemic harms, states and churches must increase their acknowledgment of and directly address structural injustices that pervade modern societies and reproduce the harms and attitudes that gave rise to such historical abuses. The book evaluates the limits of transitional justice as currently practiced and understood in addressing historical-structural injustice, building on the excellent recent work of Alasai Nuti and others.

For instance, although slavery is long prohibited in the United States, there remains significant discrimination, violence, and inequality facing African-Americans. There is a similar pattern, repeating and compounding discrimination harm, and inequality involving First Nations peoples in Canada, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia, and women and children in vulnerable contexts and institutions in wider settings. Moreover, although States and Christian churches rely less on residential institutions in attempts to provide welfare and further their stated goals, there remains a pattern of “othering” and associated harms – consider the ongoing traumatic experiences facing LGBTQI+ Christians across a range of jurisdictions, or the use of closed residential and often extra-territorial settings by these States to address asylum and refugee claims. To effectively guarantee the non-recurrence of non-recent abuses, requires not only addressing the individuals directly affected and their descendants, but also vigilance regarding where similar patterns of large-scale, structural violence occurs today, especially when claimed to be in the public interest, or for the advancement of religious (God’s) purposes.

Finally, there is a necessarily tragic quality to addressing historical abuses that occurred decades or generations ago. Even if every wish of victim-survivors were met, justice cannot undo the harm done to those who have died nor to those who live and endure the suffering they have experienced and witnessed. An appropriate justice response incarnates inter-generational commitments to remember and transform the meaning and material impact of historical abuses and includes a haunting sense of inadequacy, rather than justice as triumphalism.

I conclude that despite the efforts of States and churches in Ireland, the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia to address non-recent harms, the approach taken risks remaining “unrepentant justice”, unable or unwilling to divest States and churches of their claims to power and authority and unable or unwilling to empower survivors in structural, epistemic and identity terms. In dealing with the past, survivors may experience instead, episodic or fleeting forms of empowerment, but power returns to States and churches.

In writing the book I hoped to more accurately name the nature and scale of the problem involved in addressing non-recent and large-scale violence, especially violence done in the name of a nation or faith. The book is available, for free, as a Gold Open access title. I hope it may be of some use to the justice causes of all those affected by the issues discussed.

Transitional Justice and the Historical Abuses of Church and State by James Gallen

About The Author

James Gallen

James Gallen is an associate professor in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. His research focuses on transitional justice, with emphasis on its capacity to...

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