Part 3: Why don't we listen to victims?

Erica Hamence challenges our practice of listening to victims in the third of a three-part series on domestic violence in the Australian church.

Content warning: Discussion of domestic and family violence.

Are we listening?

A significant factor which will influence whether a person who has experienced abuse seeks help is if they have any hope they will be believed, and the nature of their experience probed enough to be understood. When it comes to speaking up in our churches, the onus is on the person experiencing violence to establish their own credibility, with ministers or fellow church members positioned to evaluate the legitimacy of their claims. This dynamic is problematic for a number of reasons.

1. It ignores the systemic factors which diminish the credibility of women’s voices more generally.

Legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon, after studying decades of cases of campus sexual assault, noted that it “typically took three or four women testifying that they had been violated by the same man in the same way to even begin to make a dent in his denial. That made a woman, for credibility purposes, one-fourth of a person.”1 A similar pattern emerged in the recent case of US gymnastics coach Larry Nassar, who was recently convicted of abusing more than 150 women and children, a number of whom reported the abuse over the years but were not believed.2

2. It assumes that we have the adequate pastoral skills and understanding of violence in relationships

Many leaders assume that we have the adequate pastoral skills (including the capacity to listen carefully, and to tease out information non-coercively) and a sufficiently sophisticated understanding of the complexity of domestic and family violence, to be able to evaluate those claims. Yet many ministers and lay church members have received little to no specialised training on the issue. Women have told me that when their abuse was discovered by church leaders, they were stepped down from ministry along with (or in one instance, instead of) their abuser, as though they were to blame. One recalls being painted as the “girl from the wrong side of the tracks,” a seducer of a man with good ministry potential. Another was rebuked and called to repent of her own part in the sin. I also witnessed one victim recount her abuse to a family member, only to have her testimony dismissed and minimised: what she called hitting was reframed as “pushing”, the verbal abuse she endured became “just what he is like”, her mental illness the ultimate cause of her “confusion”. In each instance, greater understanding of the complex dynamics of domestic and family violence might have protected these women from such treatment.

3. This dynamic puts abuse victims in an unnecessarily difficult situation

Abuse by its very nature is designed to deprive the victim of the resources and freedom to determine what is real. It is behaviour whose very character is designed to be confusing, disorienting, and (ostensibly) defensible. Many victims seek help without being entirely sure that what they are experiencing is abuse. They might know that they feel exhausted and suffocated, or they might feel that they are constantly doing something wrong, they may feel out-of-their-depth, but they may not know why. In my experience, even though many can describe abusive behaviours, few are able to name them. When a victim has reached the point of challenging the reality dictated to her by her abuser, she has achieved something massive, but fragile.

This is part of why re-centring our discussions of domestic abuse on the victim’s testimony is so important. Any assumption that domestic abuse is a discussion that can be had on an impersonal, robustly objective level amongst peers is a naive fallacy. Yet much of what I have observed in our discussions online and in print has been an attempt to bring whatever rigour that ministers have perceived was lacking in the discussion, on that basis. They have raised the question of false accusations, contributing factors, the accuracy of the statistics. The fact that some clergy could not be dissuaded from this tack despite being consistently told by victims and advocates that it was unhelpful and even harmful ought to give us pause. I am aware of, and sympathetic to, the concerns that have been raised. But the point is this: the speed with which we leap to these questions de-centres the conversation from victim's testimonies, and redirects it to the questions and concerns of non-victims, silencing and dismissing testimonies at the very moment they are emerging. It is as though in our own calculus, we consider the danger that we might overestimate the prevalence of abuse in the church to be a greater danger than possibly under-estimating it. This puts a victim in a situation in which her abuser defines her reality while her community denies it.

I suggest that we need to recognise – and accommodate for – the fact that women are not in neutral territory, but have to work themselves up from the presumption that they are not credible. We need to reckon with a system in which men are positioned as the arbiters of that credibility and the architects of its character. In many of our churches, we have enshrined the authoritativeness of men’s voices, and not women’s participation in the same contexts.

It is probably no coincidence that both #metoo and Jordan Peterson have occupied our pulic discussions recently. At the very moment that women are raising their voices, men are claiming that theirs are being silenced. We should be honest about where this reflexivity comes from. Part of what makes women’s testimonies of abuse challenging is that they are destabilising. They indicate that these women have been failed not only on a specific and personal level, but on a structural and cultural level too. It makes sense then that we as church leaders retreat to an attempt to reinforce those structures which seem to be crumbling. But that would be a mistake as it would harm the very women who need the Church’s support most.

