Research shows that the men most likely to abuse their wives are evangelical Christians who attend church sporadically*. Church leaders in Australia say they abhor abuse of any kind. But advocates say the church is not just failing to sufficiently address domestic violence, it is both enabling and concealing it.
The culprits were obvious: it was the menopause or the devil.
Who else could be blamed, Peter screamed at his wife in nightly tirades, for her alleged insubordination, for her stupidity, her lack of sexual pliability, her refusal to join him on the ‘Tornado’ ride at a Queensland waterpark, her annoying friendship with a woman he called “Ratface”? For her sheer, complete failure as a woman?
Family and domestic violence support services:
- 1800 Respect national helpline: 1800 737 732
- Women’s Crisis Line: 1800 811 811
- Men’s Referral Service: 1300 766 491
- Lifeline (24-hour crisis line): 131 114
- Relationships Australia: 1300 364 277
The abuse went on, day and night, as Sally bore a child, worked morning shifts at the local hospital and stayed up late pumping breast milk for her baby.
She was deeply exhausted, depleted and worn.
The night before Sally finally left her husband and the townhouse they lived in on Sydney’s northern beaches he told her she was also failing her spiritual duties.
“Your problem is you won’t obey me. The Bible says you must obey me and you refuse,” he yelled. “You are a failure as a wife, as a Christian, as a mother. You are an insubordinate piece of s**t.”
Sally, an executive assistant who had just turned 44, stared at him, worrying about whether her neighbours — or her sleeping daughter — could hear his roars through the thin walls.
She knew what had “flicked his switch”: the simple act of coming down to say goodnight, which he interpreted as a lack of willingness to have sex.
Peter then opened his Bible and read out some verses:
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour.”
Ephesians 5: 22-23
“Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; rather, she is to remain silent.”
1 Timothy 2: 11-12
For years, Sally had believed that God wanted her to submit to her husband, and she did her best, bending to his will and working to pay the bills, despite the pain she was in.
But on this night, she was done. The next morning, she packed up her bags, grabbed some clothes for her daughter and left, taking the little girl with her.
She left everything else behind.
Religion and domestic violence: the missing link
When we speak of domestic violence, and the cultural factors that foment it, one crucial element missing from the discussion has been religion.
While it is generally agreed that inequality between the sexes can foster and cultivate environments where men seek to control or abuse women, in Australia there has been very little public debate about how this might impact people in male-led congregations and religious communities, especially those where women are told to be silent and submit to male authority.
In other countries, like the United States and United Kingdom, there has been extensive analysis. So why is Australia so behind on this issue?
In the past couple of years, concern has been growing amongst those working with survivors of domestic violence about the role the Christian church of all denominations can either consciously or inadvertently play in allowing abusive men to continue abusing their wives.
The questions are these: do abused women in church communities face challenges women outside them do not?
Do perpetrators ever claim church teachings on male control excuse their abuse, or tell victims they must stay?
Why have there been so few sermons on domestic violence? Why do so many women report that their ministers tell them to stay in violent marriages?
Is the stigma surrounding divorce still too great, and unforgiving? Is this also a problem for the men who are abused by their wives — a minority but nonetheless an important group?
And if the church is meant to be a place of refuge for the vulnerable, why is it that the victims are the ones who leave churches while the perpetrators remain?
Is it true — as one Anglican bishop has claimed — that there are striking similarities to the church’s failure to protect children from abuse, and that this next generation’s reckoning will be about the failure in their ranks to protect women from domestic violence?
A 12-month ABC News and 7.30 investigation involving dozens of interviews with survivors of domestic violence, counsellors, priests, psychologists and researchers from a range of Christian denominations — including Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Pentecostal and Presbyterian — has discovered the answers to these questions will stun those who believe the church should protect the abused, not the abusers.
‘I felt that I was almost being raped’
Sally met Peter when she was in her mid-30s, and had been praying for a husband. She wasn’t instantly attracted to him but was charmed by the deluge of flowers and love letters he sent. She grew to believe she was meant to be with him.
