news

"We need to air this": Australia's untold story of Christianity and domestic violence.

Julia Baird appeared on ABC’s 7.30 for a special report on Christianity and domestic violence. You can read the investigation by Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson here.  

“Your problem is you won’t obey me. The Bible says you must obey me and you refuse,” he yelled. “You are a failure as a wife, as a Christian, as a mother. You are an insubordinate piece of s**t.”

These were the words Sally’s husband Peter threw at her the night before she left him.

Throughout his abuse, Peter read passages from the Bible to justify his claim that Sally had failed in her spiritual duties as a woman. God wanted her to submit to her husband, he said. For a long time, Sally believed him. She’s not alone in this experience.

Sally is one of the many women who have been interviewed by ABC News in their 12-month, extensive investigation into domestic violence and Christianity, which involved speaking with dozens of survivors, counsellors, and members of the church hierarchy from a range of Christian denominations. The research forms part of a broader inquiry into domestic violence and religion – the first instalment of which focused on Islam.

On Tuesday, an article by Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson titled ‘Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God’ cited research that the men most likely to abuse their wives are evangelical Christians who sporadically attend church.

It also argued that church communities present unique challenges to victims of domestic violence. The writers explored the problem with ‘male headship’ in the church as well as in the home, the stigma of divorce, and the recurring theme of victims not being heard or believed when they come to the church for help.

ADVERTISEMENT

It was an argument that sent shock waves through the Australian community – over half of which identify as Christian.

But it’s also an argument that according to journalist, commentator and author Julia Baird, has resulted in the ABC being “flooded” with stories of women saying, ‘my hands are shaking while I’m writing this, I’m feeling nauseous, I couldn’t even get to the end of the story, but this is what happened to me and I’m so glad it’s being discussed’.

Julia Baird speaks to Archbishop Davies on 7.30. Image via ABC.

"These are cases that don't end up in the courts - these are cases that can often be about financial and emotional abuse. Rape I found is very common among the women I spoke to."

Speaking to Mamamia, Baird said it was a Bishop who initially contacted her about this crisis.

"[He] said no one's talking about religion and the role that it can play culturally, and the teaching around the doctrine of male headship, where a man is to be the head of his wife, at home and in the church. A woman is supposed to submit to a man.

"I wrote about it a couple of years ago and it got massive denialism from the church hierarchy until some women started to write their stories."

While the relationship between domestic violence and religion has been explored quite extensively in the US and the UK, Baird says it hasn't been examined in Australia.

ADVERTISEMENT

In the wake of the research being released in the mainstream media, Baird says one response that's surprised her has been from "a number of priests" who have contacted her.

"[They] said they need to take this on board and take this seriously," she said.

"As one said to me yesterday, there's no recovery without discovery. We've got to air this."

There's defensiveness, of course. And trolling. But the research is clear, and the findings shed light on a number of complex phenomena.

I asked Baird about her hypothesis for why - specifically - it's evangelical Christian men who don't attend church regularly, who are the most likely to perpetrate domestic violence. After her countless hours of research, it's no surprise she has a strong theory.

"I think, how can you really have a strong faith and be beating up your wife? Or abusing or controlling your wife? It does actually make sense that you're more likely to be on the periphery of a congregation or a flock, although of course there's evidence that this has occurred in the hierarchy and not been dealt with properly as well," Baird said.

"A lot of the members of the clergy that I've spoken say it's their belief that if you really took what the Bible said to heart, it would abhor any kind of abuse, it would advocate humility and protecting the vulnerable and you wouldn't be engaged in this kind of behaviour at all."

ADVERTISEMENT

At a grassroots level, there are a number of changes Baird would like to see within the church as a result of ABC's investigation.

"For it to be taken seriously," she begins.

"To see sermons preached against it, to see pastors querying any signs of abusive behaviour, looking after those who come to her/him and report and tell their stories. I would like to see more resources. There should be counselling resources, there should be specialist workers, there should be national protocols.

"We have spent a lot of time contacting each diocese of each denomination for what they are actually doing in this area and it is extremely difficult to get that information. So it needs to be a lot more coordinated and open - and the voices of the women need to be at the forefront of it."

In the ABC investigation, victim Louise said she was sure her husband was going to kill her fourteen years ago.

As soon as they married, he had "awful fits of rage". He raped her and controlled her, and when she went to the Pentecostal church for help, she described their response as "cold and callous. Really, really cold".

"We just wanted to do God's will and do what it says in the Bible, and submit to whatever authority," she told ABC. "I did believe in female submission — it is meant to be submission to love. It is meant to be a relationship of protection and love".

Something needs to change.

00:00 / ???