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Pain in the pews


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Churches in Australia take steps to address above average numbers of domestic abuse cases among members.

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MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 14th of March, 2023.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

A quick note to parents…if you have kids in the car or in the room, you might want to skip this story and come back later to listen to it. It deals with a tough subject.

And that tough subject is domestic abuse. It’s on the rise in Australia. Recent studies show a 15% increase over the last few years. It got worse with Australia’s Covid lockdown. Now, with economic hardship, the pressure on some families is near the breaking point.

REICHARD: In Australia, one in four women has been sexually or physically abused. And studies conducted by the Anglican church of its membership show that domestic violence within Anglican homes is just as prevalent—if not worse—than in the homes of those who don’t attend church. WORLD Reporter Amy Lewis reports on what churches in Australia are doing in response.

AMY LEWIS, REPORTER: Australia’s strict pandemic restrictions had some unintended consequences. They made domestic abuse perpetrators and their victims spend lots of time together. Hotline workers worried when the phone lines went silent. They knew it meant people couldn’t find a safe time or place to make the necessary phone call.

On average in Australia, a woman dies every 9 days because of domestic violence. It’s an ugly statistic. Warning signs can often be hard to spot.

Sexual abuse and trauma counselor Nicky Lock explains that domestic and family abuse encompasses more than just physical violence.

LOCK: And not realize that there's this whole gamut of other forms of abuse…It's all part of the same picture…through emotional abuse, psychological abuse, financial abuse, sexual abuse, spiritual abuse. Those things are not necessarily precursors for physical violence. Just because somebody is abusing someone psychologically, doesn't necessarily mean that person will progress to physical violence. But psychological abuse is harmful, deeply harmful, by itself.

Since the pandemic began, several states in both the United States and Australia have passed or introduced legislation that criminalizes something they call “coercive control.” That’s behavior one person exerts over another with the intent to maintain power and control. It often follows a pattern of explosion, remorse, maybe a honeymoon stage, and then another unexplained explosion.

LOCK: …Once the…victim has been through that cycle a number of times…she has this sort of knot in her stomach, …they talk about walking on eggshells, because they know almost with certainty that the explosion phase is going to happen again. They just don't know how long, and they don't know what will be the thing that will spark it off.

Sandy Grant led the Sydney Anglican domestic violence response task force. He also helped with a 2021 research project studying Anglican families in Australia. Within their study sample, researchers found that abusive relationships within church membership slightly outnumber those in the general population.

SANDY GRANT: Some people have falsely taken that research to indicate that perpetrators are as [hm] prevalent in our church pews as they are in the general society. The research didn't actually and, to be honest, couldn't really realistically measure the prevalence of perpetrators in the church.

People who attend church struggle with the same issues as those who don’t attend.

GRANT: I would have to say because of the continuing battle with the old nature… the flesh, we shouldn't be surprised that people in church who are genuine or professing Christians will sometimes misbehave badly. It's not acceptable. It needs to be called out, it needs to be disciplined.

But those abusive relationships might not be easily recognized or acknowledged.

GRANT: Christians prize things like forgiveness. We prize marriage, we want marriages to succeed...Patience is sometimes called long suffering….And all those things can lead us to tolerate, frankly, behavior that shouldn't have been tolerated.

Grant worked with counselor Nicky Lock and others on a domestic abuse policy and set of best practices for Anglican churches. It includes a step-by-step guide for church staff on what to do if someone comes to them for help. It prioritizes the safety of the victim first.

After safety, Grant says the next most important thing is to listen with acceptance.

GRANT: It doesn't mean accepting every single thing they've said is exactly and precisely the only possible way anything could be interpreted or understood, but it just means a posture of acceptance, and listening carefully, not rushing to charge, not rushing to tell them what to do.

He also says church leaders are often under-prepared to deal with abuse in their church.

GRANT: I thought that if I preached on marriage and used “Prepare” with wedding couples, I was sort of ticking the right boxes, and maybe an occasional marriage enrichment course. And I was very naïve, I didn't always respond well to little signals, little hints that there might be something amiss. And I think many clergy have found themselves in that position. And many, just ordinary church members also.

Counselor Nicky Lock says one way church leaders can address the topic is from the pulpit.

LOCK: There's plenty in the Bible about violence, abusing other people, misuse of power. So it shouldn't be hard to actually weave in information about domestic violence into a normal preaching cycle.

Raising awareness could be the impetus someone needs to broach the topic with someone they love.

LOCK: It could be the the woman's best friend, she's heard the sermon two weeks ago with it says, Oh, he actually mentioned this word domestic violence…I'm wondering, I've, you know, I've seen what happens in your relationship with your husband. I'm wondering if that's what's going on.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Amy Lewis.

REICHARD: You can read more about this on our website … and we’ve included a link in today’s program transcript.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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