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Domestic abuse happens in churches too: new research highlights churchgoers’ experience

Posted on: March 21, 2018 2:47 PM
The report “In Churches Too: Church Responses to Domestic Abuse – A case study of Cumbria” reveals the prevalence of domestic abuse amongst churchgoers.

New research into the prevalence of domestic abuse amongst churchgoers shows that one in four people have experienced abuse in their current relationship. The research, by academics at Coventry University and the University of Leicester for the Christian charity Restored, surveyed churchgoers in the north-west English county of Cumbria for the ground-breaking study of domestic abuse.

“Domestic abuse happens in churches too,” Dr Kristin Aune of Coventry University, who led the research, said. “A quarter of the people we heard from told us they had, for example, been physically hurt by their partners, sexually assaulted, emotionally manipulated, or had money withheld from them. This includes 12 women who have experienced between 10 and 20 abusive behaviours and six women who are currently in relationships where they fear for their lives.”

The co-author of the research, Dr Rebecca Barnes, of the University of Leicester, said: “More broadly, 42 per cent of the people we heard from had experienced in a current or previous relationship at least one of the abusive behaviours we asked about.”

The report says that 438 churchgoers from a range of churches completed the survey, and 109 of them said they had experienced abusive behaviours in their current relationship. People aged over 60 were less likely to say they had experienced domestic abuse than younger adults were, and women more likely to say they had experienced serious forms of abuse than men.

Only two in seven churchgoers felt their church was adequately equipped to deal with a disclosure of abuse.

“We clearly have a lot of work to do,” the Bishop of Carlisle, James Newcome, said. “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 help-lines 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.”

Some clergy in Cumbria have themselves survived domestic abuse. Before meeting the man who is now her husband, the Revd Eleanor Hancock, a retired Anglican priest, was in an abusive relationship for ten years. “We lived on a farm, so I blamed my bruises and injuries on slipping in the yard or being kicked by a sheep,” she said. “He was emotionally abusive too, calling me fat and ugly and blaming me for everything. I kept making excuses for him because I loved him, but eventually I knew I had to leave.”

Eleanor went with a friend to church, which was an important part of her healing, and was later ordained. In parish ministry, she found that her experience helped her advise couples preparing to marry and to listen to people who were being manipulated and abused.

The co-director of Restored, Mandy Marshall, said today: “The church is a vital resource for any community and, at its best, is both a refuge and a place where deep transformation happens. Talking in church about domestic abuse is the most important first step, whether that's mentioning it in sermons or being open in pastoral conversations to respond to disclosures.

“This vital research is the wake-up call we need to help us understand that this happens in churches too.”

Restored is an ecumenical Christian charity that works across the world to help churches tackle violence against women. In its work, it has partnered with a number of Anglican provinces and dioceses.

On its website, Restored points out that one in three women are abused during their lifetime. “Too often, violence against women is seen as a women’s issue. We believe it’s a human issue. But where is the church, and where are the men when it comes to ending it?,” they say.

“There are 2.2 billion Christians in the world. The church has enormous influence – in some countries, it runs not just parishes but the education and health services as well, and may have better geographic coverage than state structures. It also has a long history of being at the forefront of positive social changes. And it has the potential to be a major catalyst in helping to end violence against women (VAW).

“But whilst various Christian organisations are involved in responding to VAW, the church and the men within it are doing little to prevent it. Church leaders are not speaking out and challenging the attitudes and behaviours that promote violence against women. And Scripture on marriage and relationships is often misinterpreted and used to justify abuse.”

The research carried out in Cumbria is part of a range of resources produced by Restored to encourage more people in the Churches to take action against gender-based violence.

  • Click here to download the report, “In Churches Too: Church Responses to Domestic Abuse – A case study of Cumbria” (pdf).

  • Click the appropriate link to access resources from Restored to help churches address domestic abuse in English, Spanish, French (customised for north Africa), Portuguese or Russian (pdf).