She overlooked the fact that she had to buy her own engagement ring and agreed to marry him not long after their meeting.
Peter’s personality changed on the first day of their honeymoon, when he yelled at her for sleeping in, and made plans to go fishing for days without her.
Her bible study leader told her later that she looked like the saddest bride he had ever seen.
The abuse quickly escalated as Peter drank, gambled and demanded sex every second night, usually after having yelled at her for hours.
She later wrote in a statement prepared for court: “If I refused, he would become incandescent with rage. It was easier to give in than argue. Those nights I felt that I was almost being raped.”
Once he forced her to have sex just three weeks after giving birth.
Sally found little comfort in her Pentecostal church, which she had turned to repeatedly. Counsellors there simply advised her to forgive him. She also told her pastor her story, but no one followed it up.
The violence mounted until one day her husband threw their three-year-old daughter across the room after the toddler accidentally bumped his leg.
When she left Peter, Sally also left her church parish, feeling isolated and unwanted as a single mother.
Ten years later, she is still shattered. She wishes she had heard just one sermon on domestic violence, or had one supportive ear.
The Christian men more likely to assault their wives
The fact that domestic violence occurs in church communities is well established. Queensland academic Dr Lynne Baker’s 2010 book, Counselling Christian Women on How to Deal with Domestic Violence, cites a study of Anglican, Catholic and Uniting churches in Brisbane that found 22 per cent of perpetrators of domestic violence and abuse go to church regularly.
But American research provides one important insight: men who attend church less often are most likely to abuse their wives. (Regular church attenders are less likely to commit acts of intimate partner violence.)
Those who are often on the periphery, in other words, who sometimes float between parishes, or sit in the back pews. For these men, the rate of abuse committed is alarmingly high.
As theology professor Steven Tracy wrote in 2008:
It is widely accepted by abuse experts (and validated by numerous studies) that evangelical men who sporadically attend church are more likely than men of any other religious group (and more likely than secular men) to assault their wives.”
Some attribute these findings to the conservative denominations and churches that preach and model male control, with male-only priesthoods and inviolate teachings on male authority.
Adelaide’s Anglican Assistant Bishop Tim Harris says, “it is well recognised that males (usually) seeking to justify abuse will be drawn to misinterpretations [of the Bible] to attempt to legitimise abhorrent attitudes.”
Stressing that his diocese “strongly rejected” any teachings on male superiority, he told ABC News: “This has been a particular concern for those coming out of evangelical and fundamentalist backgrounds.”Sorry, this video has expiredVIDEO: Julia Baird and Anglican priest Michael Jensen discuss domestic violence and the Church.(ABC News)
In Australia, it is widely accepted that gender inequality is a contributing factor to violence against women.
The Australian Institute of Family Studies probed this question and concluded: “The vital element to consider is the gender norms and beliefs surrounding male dominance and male superiority, created by power hierarchies that accord men greater status.”
This is confirmed by global research. A study published in the Lancet in 2015 analysed data from 66 surveys across 44 countries, covering the experiences of almost half a million women.
It found that the greatest predictor of partner violence was “environments that support male control”, especially “norms related to male authority over female behaviour”.
The past two decades of research has also shown women in religious communities are less likely to leave violent marriages, more likely to believe that the abuser will change, less inclined to access community resources and more likely to believe it is their fault; that they have failed as wives as they were not able to stop the abuse.
A culture of victim blaming or shaming can cause women to exit the church entirely. The most common story in the dozens heard by ABC News is that when marriages break, the men stay and the women leave.
The CEO of Safe Steps Family Violence Centre, Annette Gillespie, says that in 20 years of working with victims of domestic violence, she found it was “extremely common” that women will be “encouraged by the church to stay in an abusive relationship”.
“I know that for many women the experience of violence was worsened by the lack of support people turned to in the church,” she said.
