Church survey finds that one in four women experience domestic abuse

A NEW survey on Church responses to domestic abuse has found that one in fourrespondents had experienced at least one abusive behaviour in their current relationship.

The aim of the survey was to identify the rates of domestic abuse amongst male and female churchgoers, and the levels and attitudes of awareness among church leaders relating to domestic abuse in their congregation.

The report published this week In Churches too, found that emotional abuse was the most commonly experienced, with respondents reporting feeling diminished self-esteem, depression, feeling trapped and withdrawing from family and friends.

The samplefor the research, led by Dr Kristin Aune of Coventry University, and co-author Dr Rebecca Barnes, of the University of Leicester, was taken from a sample in Cumbria.

The survey findings are based on 438 usable responses. Three-quarters of the sample were female, predominantly White British, while older people were over-represented (68.8 per cent were aged 60 and over), making this survey a ‘valuable’ source of data on older people’s perceptions and experiences of domestic abuse.

Almost half of the sample attended Anglican churches and participants were predominantly regular churchgoers, while over half were involved in the ministry of their church.

More of the survey participants were married than in Cumbria’s population: 68.7 per cent. Some 8.4 per cent were single, while 3.2 per cent were in a relationship but not married or civilly partnered.

The survey found that some respondents are experiencing systematic abuse of different kinds on at least a weekly basis, while one in four of the sample had experienced at least one abusive behaviour in their current relationship.

That included 12 women who had experienced between 10-20 different abusive behaviours and six women who are currently in relationships where they fear for their lives.

The report explains that gender differences are clear in the nature, dynamics and impacts of abuse, with women experiencing abuse that is more frequentand more severe.

The report states that a large number of people said ‘their church did very little’ responding to domestic abuse, attributing this to their church being small, elderly and rural, or to a culture of silence.

Some respondents said the church did some work displaying information about helplines, praying and offering individual pastoral support, while a small number said their church was very active, working with local domestic abuse charities.

“There is an appetite for the church to become a place where those subjected to abuse can find support. The large majority of people thought that the church should be a place where domestic abuse is discussed and two-thirds thought the church should do more to raise awareness of the problem.

“This gives church leaders a strong mandate to address this issue more proactively,” the report states.

The report contains several recommendations, calling on the Church to ‘recognise that abuse happens in churches too, to a significant proportion of people, that abuse takes many forms, and that congregations include both perpetrators and victims/survivors’.

The report also recommends that the Church respond by teaching that domestic abuse is wrong, supporting those who disclose being abused, and ensuring that church leaders and one domestic abuse ‘champion’ in each congregation is trained.

The report also recommends that churches refer victims and perpetrators to sources of help beyond, as well as within, the church, follow safeguarding procedures and work with secular domestic abuse services.

The report summarises research conducted with 500 clergy and churchwomen in Canadian evangelical churches where churches address violence against women with informal women’s support networks and clergy counselling for victims.

The report also explained that clergy recognised their need for training (less than one in 10 felt well equipped to respond to domestic abuse).

The report also points out that there are obstacles because secular and Christian organisations can view the issue very differently.

Feminists see ‘wife abuse’ as a big problem from which women must escape, but evangelical clergy often see it as a problem of ‘family violence’ to be resolved within the family so that the marriage can be restored.

As churches reflect more on domestic violence, they are unsure whether to see it as ‘embedded in a system of domination within the church – that is, as a structural problem’, or ‘as a misunderstanding of Christian doctrine,’ the report adds.

The report explains that better training for clergy is vital to enable them to help victims and challenge abusive behaviours – including those that may be happening within their churches.

“We clearly have a lot of work to do,” says Bishop of Carlisle the Rt Rev James Newcome. “Churches in Cumbria have been taking this very seriously for many years, which is why we wanted to take part in the research.

“Many churches have taken part in training, promote helplines and liaise with local support services and we have come a long way in understanding that this is a vital part of our ministry to the community. It’s time to recognise that we must also examine ourselves.”