Domestic Violence in the Church: When Women Are Believed, Change Will Happen
By Julia Baird
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
May 23, 2018
|PHOTO: Christian women survivors of domestic violence wore wigs during our interviews to protect their identities. (ABC News: Tom Hancock)|
The white Styrofoam heads stand on shelves in neat, solemn rows in a little-used backroom of the ABC. Their faces are devoid of colour; blank, anonymous, unknown.
These mannequin skulls hold the national broadcaster's collection of wigs; long blonde bobs, smooth brunette locks, ginger beehives, afros, mullets, perms, and shaggy manes.
Over the decades, these wigs have been fixed to the heads of Australian actors and comedians for skits and dramas and children's shows.
Sometimes TV producers also borrow them for stories where interviewees need to keep their identities hidden, for legal, safety or other reasons.
Which is what we did when reporting on women in church communities who experienced decades of domestic violence, and wanted to speak to us but needed their identities protected. They didn't want violent ex-husbands to hunt them down and seek revenge, or to expose their children to shame or suffering.
It's a painstaking process interviewing survivors of domestic violence.
First, hours of quiet conversation, conducted when children are at school, or arranged in city bars or suburban gardens, and usually punctuated by tears. Then, follow-up calls or visits — sometimes to hospitals or rehab centres — to ensure they haven't been triggered or traumatised by talking about their experiences.
Next, if they decide to tell their stories to embolden others, we need to determine the logistics of protecting identities; technology that lowers voices, camera shots that focus on hands or backs of heads or angle through vases full of water.
When my colleagues and I boarded flights for interviews in other states, wigs and tissues were jammed in overhead compartments alongside notebooks.
For the past year, my colleague Hayley Gleeson and I have been investigating how religion and faith intersect with domestic violence; how it might impact the behaviour of perpetrators or shape the actions of victims, and how women in faith communities might have particular vulnerabilities, or, especially, concerns about how their leaders respond to them.
Our first piece, on Islam, did not evoke a single word of protest. But when we wrote about the church, a volcano of comment erupted.
And in the ensuing maelstrom, somehow two American professors were looped into a local culture war exclusively conducted by men that, briefly, almost completely drowned out the words of women in print and on TV.
The women had waited until bursting point before giving their testimony, but behind their wigs, their faces remained blank. And behind the barrage of public commentary and immense web traffic, in many places, their stories remained unheard.
It was astonishing to watch. The stories of the Christian women we interviewed were brutal: repeated rape, verbal assault, physical beatings, complete financial control, needing to ask permission for simple things such as drinking lemonade, or going to the shops.
Their treatment had resulted in destroyed lives, shattered self-esteem, and suicide attempts. Husbands tried to use scripture to control their wives, demanding female obedience to male abuse.
Some were married to clergy or church leaders
And in very many cases the local pastors did not believe the women when they told them of their stories. Or they told them to submit to their husbands, endure, and stay.
We spoke to more than 250 people, including counsellors, church workers, psychologists, clergy, theologians, social workers, sociologists, and survivors to try and fathom what the cultural issues were: an emphasis on forgiveness and submission at all costs, a dearth of female leadership, stigma surrounding divorce even as a consequence of abuse, lack of understanding of what domestic abuse was and how to respond, reluctance to believe the stories of women, and an unwillingness to respond with any urgency.
In many stories, one theme kept emerging repeatedly: abusers were twisting some Bible verses to tell women to endure violence.
The thought that words from sacred scriptures could be used to perpetrate abuse naturally horrifies many church leaders, especially those who have never spoken to victims of abuse, and who insist it is both improbable and incredible.
The insistence by many public Christian voices that churches are safer places because a religion of love and selfless kindness should be anathema to abuse has blinded, and still blinds many, to what was, and is, occurring in their midst.
Overall, we heard repeatedly from counsellors and psychologists that Christian women are less likely to leave abusive marriages, more likely to blame themselves for abuse, more prone to believe the abuse will change, and unlikely to be protected by their pastors.
We found many women felt forced to leave a church when they left a relationship; that they felt forced to choose between faith and safety, and their faith was severely challenged as result.
On the day we published our first story, Twitter and Facebook lit up: the piece would be read by nearly half a million people. On the second day, at least the same number watched the TV report on 7.30.
On the third day, I received death threats.
What I did not know until a few weeks later is that the church had long known of this problem, but had ignored the reports and done almost nothing with them.
For decades survivors have suffered 'private pain'
We had heard rumours of research done in the 1990s, but barely anyone seemed to have heard of it.