“Often people say it is the guilt of going against the church teaching that leads them to stay in relationships well beyond a time they should leave because they are trying to please the church as well as please their partners … they often feel they will have to choose between leaving religion or violence.
“So when they leave a relationship, they leave a church.”
Women in faith communities where divorce is shunned, and shameful, often feel trapped in abusive marriages.
In a submission to the Royal Commission on Family Violence, one Victorian woman wrote that five different ministers had told her to remain with a violent husband.
A church counsellor told her: “Be gentle with him, he’s trying to be a man.”
This is particularly true in the Catholic Church, where divorce is forbidden, as will be explored in greater detail in an upcoming instalment of this series.
If pastors prevaricate, or fumble, it could be too late. New research finds women in the church usually only go to their pastors when partners do something so violent they fear they will die.
After 25-year-old Wubanchi Asefaw was told by her church leaders to return to her husband in early 2014, he stabbed her to death in their western Sydney home shortly afterwards.
The abuse of the Bible
Unlike the Koran, there are no verses in the Bible that may be read as overtly condoning domestic abuse.
To the contrary, it is made clear that God hates violence and relationships must be driven by selflessness, grace and love.
There is no mainstream theologian in Australia who would suggest that a church should be anything but a sanctuary, or that a Christian relationship be marked by anything but love.
But church counsellors and survivors of family violence report that many abusive men, like Sally’s husband, rely on twisted — or literalist — interpretation of Bible verses to excuse their abuse.
Baker, whose 2010 book on counselling abused Christian women sprang from years of doctoral research, writes: “biblical principles and scriptures may be used by the perpetrator as a point of authority to condone his actions, or perhaps to ‘prove’ to the victim that she is not fulfilling her marital obligations.”
Abusive men commonly refer to several different parts of the Bible.
First are the verses — cited by Sally’s husband Peter, above — telling women to submit to their husbands and male authority, under the doctrine known as male headship.
Second are verses that say God hates divorce.
And third are those in 1 Peter that tell women to submit to husbands in a very particular way, as they follow instructions to slaves to submit to even “harsh masters”.
But Denis Fitzgerald, executive director at Catholic Social Services Victoria, says it is crucial for the Bible to be read in light of the culture it was produced in.
“Biblical literalism is not an acceptable approach and part of the teaching role with the bishops is to help the priests and the people to see that texts can’t be taken out of context — you have to look at the broader intent and message of the scriptures,” he says.
And Simon Smart, the Executive Director of the Centre for Public Christianity points to “what [Croatian theologian] Miroslav Volf describes as the difference between ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ religion — where thin religion is stripped of its moral content and used as a weapon for goals completely unrelated to the faith.”
The doctrine of male headship: What does it mean?
The doctrine that is most commonly, and controversially cited by abusers is male headship, where a husband is to be the head of the wife in marriage and the wife is to submit, and men are to be head of the church.
What submission means takes many different forms. At its extreme edge, it is complete subservience.
In the 1970s and 1980s, literature coming out of the United States suggested it meant putting up with every possible harm.
According to Elizabeth Hanford Rice in her book Me? Obey Him?, this even included physical violence and child abuse.
Three female authors — Dorothy McGuire, Carol Lewis and Alvena Blatchley — even praised a woman for staying with a man who tried to murder her.
Correct interpretations of scripture are debated in ways not dissimilar to those in the Koran; there is disagreement over translation, hermeneutics, exegesis, the relevance of the culture in which it was written, the then-radical attitudes of acceptance Christ expressed towards women and the role of women in the early church.
These debates hit peak expression in the latter half of the 20th century as most mainstream Christian denominations moved to ordain women to the priesthood, to equal positions to men.
Today, those churches in Australia that do not have women priests include the Catholic, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, and the influential Sydney Diocese of the Anglican Church.
Some of these groups have responded to the expansion of women’s role elsewhere by restricting it further in their own ranks.
