In the Gippsland region, almost 130 church members participated in workshops raising awareness of domestic and family violence. A report says the sessions improved their understanding, but called for further education. Victoria’s Minister for Prevention of Family Violence says it’s important faith leaders take an active role in prevention.
“Many people at the end of a workshop, or within a small group, spoke in a way that they had great knowledge of what it was like to have experienced being violated,” she said. “A number of women felt safe to come and say ‘I’ve experienced domestic and family violence’, or ‘my daughter has’, or ‘my friend has’, [and asked] ‘what can I do?'”
Sister Rotaru said that given the widespread nature of DFV across Australia it was unsurprising some of the attendees had experienced it. “One in five women have experienced sexual or physical abuse. You can imagine that in a group of 20, four women on average would have experienced abuse of some kind,” she said.
Despite its prevalence, Sister Rotaru said some participants did not understand the varied ways domestic and family violence could be perpetrated. “Many people thought it was mainly a slap over the head or being yelled at,” she said. “A lot of people had no idea that stalking and tracking and … checking on computers, checking on phones, limiting spending money … could all be part of power and control and limiting what an individual could do.”
The workshops Sister Rotaru facilitated were part of a pilot program by Catholic Social Services Victoria and the Catholic Diocese of Sale to examine how the church could address domestic and family violence. Nearly 130 people participated in seven Shining a Light sessions last year across the Sale diocese, which has 27 parishes in Victoria spreading from Melbourne’s eastern fringes across Gippsland.
The attendees were a mix of clergy, parish community members, Catholic school employees, and workers at church-affiliated service providers like St Vincent de Paul Society. The three-hour workshops aimed to teach participants to recognise domestic and family violence, help them feel confident in having conversations about it, and showcase what support is available.
Report recommends more prevention education
Last week a report analysing the workshops was released which found the sessions increased participants’ knowledge of the causes and prevalence of domestic and family violence. The report said further work is needed if the church wants to see a more “profound change in participants’ understanding of their positive role in preventing the use of violence”.
Chair of Catholic Social Services’ domestic violence working group Felicity Rorke said the program was developed after church-affiliated social service providers saw an increase in family violence. “Numbers were getting higher and people were reporting more extreme violence, particularly around the start of COVID,” she said.
“We were always looking for a project that actually meant we could get out into a parish and … identify what was needed … to ensure there were better responses from whoever within the Catholic parish was asked for support. “We just weren’t sure if a woman or a man came to a parish member, or someone working within the parish, whether they’d get a good response.”
Faith leaders play important role
The program aimed to address a recommendation handed down in 2016 by Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence which said faith leaders and communities should “establish processes for examining the ways in which they currently respond to family violence”. Victoria’s Minister for Prevention of Family Violence Vicki Ward attended the report’s launch event in Warragul last week, which she said was an important occasion.
“Faith leaders … have the eyes and ears of so many people in our community who belong to those congregations,” she said.
“To have that leadership and to have people at the pulpit, if you like, who are able to talk about this, who are able to help share the stories … is important for that broader community to see.”
Ms Ward said other faith communities were having similar dialogues, with Victoria’s Muslim community recently distributing a video to raise awareness of domestic and family violence. “The more we talk about it, the more family violence is understood, the more we can eradicate it,” she said.
Calls to continue conversation
Catholic Social Services Victoria is the peak body for more than 40 organisations including services that support those impacted by domestic and family violence. Ms Rorke said knowing these conversations were happening in local parishes would be a boost for frontline support workers. “What we really would love is actually to use the platform and the structure of this program and actually take it to other parishes and dioceses throughout Victoria,” she said.
Bishop of the Sale diocese Greg Bennett said others within the church had shown interest. “The next stage in 2024 would be to help educate further people who are working in the safeguarding area of our parishes,” he said.
One of the report’s recommendations was for the church to “secure resources for further work” around domestic and family violence prevention. Bishop Bennett said the diocese would look to its networks for funding solutions. “I think it would be a collaborative partnership,” he said.
When asked if the government would consider funding future programs, state minister Vicki Ward said she was “open to having a conversation”. Sister Rotaru said education was a powerful preventative tool. “None of us wants those that we love to live in fear and dread. It’s in our power to be able to create a safe environment.”