It was not until Hayley Gleeson started burrowing into the archives of the Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) at the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne that she unearthed paper copies of two remarkable reports.
They contained findings that should have shot adrenalin into every bishop who clapped eyes on them: domestic abuse was widespread in the church, and a decent proportion of perpetrators were clergy. But these reports were buried and to this day can only be found in this one location.
The first publication, The Pastoral Report to the Churches on Sexual Violence Against Women and Children in the Church Community, was produced in 1990 in collaboration with the Catholic Church, Anglican Church, Churches of Christ, Uniting Church, and the Salvation Army.
It found some clergymen had sexually assaulted women in their families (as well as parishioners), reporting: "The painful reality that clergy are involved in criminal activity can no longer be ignored and protocol is urgently needed in response to these acts where sexual violence … is perpetrated against clergy wives and children."
Then, in 1994, in consultation with the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, CASA published Public Face, Private Pain: The Anglican Report About Violence Against Women and the Abuse of Power within the Church Community.
They reported that women were suffering physical and emotional abuse "in silence": 9 per cent had been abused by clergymen.
Notably, more than half had experienced sexual violence — at 58 per cent, significantly higher than any other form of abuse. One woman said her husband wouldn't give her housekeeping money unless she had sex with him. Another woman was hospitalised after decades of "consistent forced intercourse".
Crucially, the women interviewed stated "unanimously" that it was more difficult to report abuse when a priest was involved. When they did, "they were often bitterly disappointed and disillusioned at the response of authorities".
Many chose to remain silent rather than risk backlash
According to the report: "This concern was reasonable given the experiences of many women who were stigmatised when they did disclose to church leaders."
A decade later, in her 2005 study of the Anglican Church in Adelaide, Dr Zoe Morrison found "a culture of hostility towards women was deeply ingrained and ranged from bullying to sexual abuse." This again went unheard by the national church.
Still another decade on, the serious shortcomings of religious leaders was also established and analysed by former governor-general Quentin Bryce, chair of the Special Taskforce on Domestic and Family Violence.
The 2015 report, Not Now, Not Ever, found that: "Disturbingly, a number of submissions and individuals reported to the taskforce that the leaders of faith in their particular community would not engage in helping victims or condemn perpetrators of domestic and family violence. 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."
At the same time, 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 2014.
The commission received 968 public submissions and made 227 recommendations in its report, tabled in March 2016. This inquiry too, noted as a "challenge" faith leaders who were "predominantly or exclusively men".
For many women who sought help from a faith leader, it 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".
In its final report, the commission recommended faith communities examine the ways they respond to domestic violence and whether these practices may deter or condone perpetrators of abuse.
Again, no substantial action was taken. A few protocols, a couple of motions in governing bodies like synods, the odd underfunded task force.
One woman told the Victorian royal commission that she had sought help from five different ministers and that each of them had told her to stay with a violent husband. One counsellor said" "Be gentle with him, he's trying to be a man."
Another reported telling her pastor that her husband was raping, hitting, and verbally abusing her, while taking drugs. The pastor told her to pray. She then asked him, "What if he kills me first?" And the pastor said: "At least you'll go to heaven."
When data debates drown out the voices of women
There is almost no data on intimate partner abuse in church communities in Australia, a country in which police deal with a domestic violence matter every two minutes.
Most would assume, as the UK Anglican Archbishops' Council found in 2006, that the "incidence of domestic abuse within church … congregations is similar to the rate within the general population".
But in our first story, we mentioned the work of respected Professor of Theology and Ethics at Phoenix Seminary, Steven Tracy, as providing a potentially important insight: sporadic, or infrequent attenders of conservative evangelical churches are the most likely to be abusive. And, as we added in our story, "regular church attenders are less likely to commit acts of intimate partner violence".
When the detail about sporadic attenders was placed in a sub-headline and mentioned in the introduction to the television report, all hell broke loose. It was declared to be part of the ABC's alleged "War on Christianity".
We were falsely accused of suggesting the church was a den of violence and that Christian men were the most likely to be "wife-beaters". We had explicitly said neither.
It was true the introduction to 7.30 should have provided more context about the series and the American research, but we quickly acknowledged this and changed it.
Newspapers ran story after story on our series, and right-wing commentators waged battle on behalf of church leaders who believed their reputations had been wounded. Notably, not one survivor of domestic abuse was interviewed or asked for an opinion.
Worried that the testimonies of the women would be shouted down, we wrote a piece explaining our approach, our sources, our (correct) citation of Dr Tracy, and our extensive interviews, and published it as a guide to the research — but no critics publicly referred to it. And by the sidelines, the women who had scraped together the courage to tell their stories sat mute again, unheard, and stunned.