Today, it is clear proponents of headship intend to teach a form of self-sacrificial love — for a man to be head of his wife like Christ is head of the church, and to sacrifice himself to his wife in the same way.
But there remains some confusion about what submission actually means.
In 2009, prominent American evangelical pastor John Piper, a frequent visitor to Sydney, was asked, “What should a wife’s submission to her husband look like if he’s an abuser?”
His response was that if he was “simply hurting her”, then she should “endure verbal abuse for a season”, and “endure perhaps being smacked one night”, before seeking “help from the church”.
Almost four years later, he issued a “clarifying statement” in which he called on men in the church to discipline abusers, and uphold “a beautiful vision” of marriage where men lead with gentleness.
Another influential pastor James Dobson has in the past advised women to bait their abusive husbands to goad them into behaving badly, which he believed would shock them into realising they had a problem and agree to counselling.
In 2013, American pastor Steven J Cole concluded in a sermon that “a wife may need to submit to some abuse”.
“The difficult question is,” he writes, “how much? My view is that a wife must submit to verbal and emotional abuse, but if the husband begins to harm her physically, she needs to call civil or church authorities.
“Although physical abuse is not a biblical basis for divorce, I would counsel separation in some cases to protect the wife while the husband gets his temper under control.
But even in such situations, a Christian wife must not provoke her husband to anger and she must display a gentle spirit.”
In 2016, American evangelist Kirk Cameron told the Christian Post: “Wives are to honour and respect and follow their husband’s lead, not to tell their husband how he ought to be a better husband.
“When each person gets their part right, regardless of how their spouse is treating them, there is hope for real change in their marriage.”
Time and again in evangelical literature, marital success is predicated on female submission; it is the basis on which women are judged or praised.
In Sydney, as recently as 2015, David Ould, the rector of Glenquarie Anglican Church — also active in the conservative Anglican Church League — asked if it might be “a Godly wise choice” for women to stay with abusive husbands given the Bible teaching in 1 Peter 3, telling wives to submit to their husbands.
These verses follow on from those in 1 Peter 2 that tell slaves to submit to masters — even those who are harsh, or, in other words, physically violent.
Ould, who now works to protect women in his parish and region from domestic violence, later clarified his comments.
He told ABC News his central message was: “I would understand how women would read that passage and choose to stay, but I myself would be urging them to get out and work out what it means from a safe position.”
Male headship ‘providing the wiring’ for abuse
Today, a growing number of counsellors, psychologists and welfare workers are reporting that abusers cite the idea of male headship to sanction violence.
Anglican counsellor from Charles Sturt University Nicola Lock, who has been working with domestic violence cases for 25 years, says the use of headship theology in spousal abuse is “very common”.
“Anecdotally, teaching of headship has been seen to be contributing to the problem of domestic violence, both in encouraging abusive male partners, and preventing female partners from challenging abusive behaviours, or leaving an abusive relationship,” Lock said.
As Dr Johanna Harris Tyler, a lecturer at the University of Exeter in the UK who was brought up in Sydney Anglicanism, argues: “While male headship may not necessarily trip the switch of abuse, it can provide the wiring.”
This is a particularly sensitive point in the Sydney Anglican Church, which is known for its robust advocacy of male headship.
Any suggestion of its abuse usually evokes vehement rebuke and defence from senior clergy. Ministers who uphold headship say their teachings are just being confused with patriarchy, and twisted by those who abuse power.
Those who uphold “egalitarian” views of marriage in this diocese report being sidelined, overlooked for jobs and ostracised.
Some told ABC News they could not publicly state that they believed in equal relationships between men and women, for they would lose their jobs.
And as domestic violence advocate Barbara Roberts points out, in conservative churches women are often taught that desire to overthrow male authority is a sign of sin — thereby making feminism innately wrong.
In other words, if male authority and leadership is from God, any challenge to that is from women’s sinful natures — or the devil.
