In the last five years, at least 333 cases of domestic violence have been reported to Anglican ministers in Sydney.
These numbers stand in contrast to data showing that, on average, Australian police deal with 657 domestic violence matters every day – that’s one every two minutes. An Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012 survey into personal safety also discovered that 89 women were killed by their current or former partner between 2008-2010.
A new survey of Anglican ministers across the Sydney Diocese (with 148 responses – a 60 per cent response rate), released as part of a report from the Domestic Violence Task Force of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, revealed that only 223 of these 333 reports involved a “pastoral response” from the senior minister.
Sandy Grant, an Anglican minister from Wollongong and Chair of the Domestic Violence Task Force, told Eternity that assistant ministers are not obliged to inform their minister when someone comes to them with information about abuse. As a result, these numbers do not reflect conversations where a victim has told another member of a church staff team. The Task Force initially thought to also survey female church workers – on the premise that women who are victims of domestic violence might be more likely to tell a woman about it – but those plans had not come to fruition.
“It seems to me that the results of the survey conducted by the task force indicate that ministers have a rose-coloured understanding of the health of the marriages in their congregations.” – Isabella Young, domestic abuse survivor
Every minister surveyed, except one who was unsure, said they believed domestic violence could be legitimate grounds for separation, and the vast majority said that it could also be legitimate grounds for divorce. More than half the churches surveyed thought their church responded to domestic violence effectively.
Isabella Young*, a survivor of domestic abuse in a Christian marriage, told Eternity, “While I’m sure there are many rectors who do great work with abuse victims, the overwhelmingly positive self-ratings of most pastors appear inconsistent with the experience of many victims. Victims may not necessarily come and tell a minister when they have not acted appropriately; they usually just leave the church broken-hearted instead.”
“It seems to me that the results of the survey conducted by the task force indicate that ministers have a rose-coloured understanding of the health of the marriages in their congregations. While the figures provided are averages and only cover the last five years, an incidence rate of 2.25 abusive marriages [per rector] among even a medium-sized church seems rather low.”
“I would like to see a positive statement from the [Sydney Anglican] Diocese indicating that abuse is a grounds for divorce (not just a legal divorce from the state but actually not being married in the eyes of God). The confusion still evident among a sizeable proportion of clergy and in published Sydney Anglican church documents on this issue causes much pain and confusion among abuse victims,” Young said.
“Whatever else we say about marriage, there is no excuse in the Bible for any abuse, domineering [behaviour] or aggression.” – Rev Sandy Grant
Grant affirmed that there is still a lot that the church needs to do to improve its response to domestic violence.
“A lot of rectors said that a simple flow chart outlining the potential next steps after becoming aware of abuse could help.”
“A lot of clergy also need help to think through how to uphold justice … and clarifying for themselves what roles they can and can’t perform, in terms of pastoral care for the victim and the offender,” said Grant.
The survey also measured how often Anglican church congregations are taught about Christian marriage, and how the minister explained “headship” and “submission”.
Grant said, “whatever else we say about marriage, there is no excuse in the Bible for any abuse, domineering [behaviour] or aggression. This is the united consistent message from synod (Anglican church council), church leaders, the Diocese and Moore College.”
*Isabella’s name has been changed for security reasons.