The fact that we reported that psychologists and survivors say the doctrine of headship — that a man is to be the head of the woman, as Christ was head of the church, and a woman is to (voluntarily) submit to his authority — is often twisted by husbands to justify abuse, was seen as a direct attack on church authority, and a covert feminist agenda.
Then, into the fray waded Professor W Bradford Wilcox, the Director of the National Marriage Project from the University of Virginia, who had been cited in a footnote to one of Professor Tracy's articles. He was not quoted or named in our piece, but he persisted.
"The ABC report by Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson on religion and domestic violence has come under heavy fire, and for good reason," he wrote.
"It is illogical, unfair and quite possibly inaccurate."
We were "blaming Australian churches for a big domestic violence problem", he said, and we should have used American research from the 1990s. Instead, he suggested, "what may be happening" is that churches reduce abuse.
(Unfortunately, there is insufficient evidence for this; yet, when Naomi Priest, a social scientist from the Harvard School of Public Health at the Australian National University, explained why, she was roundly ignored).
Again, Professor Wilcox did not cite a word from one woman, nor one victim of abuse. Why interview experts and survivors, he thundered, when we should have "worked with serious scholars to conduct quantitative, nationally representative research"? Polls, data, figures, and statistics — not words and witnesses! But there is none in Australia.
The core question was this: Is qualitative research enough to expose or tackle a significant social issue? In the absence of hard data, should journalists refuse to report until someone is able to conduct a poll? Is American research on 1992 data more relevant than more than 200 contemporary accounts?
And why had the church not bothered to conduct their own research; even worse, to pay heed to the damning, urgent reports languishing in some back room in an old hospital in Melbourne?
But on the maelstrom went
We published more than 25,000 words on domestic violence that week — with a depth increasingly unusual in mainstream media, including protocols and sermons and analysis — and yet were being criticised because we correctly cited and linked to a reputable scholar in one piece but did not also list all of the dated foreign studies contained in one of his footnotes.
We were repeatedly asked why we did not report on the men in churches who did not abuse their wives, as though when reporting a murder you should include those people who don't elect to murder others.
A friend who is a TV host kept saying to me, if 100 helicopters fly in a day, and one crashes, do they want us to write the story about the 99 that make it, or try to work out what happened to cause the crash, and how to prevent it?
Part of this was a church on the back foot, a church that feels under attack, and which should by most measures be a place of refuge from violence, not a facilitator of it. It got lost in a reputational debate, instead of grappling with the simple question of what churches are doing to protect women in their pews from abuse. And is it enough?
One clergyman who engaged me on Twitter insisted that almost all churches were on top of this issue and were protecting victims. The next week women in his own congregation contacted me, saying they had never spoken to him about their abuse because he clearly did not understand.
But the optics for the women watching were glaring — men talking to men about the merits of research by men conducted decades ago in other countries in order to dismiss the reporting done by women on the experiences of women in this country. Men talking to men about the trauma of women.
I have never in my professional career seen the voices of so many women dismissed: academics, psychologists, theologians, church workers, lawyers, reporters, and leaders. It became obvious that those — journalists, commentators, clergy — who scramble to deny the experiences of women with cries for data that do not exist exemplify and can become part of the problem.
It became equally obvious that part of the solution must be female leadership. It was female journalists who decided to investigate this issue and bring it to public attention, and a female academic — Dr Priest — who, watching the public debate roil, decided to go to the library and check the data.
She looked at Professor Wilcox's regression tables in the back appendices of his book and saw that something was not right: his own data did not back the claim that church attendance was a protective measure against domestic violence.
In fact, it shows no statistically significant difference in domestic violence perpetration by men frequently attending conservative Protestant churches compared to the unaffiliated population.
She then wrote an analysis piece for The Conversation where she argued: "Inference about any protective effects of regular conservative Protestant church attendance on domestic violence perpetration in contemporary Australia is highly problematic [and] runs the high risk of shifting blame and drawing attention away from listening to the experiences of those who have spoken out."
Some did listen to those experiences, however
And some grace did shine through the cracks. The strongest words came not from official leaders, but parish priests.
Baptist minister Graeme Anderson held a community forum with local churches in North Sydney that was attended by hundreds. Anglican priest Father Daryl McCullough wrote an apology later read out by the Primate on The Drum on ABC TV.