Kara Hartley is the Archdeacon for Women in the Diocese of Sydney and deputy chair of a taskforce looking into church responses to domestic violence.
She stresses there is nothing whatsoever in the Bible to condone abuse, and that men and women just have different roles.
“The responsibility of men is to lovingly, sacrificially care for their wife, and a wife to submit to his care, his leadership, his loving sacrifice to her,” Hartley told ABC News.
“Now, for many they’ll say that’s submission, and therefore headship, [which] creates an imbalance in the marriage. But actually when they’re put together, a woman’s voluntary … willing submission to her husband, in his loving sacrificial care of her, there’s a beautiful picture there.”
Sydney Anglican Archbishop Dr Glenn Davies agrees, telling ABC News “submission is never coercive, it’s always voluntary, so the wife offers herself in that relationship.
“It becomes dangerous where in a marriage the husband over-reaches and manipulates the woman … it’s not submission that’s gone wrong, it’s the husband that’s gone wrong.”
It is important to understand, he says, that “there is no way in which we countenance domestic violence in any form be it spiritual, emotional or physical, in our church, we are absolutely opposed to that”.
“It’s not the teaching, it’s the distortion of the teaching which is the problem, I don’t believe teaching the Bible produces violence in domestic situations.”
But it would be wrong to portray this simply as an issue in Sydney.
The difficulties with the interpretation of headship spreads across denominations.
In February 2016, Catholic bishop Vincent Long cautioned that literal interpretations of the Bible “provide the basis for systematic oppression or structural discrimination of women and lead communities — even church communities — to protecting perpetrators of domestic violence while simultaneously heaping shame and scorn upon its victims”.
Others point the finger at all-male leadership.
Sydney psychologist Kylie Pidgeon, who also works with perpetrators and survivors of family violence, wrote in a recent paper that women are more vulnerable in churches where only men lead:
“[Men] occupy the positions of greater power and public influence in a church and hold the offices charged with major decision-making and general oversight of the spiritual health of the congregation. Women usually fill ‘support’ roles, such as teaching kids’ church, reading the Bible, or preparing morning tea. While the intentions of men in positions of leadership are often good; to exercise their authority with love and care, and while a male-led structure by no means guarantees that women will be abused, it is apparent that patriarchal structures place women at greater risk of abuse.”
By failing to pastor women, or encourage them to lead or speak, Pidgeon says, male leadership may unwittingly be “giving ‘silent permission’ to male congregation members to similarly rule over and neglect their wives”.
In churches where women are not allowed to speak or preach, they may also worry that they will not be believed.
Erica Hamence, assistant minister at the Anglican St Barnabas Broadway in Sydney, wrote recently that in male-led churches, “women have as much room to speak as the male leaders allow. That’s a profoundly vulnerable position to be in, and one which I suspect some male ministers are not always able to empathise with.
“If a woman suffering abuse wasn’t completely confident that she would be believed, that the particular nature of the abuse would be understood, and that she would be supported by her church’s leader, she would most likely continue to suffer alone.”
How do all-male hierarchies respond?
Almost all-male hierarchies are common in many conservative congregations across denominations — Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican and Pentecostal — as are poor responses from pastors.
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.
On another day, he pushed Susan out of the car and left her on the side of the road.
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.
When she left him, she left her congregation too.
“It was really, really hard to leave the church as I had been there 20 years,” Susan told ABC News.
“Eventually the pastor said, ‘why don’t you just leave, I can’t keep you safe because he is still here’.”
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!”
“Fortunately,” she says, “the church I am at now is not very strong on headship, and has a modern attitude to divorce. 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 2013, and the national executive board was all male.
And, problematically, Pentecostal women are often taught that part of being female is yielding.
Prominent preacher Bobbie Houston told a Hillsong conference in 2008: “[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.
Sex is touted as an answer for many marital maladies.
Momentum for change is building
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.
