Susan, a student and mother, went to a Pentecostal Church in Adelaide for most of her married life. She describes her marriage as akin to a horror story. She says she was "repeatedly raped" by her husband and was continually unnerved by strange incidents that kept happening to her children in her absence.
Bruises appeared, faces were bloodied, weak excuses were given. One day her husband was rebuking his daughter for wearing a revealing top when "she ran and hit the wall" and lost a tooth.
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A psychologist attached to her church told her divorce was not an option. The pastor's wife told her to separate but not divorce as her husband could change. It was not until she came across the website, Cry for Justice: Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst, run by Roberts, that she realised it might be possible to divorce her husband.
Her ex followed her to her next church, and tracked down the pastor who told her — after meeting him for coffee once — that her ex was a great guy: "I can see why you married him! They won't stand up on stage and say, like they did at the church I attended with my ex-husband, that women should submit and God doesn't want you to divorce. In Susan's Pentecostal church, the Assemblies of God, only 4 per cent of pastors were female in , and the national executive board was all male. Prominent preacher Bobbie Houston told a Hillsong conference in "[Women are] big, we can step back from an argument.
Someone has to step down, to leave a space for God to work, and God put it in feminine DNA to do that. As documented by Meredith Fraser , female submission is touted in Pentecostalism as a cure-all for marital problems: If women pray, are deferential and submit, there will be hope. The culture of self-sacrifice can be so strong it lends itself to "a certain masochism". Many Pentecostal women are advised to separate, but never divorce or remarry. They also report being told by their pastors to go home and make love to husbands who torment and terrify them.
In the past three years, alarm bells have begun to ring about the role religion may play in fostering, or concealing abuse. There have been two substantial inquiries into domestic violence in Australia in recent years. Both have identified religion as a significant, under-reported problem. The report, Not Now, Not Ever, tabled in February , pointed to the "challenge" of religious leaders:. These leaders of faith did not see it as the role of the religious gathering to 'lecture' about what happens in the privacy of a home … The taskforce challenges leaders of all faiths and religions to take a leadership role in fostering and encouraging respectful relationships in their community, and to teach their communities and congregations that coercive control and violence are never acceptable.
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In the same month, the Victorian Government established the Royal Commission into Family Violence following a series of family violence-related deaths in the state, most notably that of Luke Batty, who was killed by his father in It sought to identify the most effective ways to address domestic violence, hold perpetrators accountable, and support victims.
The commission received public submissions and tabled its report in March , which made recommendations. This commission, too, noted as a "challenge" faith leaders who were "predominantly or exclusively men". For many women who sought help from a faith leader, the commission reported, "the response was inadequate … some faith leaders were uninformed and ill-equipped to respond to such disclosures, 'often the advice given wasn't helpful because the faith leader didn't know what kind of advice to give'.
Examples cited were of religious leaders telling women that their partner's abuse was their fault, or that they should stay in "intolerable" situations. These responses, with some religious attitudes and practices, the commission found, "risk exposing victims to further and sustained abuse by family members".
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In its final report, the commission recommended faith communities examine the ways they respond to domestic violence and whether these practices may deter victims or condone perpetrators. Within the church, more and more concerned people have begun to recognise the magnitude and seriousness of the problem in their midst, and agitate for change.
Leaders who were previously ignorant or defensive have begun to work to understand the issues; some have been horrified, or at least sobered, to discover the extent of abuse in their midst. A survey of the major Christian churches in Australia has revealed many have developed — or are in the process of developing — formal protocols and resources for preventing and responding to domestic violence in their communities.
Some also require clergy and parish staff to undertake specific domestic violence training, usually run by external providers — though this is often voluntary. Several churches also reported using guidebooks that advise clergy and pastoral workers on how to recognise and respond to domestic violence and abuse. One resource, cited by the Lutheran Church and several Anglican and Catholic dioceses, highlights "unequal power relations between men and women" as a root cause of abuse, and specifically calls out the use of scripture as justification for control and abuse as a form of domestic violence.
A progressive group called Common Grace is also working to build a coalition of Christians prepared to speak up about domestic violence. We need to be prepared to challenge such behaviours — it cannot be excused or justified. And, motivated largely by the Royal Commission, Catholic Social Services Victoria in February distributed a domestic violence "resource kit" to parishes.
It includes a statement from the Bishops of Victoria, who condemn domestic violence and call on Catholic Church communities to do more to prevent it — 25 years after their counterparts in America did the same. A correct reading of scripture leads to an understanding of the equal dignity of men and women and to relationships based on mutuality and love".
But critics dismiss these efforts as slow-grinding, insufficiently resourced, too narrow in scope and fundamentally impeded by a lack of female leaders. Taboos remain intact, the subject is still shrouded with shame, and efforts stymied by misinformation. Roberts, who was in an abusive marriage for six years, now co-leads the website A Cry For Justice, where victims of domestic abuse can find support and resources and Christian men and women can learn about this issue from a biblical perspective.
She has corresponded with hundreds of thousands of church-going survivors of abuse — with more than a million visitors to her site in the past five years — and says overall, "a few churches are making efforts to tackle it but their efforts are not nearly meeting the need". As for domestic violence experts outside the church, Roberts says, "many churches are wary of [them] because they assume they are all infected with the virus of feminism".
