Today’s post is by Bradley and Maya. Both are second-year undergraduate students at the University of Leeds and enrolled in a module where they take an active part in a research project. Johanna has got them involved in the ‘Abuse in Religious Contexts’ project and the group (which also includes Joey and Annelise) has taken the initiative to explore rape culture manifestations on campus (the topic of this post), to interview churches about safeguarding practices, and run a Bible study on a text with potential to cause harm at the University’s Chaplaincy Centre.

Bradley (she/her) is a second-year Liberal Arts student majoring in English with career aspirations in the film industry. She’s always been driven by matters concerning social justice, with particular passions for queer and women’s issues.

Maya is also a second-year student at the University of Leeds studying Liberal Arts with a major in English Lit. Home for her is the Isle of Wight in the south of England, where she lives right on the coastline. Although she is not sure where her degree will take her, she has close family friends who run a non-profit that provides housing/has initiated controlled drug use in Vancouver, Canada. She hopes to gain some work experience in harm reduction alongside them after University. 

Pedophile’s sculpture on display at the University of Leeds – and nobody bats an eyelid?!

Every day hundreds of students on Leeds University campus cross paths with Eric Gill’s stone frieze, Christ Driving the Moneychangers from the Temple. To the average university goer, this sculpture – situated centrally in the entrance of the Michael Sadler building – depicts a well-known Bible story. Yet very few are aware of the artist’s sexual abuse of his wife and daughters, exposed 50 years after his death in his personal diaries. This artwork represents a biblical story but also the deeply ubiquitous nature of rape culture and its intersection with the world of religion and spirituality.   

Rape culture is embedded in our everyday lives, manifested in microaggressions and cultural products which vary across communities, countries and social and spiritual groups. Any normalisation of harmful sexual behaviour contributes to rape culture, ranging from the abstract (such as sexist attitudes or jokes) to the concrete (such as sexual violence and rape). Common perpetrators include (particularly violent) pornography, any unsolicited sexual attention, and even our own language. Art is a less common but equally impactful facilitator.  

Although rape culture is everywhere, often the willingness to talk about it is nowhere. This very contradiction is what fuels all different sorts of abuse, in which abuse goes unsaid, abusers go unseen, and survivors go unheard. Despite nationwide vandalism of Gill’s statues there is no disclaimer next to the frieze that warns of its harmful effect in a public education setting. Of course, pointing out Gill’s abuse could be triggering for survivors of sexual abuse. But can ignorance be the optimal alternative? What good can come from acting like it never happened, and stigmatising and silencing survivors even more? 

In our project Addressing Sexual Abuse Scandals in Church Settings, we first approached rape culture, as guided by our mentor Johanna Stiebert, and its intersection with spirituality in so-called spiritual abuse. Springboarding from research into Gill, we delved into other forms of spiritual abuse, and realised it manifests itself in so many different variations – from excusing violence to manipulating spiritual teachings (Spiritual abuse | 1800RESPECT).  

Thus, spiritual abuse is best understood as an umbrella term for the many ways in which people manipulate the power and authority of the church as well as the vulnerability and openness of its followers; perhaps it is best seen as ‘any attempt to exert power and control over someone using religion, faith or beliefs’ (Spiritual Abuse: How to Identify It and Find Help (  

With this in mind, we continued to look at the context of biblical stories and their place in contemporary society. The focus of this blog is a reminder of the strong influence historical texts can have, and their ongoing effects today. Needless to say, the extent of social change that has occurred between the then of certain religious texts and the now of today highlights the importance of context; various injustices found in biblical stories can never justify structures of abuse seen today.  

Being critical of the past does not negate the importance of religion and spirituality today, and we hope to direct this energy towards aspects of spirituality which facilitate rape culture without undermining the positive impact of faith and the Church.  

Moving forward, our project aims to increase awareness and decrease stigma surrounding spiritual abuse. This begins with collecting first-hand research in the form of interviews in Christian churches in Leeds: All-Hallows church, is our first. Here we met with Revd. Heston Groenewald and Safeguarding Lead Penny Brown. We aim to explore how churches seek to understand, and prevent spiritual abuse among their congregations.  

In opening this conversation on spiritual abuse in this blog, we hope to encourage difficult and necessary conversations on how religious institutions and contexts can permit but also resist rape culture. By having these conversations openly we aim to change the discourse for survivors of religious abuse and give them a platform to express themselves, hopefully taking small steps towards a bigger and brighter picture of change. After all, the subtle microaggressions that foster rape culture are best attacked through small and subtle acts, like simply talking about it. Boosting awareness is the beginning to a road of empowerment and change.  

[The image shows: Penny, Heston, Joey, Maya, Annelise and Bradley, at All Hallows’ Rainbow Junktion in Leeds].

So when you next look at art – religious or otherwise – we hope you feel inclined to investigate its context, and consider its place in society today.   

To read more on the controversy of Gill, click the following links:  

The Michael Sadler sculpture was designed by a known paedophile (  

Eric Gill: can we separate the artist from the abuser? | Eric Gill | The Guardian  

Can Art Created by a Sexual Abuser Ever Be Meaningfully Reframed? – ArtReview  

Written in stone | Art | The Guardian  

Tags : Eric GillMayarape culture on campusstudent activismUniversity of Leeds

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