Domestic abuse more prevalent among Anglican churchgoers, new report finds

A crucifix stands outside a church.

A landmark report has found the incidence of domestic abuse is greater amongst Anglicans in Australia than the general population.

The report, commissioned by the Anglican church, also found that perpetrators used Biblical teachings to justify abuse, and that those who attended church regularly were more likely to have been in an abusive relationship than those who didn’t.

Despite this, the research — which includes surveys on prevalence, clergy and survivors in Anglican communities — showed almost nine out of 10 victims of domestic violence did not seek help from their church.

“All Anglicans will feel deep sadness over these results,” the Primate of Church, the Most Reverend Geoffrey Smith said. “But armed with this data we can develop a better response to protect those within our church communities from domestic violence.”

The report, the first of its kind in Australia, showed church leaders were “more aware” of domestic violence in the broader community than in their own ranks: nine in 10 clergy and lay leaders thought domestic violence was common in this country, but only six in 10 thought it was as common in churches.

It is unclear whether they were asked if they had considered it might be worse in the churches.

Regular churchgoers more likely to have experienced violence

The National Anglican Family Violence Research Report, conducted by researchers from Charles Sturt University, surveyed more than 2,000 men and women aged over 18 in December 2019.

When asked “Have you been in a violent relationship with any partner”, 22 per cent of Anglicans who had been in an adult intimate relationship said yes, compared to 15 per cent for the equivalent group of the Australian public. When given specific examples of abuse, 44 per cent of Anglicans said they had been victims of domestic violence, compared to 38 per cent of the general population.

Anglicans who attended church regularly were more likely to have experienced both intimate partner violence and spiritual abuse. But 88 per cent of Anglican victims of domestic violence did not seek help from their church. And, while three-quarters of clergy had been aware there were victims of abuse in their congregations, many leaders said they lacked confidence in their capacity to respond.

Professor Naomi Priest, a social epidemiologist at the Australian National University, said the findings were probably just “the tip of the iceberg”. The results likely underestimate the problem of domestic violence in the church for several reasons, she said, including because of potential recruitment bias.

“The prevalence study uses data from a non-probability online panel. It is well documented that these sorts of panels are not transparent enough about how they recruit their participants, and that the companies that run them do so through a wide range of means,” Professor Priest said.

“We also don’t know the context in which people were completing the survey, which is a particular issue related to family violence. [For example], are they doing it at home on the couch with the perpetrator right there with them?”

Second, she said, “the study also does not include participants who used to attend an Anglican church but no longer do so — and we know that DV and related issues are major reasons why women and survivors leave churches.”

The convenor of the Family Violence Working Group, the Reverend Tracy Lauersen, said the finding that “there is a significant intimate partner violence problem within the Australian Church population” was “tragic” and “confronting” but hoped the insights would help attempts to prevent it.


A crucifix stands outside a church.
A crucifix stands outside a church.

When given specific examples of abuse, 44 per cent of Anglicans said they had been victims of domestic violence, compared to 38 per cent of the general population. (ABC News: Carey Harris)

Perpetrators misusing biblical teachings

The research was commissioned after an investigation by ABC News in 2017 revealed a significant cultural problem with intimate partner violence in Australian churches, whereby abuse was too often ignored, minimised and enabled by clergy, some of whom told women to endure and even submit to it. Many leaders were unaware of the dynamics of abuse or insistent it could not occur in faith communities.

A robust debate erupted about prevalence and the relevance of American research finding that people who attended evangelical churches sporadically were more likely to abuse their partners, with regular attenders less. What was lacking was precise Australian data.

In response, then Anglican Primate of Australia, Archbishop Philip Freier, told The Drum that victims of domestic violence deserved an apology from the church.

A few weeks later, the General Synod of the Anglican Church apologised to victims of domestic violence, acknowledging they had been let down by church leaders and teachings, and promised to undertake independent research into the nature and extent of family violence in Anglican communities.

Shortly afterwards, clergy wives told their stories to the ABC — of husbands insisting their role as women was to submit to “male headship” — a literal interpretation of the Bible whereby the man is the “head” of the woman.

The ABC reported the doctrine was being used by perpetrators to justify their abuse on these theological grounds, as well as others relating to forgiveness and the sanctity of marriage.

The first step is for women to speak. The second is to listen to them. And the third is to believe them.

The new research confirmed this, finding “Christian teachings sometimes contribute to and potentially amplify situations of domestic violence”. Strict teachings on “marriage as a lifelong commitment, the submission of the wife to the husband, unconditional forgiveness, and suffering for Christ — whether they are taught by church leaders, internalised by victim survivors, or co-opted by abuser in this way — are harmful for those who experience abuse,” the report said.

It also found nine out of 10 clergy believed abusers misused biblical teachings to support abuse — and eight out of 10 recognised the doctrine of male headship was a factor “at least some of the time”.

Crucially, however, the researchers found that teachings on equality, mercy and love could help empower victims to leave.

Why is domestic violence worse in the church?

On Wednesday the new Archbishop of Sydney, Kanishka Raffel, responded to the report on Twitter, saying “all forms of domestic abuse are incompatible with scripture and Christian faith”.

But the question of why domestic violence appears to be worse in the church remains largely unaddressed by leaders.


Archbishop of Sydney tweet

Professor Priest argues there are answers in a growing body of research. She says empirical evidence shows “systems, cultures and teachings related to patriarchal gender roles and structural gender inequality are associated with domestic violence, including failure to acknowledge it as an issue and to respond to it appropriately in faith communities”.

Teachings about divorce, marriage and forgiveness, along with “cultures of silencing and denial” have also been identified in the literature.

But crucially, Professor Priest said, the dynamics and drivers of domestic abuse must be recognised.

“Focusing on domestic violence as an individual aberration or sin — as is seen by some of the clergy in this report who describe reasons for domestic violence in terms of narcissistic personality or alcohol abuse — rather than as related to structural, systemic cultural issues in churches related to gender equality and interpretations of scripture, are also reasons suggested for the higher proportion of domestic abuse in churches,” she said.

“The ongoing lack of awareness, knowledge and skill of church leaders and investment in deep cultural and systemic change regarding domestic violence is also likely to contribute to these higher proportions.”

Simon Smart, the executive director of the Centre for Public Christianity, said he was encouraged the Anglican Church was taking intimate partner violence seriously.

“It’s clear that domestic violence in its multiple forms is a major challenge for our society and the church is not immune from the problem — it may even be especially susceptible to it, given that perpetrators misuse Christian teaching for abusive purposes,” he said.

“The Anglican church is the first church to step forward and look deeply into this issue, and that is a hopeful sign that it might be able to take steps to do something to protect vulnerable people — something churches should be in the business of doing.”


Bible verse
Some are misusing scripture to justify abuse of their partners.


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