What is clear from the women interviewed by ABC News is that they do not resent the church — they urgently seek its reform. Louise, a mother of five children living in Brisbane, says she is desperate the "church's participation in domestic violence be exposed".
She split from her husband, Bill, 14 years ago, and is still suffering trauma. Bill was her first boyfriend.
Religion and domestic violence: the missing link
He charmed her utterly and they married quickly. Then, from the moment of the marriage, he lost interest in her and frequently erupted in "awful fits of rage". He pinned her up against walls, raped her and controlled her movements. She was not allowed out on her own, even to do the shopping.
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For two and a half hours every morning and every night he yelled at her. Throughout his tirades, Bill hurled Bible verses at Louise, telling her to obey him, and accusing her of being Hosea's wife — a prostitute. She longed to kill herself, and one day walked down to the local railway line to throw herself under a train.
She had not read the timetable, though, and while she was waiting, her daughter ran from her house and found her. Turning to look at her daughter, she realised she could not leave her children alone with their father. Finally, when she was pregnant with her fourth child, she told her pastor what was happening. The pastor then arranged for someone to interview her year-old daughter to see if Louise was telling the truth. They concluded that Bill just had a bad temper. When a pastor from their Pentecostal church came to visit, he did not make it past the front door.
Even this did not trigger alarm bells. The attitude of the church, she says, was "cold and callous. Really, really cold". The next person who came to their house was a Christian lawyer from the church who told her bluntly: "God doesn't like divorce. I had been isolated for so long, I don't know how to live a proper life. Sometimes she gets up on a Sunday morning and gets dressed for church, but just sits on the end of her bed. I did believe in female submission — it is meant to be submission to love. It is meant to be a relationship of protection and love.
What is required is substantial cultural change, of the scale that was required for the church to take sexual abuse of children seriously, says retired Bishop John Harrower of Tasmania. As far back as , he wrote a piece pointing out the parallels between the mistakes the church made over the abuse of children with those they have made over the abuse of women. The first response of the church was to not hear, to not believe it was happening, he wrote.
The second was to treat abuse as "a one-off moral failure", which saw perpetrators moved from state to state, parish to parish, without being punished for their crimes. Another mistake was to think simply having a quiet word to the abuser and giving advice to the victim to forgive will solve anything, to fail to consult counsellors — and, surely, police. What has been lacking in church communities, counsellors say, as it also is in the broader society, is first, an understanding of the psychology of violent men, and a recognition of how unlikely is it that they can change. The main problem, Roberts says, is that churches are too easily hoodwinked by the charm and manipulation of abusers:.
The abuser typically has a Dr Jekyll persona that depicts him or occasionally her as a wonderful and godly man, so that no-one would suspect the truth … If the victim reports the abuse to church leaders, the abuser is skilled at shifting blame, evading accountability, and pretending repentance and reformation.
The vast majority of church leaders aren't discerning enough to detect these tactics of abusers for what they are: lies [and] often advise the victim to remain with or return to the abuser. A theme common to all of the interviews ABC News conducted with survivors of intimate partner violence was that they did not know what it was they were suffering until they saw a website, or pamphlet, outlining the nature of domestic violence. This is especially the case for those who were abused not physically but sexually, financially, emotionally and verbally.
Almost every single woman who had experienced abuse in her marriage told ABC News her husband had raped her. What has also been lacking, according to Anglican Isabella Young, who left her first marriage because of her Christian husband's violence and abuse, and is now actively trying to force the church to take domestic violence seriously by authoring a book on the subject, is a clear indication that abuse is grounds for divorce — not just in the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of God. She says: "Confusion still evident among a sizeable proportion of clergy and in published Sydney Anglican Church documents on this issue causes much pain and confusion among abuse victims.
Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies says divorce should be avoided, but that if it could be "proven" that a man had "ignored and overturned his commitment to Christ as a Christian man", divorce could be acceptable. As was the case with clergy who abused children, clergy who abuse their wives have also been encouraged — or allowed — to move from state to state. Tabitha, now 59 and living in Sydney, was married to an Anglican clergyman who emotionally, financially and sexually abused her for decades, and who was moved to another part of the country when exposed.
He demanded to know where she was at all times and she was not allowed to use an ATM or drink lemonade without his permission. He threatened divorce if she cut her hair and constantly accused her of cheating on him. For years she dreamed of leaving, but it was not until he told her, out on a walk one day, that if she did not comply with a "depraved" list of sexual demands, he would divorce her.
She refused. She sought the support of local bishops without luck; they refused to believe he had behaved badly.
Her husband moved to another state, to head up another parish. Today, Tabitha has rebuilt her life, is working and is finally debt free after enduring a financially crippling divorce. Her two children are almost grown. But she suffers from depression, has no savings and will need to leave Sydney once she retires because she can't afford the rent.
Sitting at a conference table in her office, sipping tea, a gently spoken Tabitha told ABC News: "Even in the darkest days, I never felt that God had deserted me, only the church. Names have been changed to protect those in this piece who have survived domestic violence.
Their efforts to address domestic violence are reported in greater detail in the article: Australian church leaders call for urgent response to domestic violence. Topics: domestic-violence , feminism , divorce , christianity , religious-leaders , women , royal-commissions , australia. First posted July 18, If you have inside knowledge of a topic in the news, contact the ABC.
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