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Australia confronts domestic violence crisis

Christian ministries uncover abuse in churchgoing families

Emergency Medicine Specialist Dr. Kevin Maruno and Registered Nurse Hannah Grisewood treat a trauma patient at St Vincent's Hospital, June 04, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. Getty Images/Photo by Lisa Maree Williams

Australia confronts domestic violence crisis

Australian tennis star Nick Kyrgios pleaded guilty in February to assault against his former girlfriend. But Magistrate Beth Campbell dismissed the charges and called the matter “low-level.” She said Kyrgios likely would not reoffend despite his reputation for outbursts on the tennis court.

Domestic violence is on the rise in Australia. In a January sting operation, New South Wales police arrested 648 of the most dangerous domestic violence offenders, filing more than 1,000 criminal charges. Families who attend church also report experiencing domestic violence, sometimes at a higher rate than their unchurched neighbors.

Before the pandemic, nearly 1 in 4 Australian women and 1 in 12 men reported experiencing physical or sexual abuse from an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men experience domestic abuse.

When COVID-19 restrictions shut down most of Australia, an eerie silence settled over domestic abuse hotlines. With abusers and their victims locked down together, few had opportunities to reach out for help. When the phones started ringing again, they were busier than usual. One domestic abuse hotline group reported a 26 percent increase in domestic violence phone calls since the pandemic began. Responders say financial pressure is putting stress on families as Australia endures a 7.4 percent inflation rate. Almost half of reported family violence incidents involved drug and alcohol use or abuse.

Not all abuse is physical, said Christian counselor Nicky Lock. Perpetrators commit any combination of financial, sexual, spiritual, physical, psychological, and emotional abuse. Queensland lawmakers are considering legislation that would criminalize “coercive control,” meaning the abuser could also be prosecuted for behavior that stops short of physical violence.

Following a 2017 exposé on abuse in church-attending households, the Anglican Diocese of Sydney issued a formal apology to abuse victims for failing to protect and support them. Denominational research found that 22 percent of surveyed Anglicans said they had been in a violent relationship with a partner, compared with 15 percent of the general population. When asked whether those relationships included specific abusive behaviors, the number jumped to 44 percent of Anglicans and 38 percent of non-Anglicans.

“Many clergy have not been well-informed in the area—I certainly wasn’t when I began,” said Sandy Grant, the dean of St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Grant headed the Sydney Anglican violence response task force and participated in the national Anglican research project. “I was naïve. I thought that if I preached on marriage and used Prepare [an Anglican questionnaire-based preparation course] with wedding couples and maybe ran an occasional marriage enrichment course, I was sort of ticking the right boxes.”

The Sydney Anglicans responded by training their leaders to listen to victims with acceptance, rolling out better education on the issue in their theological college, and developing policies and good practice guidelines.

Grant’s colleague Kara Hartley, archdeacon of women’s ministry, is revising the diocese’s original domestic violence policy and adding language about coercive control to the documents. Another revision increases education in Aboriginal churches. Indigenous women and girls are 32 times more likely to be hospitalized for domestic abuse than the general population.

Lock said pastors don’t have to wait for a crisis before informing people how to recognize warning signs. “Domestic abuse should be preached on at least once or twice a year,” Lock explained. “There’s plenty in the Bible about violence, abusing other people, misuse of power. So it shouldn’t be hard to actually weave information about domestic violence into a normal preaching cycle.”

Other Christian groups like Mission Australia have also stepped in to help.

The ministry began in 1859 as individual gospel rescue missions to address the physical and spiritual needs of the country’s poorest residents. The missions consolidated in 1996 and continue today by operating hotlines, safe houses, and chaplaincy counseling, among other services for vulnerable people.

Like the Anglicans, Mission Australia focuses on getting the victim to safety first. Ben Carblis, Mission Australia’s executive for community, family, and children’s services, recommends that churches not try to go it alone but instead work with groups designed to deal with these complex situations.

Kerrie Napoli is an accredited mental health social worker and family therapist who has counseled families and domestic abuse survivors for 25 years. One client who experienced domestic abuse realized she also verbally and emotionally abused her own children.

“‘So if I curse at my child when he comes to tell me that the baby needs a bottle, that’s verbal abuse?’” Napoli remembered the woman telling her. “‘That’s emotional abuse? Why didn’t anyone tell me? Why didn’t anyone spell that out? They just said, stop using drugs [and] get rid of your boyfriend because he’s violent.’”

Napoli’s sister experienced domestic abuse, and her niece is now in the same cycle. “But you don’t get very far if it’s about blame and shame,” Napoli said, adding that groups should focus on a collaborative approach. “Now it’s a bit more like, ‘It looks like you need some help,’ which is absolutely true. ‘What can we do to help?’”

Amy Lewis

Amy is a WORLD contributor and a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Fresno Pacific University. She taught middle school English before homeschooling her own children. She lives in Geelong, Australia, with her husband and the two youngest of their seven kids.

These summarize the news that I could never assemble or discover by myself. —Keith

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