What would it look like to communicate the value of women’s voices in the Church? What would it look like to communicate a discerning openness to the testimonies of people who have experienced domestic abuse? I have made suggestions about possible ways forward elsewhere,3 but I’ll add just two (directed especially towards male leaders) here:

Access women’s voices, and give women access to you

When you think of the people who would report that your ministry made a difference to them, are most of those people men? When you think of people with whom you’ve worked most closely or meaningfully, are most of those people men? When you think about the people whose lives you know the most about, are those people men? If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, you may need to change the way you relate to women in your congregation.  Use Jesus as your example of how to do this.

Understand the issues women face

What are the top five issues - theological and pastoral - that affect women in your church? How do you know? Have women helped shape your understanding of what it looks like to be a female disciple of Jesus? If you can see that certain issues are significant to women’s experiences, have you dedicated significant time to praying and reading and teaching on them? This kind of background work is necessary to create the conditions in which a woman who has experienced abuse can disclose what has been done to them, and to be believed when they do.

What will it take to make churches safer?

The Church can (and should) be a tool for healing and wellbeing.4 But the Church can also be used as a weapon. We need to reckon with the fact that our potential to be used in both ways rests in the very same resources, and are two sides of the same coin. Scripture can be used to bring comfort and clarity to people who have experienced violence, and conviction to people who have perpetrated it. But it can also be wielded by abusers and those who collude with them to oppress victims. Our communal life can be a source of support for people who have experienced violence, and can act as a healthy model of relationships. But it can also be used to isolate and shame those targeted. The key to safe churches? A sober-minded alertness, and a recognition of our vulnerability.

Because the same factors that make churches powerful for healing and wholeness are also the same factors that make churches vulnerable, safety within churches will always be dynamic. The question ‘is the church safe?’ or ‘is this church safe?’ – with the assumption that safety is a static binary – reveals that we may be more invested in our own reassurance than we are in the real experience of victims and survivors. If safety were a simple matter, we could be done with it. We could dispense of our responsibility and concern quickly. But the fact that safety is both complex and dynamic means that we are constantly responsible.

Survivors I have spoken to are not so idealistic or naïve about their safety. They know that their churches are not completely safe, but many (though certainly not all) are determined to engage with them anyway. Some people who have experienced domestic abuse have been so profoundly hurt and re-victimised by their churches that they have had to – reluctantly – abandon them. But many would prefer for this not to be the case. Many want to find their place in the church, and they are making significant concessions to their own wellbeing do so.

Churches are a complex patchwork of culture, relationships and beliefs, and a person who has experienced violence is likely to experience belief and denial, support and rejection, empathy and misunderstanding within them. This point must be stressed: sometimes by the same people. A woman who has experienced violence might enjoy the partnership of men who enthusiastically support their ministry, but nonetheless talk over her in meetings, and then return home to a man who polices her speech. Another might find their abuse denounced by a friend who, in the next breath, demonstrates a lack of empathy for their experience of it. A person who has experienced violence might be a member at a church known for its great preaching on abuse, but nonetheless hurt by the attitudes of its members. Any assessment of safety, and any attempt to create the conditions under which it might grow, needs to start with sober-mindedness about this reality.

Despite good intentions to the contrary, the church does not always offer people who have experienced violence the support they need. We have the resources to do better. What is needed is for us to understand the many issues that victims face, for us to reflect on our own blind spots, and to keep wrestling with the culture of our churches so that they can better support women’s safety.

This is the third in a three-part series called 'Domestic Violence and the Australian Church' written by Erica Hamence from the Common Grace Domestic & Family Violence Team. Erica is an Associate Minister at Barney's Anglican Church in Sydney.

These materials were first published in the St Mark’s Review - When women speak: domestic violence in Australian churches. You can find out more and buy the complete publication here.

As a team, Common Grace created the SAFER resource because we recognised that there were few resources available which brought together best practice from secular specialist organisations with the kinds of theological and spiritual concerns Christians who are experiencing DFV have. Though we also see a need to advocate for national change through governmental policy and funding, we recognised that the church has much work to do “in-house,” and that, if our advocacy is to have any integrity, we must address our own issues first. We see SAFER as a necessary first step towards this end. One of the biggest hurdles we have found in making the church safer is that, despite the richness of the resources available to Christians in both our theology and common life, and despite good intentions to the contrary, people who had experienced violence were not receiving the support they needed within the church. For this reason the focus of SAFER is on informing Christians (leaders and lay members) about the dynamics of DFV, and the ways that our common beliefs might intersect with or challenge those dynamics. We are seeking to find common ground across denominations and various theological camps, as we believe that DFV is an issue which will require our united efforts to address.

1 Catharine MacKinnon, “#MeToo Has Done What the Law Could Not

2 Read Rachael Denhollander's full victim impact statement about Larry Nassar.

3 Erica Hamence, “Part Three: What can we do about family violence?” 

4 In the future, I plan to outline the ways that I have seen victims and survivors experience healing and help within churches.

Do you need support?

The following Domestic and Family Violence support services are available:

Domestic Violence and the Australian Church