Why is domestic violence under-reported in churches? For Rectors thinking about domestic violence (and others who want to eavesdrop)…

Having seen a report on the Sydney Anglican Diocese’ investigations into reporting of domestic violence to Rectors, I’ve been thinking about the problems that contribute to under-reporting and probably therefore under-dealing-with (so to speak) domestic violence, with helping the victims and the perpetrators. If we want to deal with the problem, we’ve got to find it, so the under-reporting is concerning. Obviously the reasons for under-reporting are complex, buuuuuut, I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to blame Rectors. What can I say, I’m petty and you’re so handy to blame! For starters, you’re all men, which makes it impossible not to convey a boys club image*, let alone the hurdles there might be for victims abused by males in power to talk to a male in power. Also, a lot of you are highly educated, well-paid white people, who seem to have it all together, with your smiling families lined up next to the paddocks of endless Taragos at Evangelical gatherings. I could go on, BUT, a lot of you know that already, and I know enough of you (and of the hardships of ministry) to understand that actually mostly you care about people, and particularly, understand that being in parish means pastoral responsibility.  You want to be part of the solution, to a problem that may feel a little new to you, so, I’m going to share some thoughts about three of the other causes of under-reporting, and maybe they’ll provide some useful food for thought, for Rectors and others. 

1. A lot of victims of domestic violence love their abusers. For a child to betray their parent by saying “dad hits mum” or “mum screams at us all the time” takes not only immense courage, but a break with all the social conditioning they’ve received in their life so far. What is a family? It’s the group of people you’re born into, you share blood, they’re your whole world as a kid. And mum and dad? Well, they’re basically God. Everything you need comes from them, or is supposed to, and you learn even how to smile from their repeated smiling at you as a child. This often means, if a child has felt that enough is enough, they may want only to hint at the problem, so they don’t have to ‘dob’ their parent in, but that you might figure out what’s going on. In which case, you may think, “well yes, all mums shout from time to time!” Rather than understanding the child has totally underplayed the real situation. 

This can be the same for partners. They chose this person as a spouse after all, they love them. Telling someone else that their parner’s behaviou is no longer acceptable also feels like a costly betrayal. Maybe it will get better? Maybe they deserved the treatment they received? These and other lies will circle round and round, ad maybe they’re simply afraid people will think it was their choice that got them into this mess, so no one should have to help them out of it. And they fear the consequences for their loved one. I love him, life’s been rough for him, he’s really stressed at the moment, I don’t want this to ruin his life forever just because I tell someone or get the police involved. I love her, she just doesn’t understand the impact of her behaviour. I’ll try to protect the kids from it, but I don’t want to make it worse by telling someone. 

Both partners and children can feel like they and their abusers are in an unbreakable contract, that the situation must remain secret because the consequences are so distressing. Would you like to accuse you’re nearest and dearest of horrible acts to the spiritual leader of your faith community? 

2. The consequences are unpredictable. The worry of the unknown answer to “what would happen or change if I told someone” is a reasonable worry because we don’t know! Will children be removed from parents? Will someone provide housing for family members who need to leave? Will everyone end up knowing all about the situation? What’s actually going to change in the long run? 

People who are exposed to abuse for a long period of time, thus accumulating trauma, develop various coping mechanisms for dealing with the complexity of life-in-trauma. For some, this means strategising, planning, thinking through every possible outcome before choosing to act or speak. After all, they’ve been living in a volatile situation. Who knows what might happen? That uncertainty is terrifying. At least the abuse is predictable. 

Finally, 3. They just don’t know they’re being abused. For people who’ve had a history of abuse in their family, who, for example, were raised in an abusive environment as a child themselves, and have perhaps carried those patterns into adult life, now replaying their previous roles, this is all they’ve known. They might be used to emotional persecution, harsh words, raised hands, and think it’s normal. For them, it is normal. But it’s not ok. It might be that coming into Christian community leads to a slow awakening that maybe not everything in their family is ‘typical’, it might simply be that their Christian community who has witnessed the generational abuse either knowingly or unknowingly without doing anything about it, has started speaking about what sort of relationships parents and partners and children should have, and the picture they paint is quite different to what they’ve always experienced at home. But for many, especially in families and communities where all or certain aspects of domestic violence have been common, normal and unchallenged, they’re not going to report violent behaviour because they think no one expects or has the right to expect anything else. 

Who did you think about when I described that category? Possibly “members of our Indigenous communities” or “people in low socio-economic demographics”. Domestic violence, even multi-generational domestic violence, is as indiscriminate as depression. No matter what ethnic background, economic status, level of education, domestic violence could be part of a family’s story. Children are hit in wealthy homes and poor ones. Women of all backgrounds are sexually abused. Great-Grandad always beat the boys black and blue, so did Grandpa and now so does Bill. It’s the discipline he was taught. It’s normal. 

It’s always hard in a short space not to seem glib… I mostly hope that from these few thoughts people understand that it’s really hard to say “my husband is violent with me” or, “my mum is verbally abusive” so when we talk about how to get noticing the problem more so we can get helping, that there’s difficulties inherent to the problem of domestic violence itself that makes it hard to report on. 

Perhaps things that make our response more predictable may help. I know of one church whose leaders have been known to tackle the problem in the past, help find housing for those who needed it, counsel for both victims and abuser, support throughout the process of recovery. I think if I was at that church, I’d feel reasonably confident I could be a bit more secure in predicting the response. 

Perhaps talking more about what behaviour is and isn’t acceptable will help people know that their normal isn’t necessarily right. Even just an encouragement from the pulpit during a sermon on the qualifications for Elders that gentleness and kindness are important, especially when our children are driving us up the wall. That we all struggle to keep our cool sometimes, but that if it’s a problem a lot of the time, that’s ok, better to seek help for it now than to fly off the handle and do or say something you’ll regret. Remind everyone that Christians aren’t perfect and don’t claim to be, so it’s no shame to ask for help to learn a more godly way of behaving. Then recommend a good, local anger management course. Couldn’t hurt, could it? 

The first one however, in my mind and experience is even harder. The conspiracy of silence. Often, it’s even just an attempt to show grace to someone who has wronged you. Which is a good and godly impulse isn’t it. But doesn’t bring about justice. 

When it comes to reporting of domestic violence, we have to remember that victims are vulnerable for any number of reasons, and that this is going to be a long haul problem. We need to know how to respond well as well as how to identify the problems. I look forward to further recommendations from the taskforce in the Sydney Diocese, and I pray for all those trying to tackle these issues. And I think of a friend who doesn’t talk to her parents any more, for many excellent reasons, including the probability of further abuse, and of the many people who’ve tried to counsel her over the years to ‘mend things’ because ‘that’s what Jesus would do’. It certainly makes me feel reluctant to go what she goes through. 
Joanna Hayes

*which is naturally obnoxious to a person like me, ie, a woman. Please tell me you’ve thought about that! Even when you’re down with male headship, it can be really annoying to feel like a secret cabal is running your entire spiritual life… 

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