'We have a serious problem': Baptist Church apologises to domestic violence victims
By Hayley Gleeson
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
November 27, 2017
|The Baptist Church is the fourth Australian church to apologise to victims of domestic violence in the past four months.|
|Graeme Anderson of Northside Baptist Church said he hoped the apology would help honour the experience of domestic violence survivors.|
The national body of the Baptist Church in Australia has formally apologised to victims of domestic violence who it says have been let down by churches' "ignorance" and "failure" to care for abused congregants.
As women begin to publicly tell their stories of domestic abuse for the first time, Baptist leaders have called for recognition "that we have a serious problem with domestic and sexual violence in churches", and momentum is growing for significant cultural change across Australian denominations.
On Monday, Common Grace, a group of 35,000 Australian Christians from different denominations, published an educational resource, called Safer, calling on the church to "collectively and loudly cry 'no more'".
In it they write: "In recent years, the Australian media has shone a spotlight on violence within the home. Communities have rallied to the cause.
"But many church members have not yet been able to wrestle with the idea that they are likely to have victims — and abusers — sitting next to them in Sunday services."
The Baptist church is the fourth Australian church to apologise to victims of domestic violence in the past four months, behind the General Anglican Synod of Australia, the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, and the Sydney Anglican Synod.
The apology, made in a week where women around the world have been sharing personal stories of harassment and abuse in Christian communities using the hashtag #ChurchToo, marks the launch of the Baptist-led 'No Place for Violence Here' campaign to improve churches' awareness of and responses to family violence.
It comes just days after an ABC News investigation revealed a number of Australian women have suffered domestic abuse by their clergy husbands, and that churches of all denominations have too often ignored their reports, hidden the abuse, and failed to provide adequate care.
"Some Baptist churches and agencies have been working to support family abuse survivors for some time," the Australian Baptist Ministries National Council said in a statement on Sunday.
"Despite these efforts, it is with sadness of heart that we acknowledge that in our history we have often failed people living in abusive relationships.
"We failed to recognise the existence of violence and abuse in our homes, and when we did recognise it, all too often we didn't do what was necessary to protect those who were being abused.
"To those people we failed, we are sorry. Sorry for letting you down when you sought our help; sorry for ignoring your pain and suffering; sorry for failing to make your safety and wellbeing our priority."
Apology an important 'first step'
Marcia Balzer, executive director of Baptist Care Australia, which runs support services for people escaping family violence, said the apology was an important "first step" that highlighted the critical role of churches in addressing domestic abuse.
"We are really pleased to see a strong national approach from the Baptist denomination on this issue," Ms Balzer told ABC News.
"It's really important that people in our churches start to understand the issue and acknowledge [past failures]."
Keith Jobberns, national ministries director at Australian Baptist Ministries, said he had been distressed by the ABC's reports on domestic violence in the church but added they had sparked an internal discussion about the importance of creating cultural change and increasing the number of women in church leadership positions.
"As a movement we are very aware that domestic abuse" — which disproportionately impacts women — "has often not been dealt with [adequately] in our communities," Mr Jobberns told ABC News.
"We want local churches to think about … [improving] the opportunity for women to be involved in senior leadership and to have a voice in the life of their faith community."
Confronting sexism and male headship
Graeme Anderson, lead pastor at Northside Baptist Church in Crow's Nest, Sydney, said the campaign launch was "a significant next step in acknowledging the reality of domestic and family violence within the church".
"It will help honour the experience of survivors and uncover the methods of perpetrators," Rev Anderson told ABC News.
Rev Anderson organised an ecumenical event in September called Time To Listen, which saw 350 people from over 70 Christian communities gather in Sydney for a panel discussion about addressing domestic violence in the church.
"At Northside Baptist we are speaking about domestic and family violence often, naming behaviour for what it is: a break in the marriage covenant," Rev Anderson said.
"We have a structure in place for responding to reports of domestic violence … as well as this, we are committed to teaching what we believe is a biblical mandate that not only subverts, but calls for an end to patriarchy.
"We are acting and planning strategically to ensure women are frequently leading, preaching, and pastoring as a way of ending the male-dominated cycle of leadership."
Responding to the ABC's report on clergy wives and domestic violence, Graham Hill, the Provost of Morling College, a Baptist theological college in Sydney, called for church leaders to "cut the excuses and denials, listen to the survivors of domestic abuse, and act to eliminate violence against women".
"[We need to] recognise that we have a serious problem with domestic and sexual violence in churches, Christian homes, and society. Stop acting as though no problem exists, and stop covering up and ignoring abuse," Dr Hill, the founding director of the Global Church Project, wrote in a blog post.
He added: "This can only happen when we confront the way power, theology, sexism and patriarchy encourage sexual and other forms of violence against women.
"It's time we also examined how the doctrine of male headship" — whereby a man is to lead his wife in "sacrificial love" and his wife is to voluntarily submit to him — "is used to support and excuse violence".
Educating church leaders about domestic violence 'may save someone's life'
Erica Hamence, a spokesperson for Common Grace, said she hoped the Safer domestic violence resource published online on Monday would improve church leaders' understanding of the "nature, symptoms and effects" of domestic abuse and better equip them to respond.
Ms Hamence, a minister at St Barnabas Anglican Church in Sydney, said she heard stories of domestic abuse — from people within and outside her own church — "almost every week".
"The church [must urgently] respond to this tragedy," she told ABC News.
"I see it crippling women, challenging their faith, and undermining their ministry.
"Knowing the signs of abuse and responding appropriately — starting with safety planning and individual support services for the abused partner — may just help save someone's life."