In 2014, the Queensland Government appointed former governor-general Quentin Bryce chair of the Special Taskforce on Domestic and Family Violence.
The report, Not Now, Not Ever, tabled in February 2015, pointed to the “challenge” of religious leaders:
“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 … 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.”
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 2014.
It sought to identify the most effective ways to address domestic violence, hold perpetrators accountable, and support victims.
The commission received 968 public submissions and tabled its report in March 2016, which made 227 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”.
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.
In other words, whether they conceal, not reveal, abuse.
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.
How are churches responding?
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.
As Bishop Richard Condie of the Anglican Diocese of Tasmania said:
“The scriptural teaching about male headship in the home would be distorted if it were used to justify control, superiority or violence against women … I encourage my clergy to continue to … speak openly about family violence and domestic abuse in their church communities. 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.
“As pastoral leaders in Victoria,” the Bishops say, “we reject a reading of scripture that condones domestic violence. 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”.
‘The vast majority of churches are naive’
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”.
And scarcely any churches are taking action at the coalface to tackle the problem.
“Most churches think they deal well with it when a particular case is reported to them,” Roberts says.
“But the vast majority of churches are naive about the dynamics of domestic abuse, the mentality of abusers, and the tactics abusers use to manipulate and resist having to take responsibility for their bad conduct.”
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”.
It should be noted that a small number of churches contacted by ABC News either did not respond to repeated requests, or declined to comment on how they were addressing domestic violence, including the Catholic Archdioceses of Sydney, Hobart and Darwin and the Anglican Church of Southern Queensland in Brisbane**.
‘I am a wreck of a person now’
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. 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. For two and a half hours every morning and every night he yelled at her.
Every time she got pregnant, it got worse.
I was sure my husband was going to kill me,” she says.
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. “I actually got down on my knees and begged, I was so desperate,” she says.
The pastor then arranged for someone to interview her 12-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.
“My ex stood up with that look of madness in his face and the pastor ran off with his tail between his legs,” Louise says.
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.”
Today, more than a decade after her marriage ended, Louise is still shattered.
“I am a wreck of a person now, I don’t function very well, I don’t see a soul, I don’t have a life. 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 am a bit too scared of pastors, of people,” she says.
“We just wanted to do God’s will and do what it says in the Bible, and submit to whatever authority. 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.”
The path forwards
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 2004, 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.
“We have been tempted”, he wrote, “to collude with offenders that their behaviour is nothing more than a matter of private morality”.
“If the church colludes in this sleight of hand, it can find itself, as it did in the matter of sexual abuse of children,” he wrote, “ignoring the fact that these matters are criminal behaviours; and that they have very real long-term consequences for the victims”.
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:
“Jesus told his followers they needed to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, but most churches are not wise about the mentality and tactics of evildoers, nor are they aware of how evildoers masquerade as believers in the church. 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.”
Second, is an understanding of what domestic violence is.
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.
Abusive clergy moved to different parishes
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 controlled the music she listened to, the books she read, the wine she drank.
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. He was angered by the way she put the cereal container in the cupboard, and so wrote on it in firm black letters: “THIS WAY TABITHA”.
He was the parish priest. Tabitha’s self esteem was steamrollered.
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.
She is lonely, and struggles with feelings of failure. She watches a lot of Netflix.
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.
“In one of the very few major arguments I had with my ex after the split, when he was throwing scripture up at me, I remember yelling at him that this was not God-based or scripturally supported and that God was crying buckets over what he was doing, and how dare he bring God into this situation when it wasn’t his fault.”
Names have been changed to protect those in this piece who have survived domestic violence.
*Editor’s note (10/8/17): As reported in this piece, the research referred to was conducted in the United States.
**An earlier version of this piece incorrectly reported that the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane did not respond to requests for comment. Their efforts to address domestic violence are reported in greater detail in the article: Australian church leaders call for urgent response to domestic violence.