"As a priest in the Church of God," he said, "I am truly and deeply sorry if you or anyone you love has been the victim of abuse and found the church complicit in making that abuse worse. If you are one of my parishioners, know that I will listen, I will believe you and I will not dismiss you. I will do everything I can to support you and I will never tell you to just go home and put up with it."
Baptist leader Graham Hill from the Global Church Project published a powerful apology without caveats: "I'm sorry for the way many Christian men have treated women in the name of faith," he wrote.
"I'm sorry and sad that we Christian leaders have sometimes behaved in ways that have made your suffering and shame worse … I will do everything I can to listen to women and children and their experiences, and to uphold their safety, rights, and value, and to challenge the church and other men to do the same."
Meanwhile, there was a round of apologies from the churches. The national Baptist and Anglican churches, the Sydney Anglican Diocese, and the Uniting Church in Tasmania and Victoria all vowed to do better.
Hayley and I sat in the public gallery as the Sydney Anglican synod voted on the apology, feeling the crackle in the room and much good intent. One woman — Lyn Bannerman from Christ Church St Laurence — was the only dissenting voice, saying she supported the policy but rejected its references to wifely "submission".
She called on the diocese to stop telling women to submit to men, saying, "We cannot assert with any credibility that we oppose all forms of abuse … and continue to use the word submit. The current meaning [of 'submit'] relates to behaviour that this policy rejects completely, but we continue to assert that 'submit' is a biblical truth for marriage. Something has to give here."
The public gallery loudly applauded Bannerman, but her sentiments were politely ignored. The motion was passed.
When I walked outside with Hayley to decompress over a drink, we bumped into a woman who had experienced horrific abuse at the hands of her husband, a church leader. She came across the road to the Hilton bar with us, refusing a drink, but wanting to talk. She sat and visibly shook as she told us her story.
Saying sorry was not enough, she said, words meant nothing to her or her support group, comprised solely of women who had married abusive priests.
And we realised that, even as we were sitting down to write an article about the apology of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, the story was much worse than we had thought.
The risk of speaking publicly is real
The clergy wives were coming out now and they were angry. Woman after woman told me about husbands choking them, forcing themselves on them, issuing sexual ultimatums, assaulting them in their sleep.
They spoke of fear and discovering pornographic obsessions and men who thought they were fully entitled to the bodies of their wives — that, as one survivor told me, the whole idea of consent is given away at the altar.
Many women did not at first understand it was rape. Many felt they did not have the right to say no, that sex was the "glue that held relationships together".
And so it continued for years. These women are not wealthy; most struggle to pay bills, living in suburbs on far outer-stretches of cities, trying to rebuild lives without the scaffolding of finance or secure jobs, without the security of a spouse or house as a harness. The risk of speaking publicly, even anonymously, is real.
Often Hayley and I would call each other as we pulled away from houses in cars or cabs, almost mute with the cruelty of what we had heard.
It's the small details that can preoccupy you when you fear for someone who has suffered greatly: the woman who said rats were nesting in her house and garden, whose sleep was mottled with sounds of scratching and scampering.
Policies and protocols are just a beginning. Over the past few years we have begun to understand abuse of children; the next, connected question is — what about the abuse of women?
What is needed now is profound cultural change
A reckoning. A broad education about the way abusers manipulate, obfuscate, control, and the way shame operates. An understanding that some perpetrators are leaders, some in the high echelons of the church.
Some programs are being developed, but they are usually poorly resourced, slow-grinding, and voluntary. Without repercussions or vigilance, protocols lack muscle.
Clergy wives are still impoverished when they leave abusers. The instinct of the church must shift from protecting reputations to protecting the vulnerable.
After all, surely the best way to defend the reputation of an institution is to leap to the aid of the abused before leaping to press the mute button for fear of shame. You can shoot messengers, but then what? More will come eventually.
The series we have run on the way faith communities respond to domestic abuse wasn't about two reporters being mischievous or angry, or driving a "feminist agenda" — noting, of course, that too often in the church men are said to have "convictions" while women have "agendas" — or trying to drive a stake into the heart of an ancient faith.
A call for justice and truth, for transparency, love and healing is the heart of this ancient faith. What we were doing was reporting. We were giving voice to those who didn't have any, who weren't being heard or believed, who came to journalists they trusted when they were desperate.
As we stated repeatedly, they were seeking not the destruction of the church, but its reform.
These are the voices calling for a world where women don't sit for television interviews wearing wigs, shaking, crying, twisting fingers, anxious and afraid. Where women don't have to hide their faces to speak, where they shift from foam mannequin to living, breathing, speaking beings.
The first step is for women to speak. The second is to listen to them. And the third is to believe them.
When women are believed, the church will change.