A spotlight has been shone on domestic violence (DV), with outstanding Australians including Rosie Batty describing the tragedies caused by the ongoing darkness of abusive behaviour in homes. The victims (usually women)[i] and children growing up in these homes are all affected. In my own medical profession it is recognised that patients may have suffered years of mental or physical illness without the doctor ever asking if DV is present as an underlying cause. There is increasing evidence of a similar problem in the church, and that we are blind to the possibility of DV among those in our fellowships. It appears that we do not know because we do not ask, and even if we do ask we are not told because victims are not sure of a safe and supportive response. The current public discourse about the teaching and responses of churches to DV[ii] is an opportunity for reflection and change.[iii]
Churches can build upon strengths in the way they affirm children and families as they respond to DV. Many churches have worked hard to love and support families through months or years of long-term illnesses. We need to think through how we can apply the same thought and planning to the often long work and practical support required to assist a person or family in leaving violence behind, and finding healing and safety. Church workers and members have studied in areas such as bereavement in order to respond sensitively to people suffering loss. In the same way we also need to learn about family violence so that intuitive but ill-informed comments can be similarly avoided. Many churches are nurturing communities for lonely kids and struggling adults but we need to grow the honesty and maturity of our listening and prayer so that people can ask for help with hidden and serious struggles.
DV is wider than physical violence, sexual violence and financial abuse. It includes other controlling and disempowering behaviours. Other forms include isolating the victim from family and friends, stalking or controlling her[iv] movements and belittling the victim, such as calling her incompetent, crazy or ugly. Violence can continue, in some cases for years, before either the victim or others recognise that DV is occurring.
Speaking about being a victim of DV can be very difficult. It can feel shameful and there is a fear—often the reality—of not being believed. In many cases where the situation has been so well hidden, or where the victim herself may be in denial, claims of abuse can be hard to believe and there is a real risk of minimising the harm and the transgression. After an episode of violence the perpetrator may be remorseful and distressed, and make promises that it will never occur again. He or both parties may blame the victim or external stresses. At this stage a naïve health worker or pastoral worker, unaware of the cycle of violence,[v] may misread this regret as repentance and a problem solved. As a result of misguided compassion, pastoral workers can inadvertently behave with a non-biblical desire to keep shameful deeds in the darkness. Others may greatly overestimate their own ability to analyse and handle the situation, and in some cases have directed a victim not to call the police. Advice, while well intentioned, may be overly simplistic or actually increase danger. Victims of ongoing DV may take a long time to leave, and it can be difficult to go on supporting them quietly in prayer and in readiness to assist in practical ways when asked. It does not help a victim to feel judged, for staying or for leaving. Child protection issues and emergencies may require unasked for intervention and in these cases it is always best to get advice.[vi]
We are blessed now in Australia with good resources providing information and support on the phone or e-counselling. There is phone advice available for victims, for their friends or neighbours and also for perpetrators who are worried their anger is getting out of control. There are also specialist services for young people who are victims or who are angry or violent at home.[vii]
Our God is steadfast and compassionate. Let us work within our churches to develop gifts of pastoral care to show the character of our Saviour in providing help, refuge and hope.
Rosemary Isaacs is a doctor whose work includes specialised medical and forensic care for victims of sexual assault.
[i] Among adults in Australia, 1.5% of all women and 0.6% of men had experienced physical violence in the previous 12 months and17% of all women and 5.3% of all men aged 18 years and over had experienced violence by a partner since the age of 15 (ABS figures, 2012).
[ii] For recent media reports on the church’s response to DV, see http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2017/s4704681.htm and http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-10-11/anglican-diocese-of-sydney-apologises-to-abuse-victims/9038410 (accessed Oct, 2017).
[iii] This column sets out some ways church communities can be equipped to give healthy responses to this challenge. In the next edition I will look at some theological challenges in responding to DV.
[iv] For simplicity I have referred to the perpetrator as ‘he’ and the victim as ‘she’, but this is not the only pattern.
[vi] To report suspected child abuse or neglect, call the Child Protection Helpline on 132 111 (24 hours/7 days). If not sure whether to call Police, call 1800 RESPECT for advice.
[vii] These include the 1800 RESPECT hotline or https://www.1800respect.org.au/ and the No to Violence, Men’s Referral service on 1800 766491, http://www.ntvmrs.org.au/. Those under age 24 who have a violence problem, or their parents, may get information from HEADSPACE phone or e-counselling.
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