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Faiths 'ill-equipped' over family violence: report

Faith leaders say that they know family violence is a major problem, but feel ill-equipped to deal with it.

By Mark Brolly

May 10 2016Faith communities have a critical role to play in preventing and responding to family violence but need training to identify signs that violence might be occurring and to direct people to the help they needed, the head of an Anglican agency who served on Victoria’s recent Royal Commission into Family Violence has told TMA.

Mr Tony Nicholson, the Executive Director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence who was a Deputy Commissioner of the inquiry, said faith leaders who met the Commissioners all acknowledged that family violence was a significant problem within their communities and that they were ill-equipped to recognise signs of it and deal with the devastation it caused.

“There was no faith leader who suggested it was not a problem in their communities,” Mr Nicholson said. He said the Brotherhood was conducting a review of its own policies and practices in light of the Commission’s findings.

Some faith communities had been of enormous assistance in offering victims counselling and solace and assisting them in various ways “whereas others responded inappropriately, almost not being able to understand the terror experienced by the victim and sometimes offering advice that left the victim at greater risk of violence”, he said.

The three-member Royal Commission, chaired by a former judge of the Court of Appeal, the Honourable Marcia Neave, was established by the Andrews Government early last year. It delivered its 1900-page report to the Governor, Ms Linda Dessau, on 29 March and made 227 recommendations – including the establishment of support and safety hubs throughout the state and measures to enable victims to remain safely in the family home – all of which the Government said it would implement.

Mr Nicholson’s fellow Deputy Commissioner was Ms Patricia Faulkner, the Chair of Jesuit Social Services and Deputy Chair of St Vincent’s Health Australia, who formerly served as Chair of the Prime Minister’s Social Inclusion Board and Secretary of the Victorian Department of Human Services.

The Royal Commission made three recommendations specific to faith communities:

  • That the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship Multifaith Advisory Group and the Victorian Multicultural Commission, in partnership with expert family violence practitioners, develop training packages on family violence and sexual assault for faith leaders and communities within three years. These packages should build on existing work, reflect leading practice in responding to family violence, and include information about referral pathways for victims and perpetrators. The training should be suitable for inclusion as part of the pre-service learning in various faith training institutes, as well as the ongoing professional development of faith leaders;
  • That the Department of Health and Human Services consult with the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship Multifaith Advisory Group, the Victorian Multicultural Commission and women from faith communities as part of its review of standards for specialist family violence service providers (including men’s behaviour change programs), to ensure that these standards and the associated services take account of the needs of people in faith communities who experience family violence. This is to occur within two years; and
  • That faith leaders and communities establish processes for examining the ways in which they currently respond to family violence in their communities and whether any of their practices operate as deterrents to the prevention or reporting of, or recovery from, family violence or are used by perpetrators to excuse or condone abusive behaviour.

“Faith leaders and organisations have direct and influential contact with many members of the Victorian community, and their guidance and intervention are often sought when family violence is being experienced,” the Commission’s report said.

“Faith leaders can play an important role in educating communities about family violence, reinforcing community standards in relation to respect, dignity and non-violence, and providing practical advice and other assistance to people in need.

“The faith leaders the Commission consulted demonstrated a strong commitment to responding to family violence that occurs in their communities. They also acknowledged, however, that they and their colleagues and communities require assistance in learning how to recognise and prevent family violence and respond appropriately. This lack of awareness and knowledge limits their ability to support those experiencing family violence.

“The Commission heard that some attitudes and practices, and inadequate or ill-informed responses by faith leaders, risk exposing victims to further and sustained abuse by family members. Women experiencing family violence can face barriers to seeking help in their faith community because of particular religious beliefs – for example, about divorce or gender roles.”

The report acknowledged the importance of mainstream family violence services understanding and being sensitive to people’s religious and cultural needs.

It said faith communities and organisations offered a vital opportunity to reach people who are affected by family violence, many of whom might not use formal family violence service pathways to seek help.

“It is therefore important that faith-based communities address barriers to the disclosure, prevention of or recovery from family violence and make it clear that religion cannot be used by perpetrators and others to condone or excuse abusive behaviour.

“Spiritual abuse and the use of faith to support or condone violence are concerns in some communities.

“Although there is no data on the prevalence of family violence in particular faith communities, anecdotal evidence suggests that such violence is causing increasing concern among those communities and their leaders… both culture and faith can add complexity to a victim’s experience of family violence and their ability to gain access to services. Importantly, however, the difficulties culturally and linguistically diverse communities and faith communities face are often distinct. People might share the same cultural practice yet come from different faith traditions.”

The report said that, with the assistance of the Office for Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship, the Commission arranged a faith leaders consultation attended by representatives of the Anglican, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Coptic Orthodox and Russian Orthodox communities.

“The consultation provided valuable insights into the experiences of faith leaders,” the report said. “All the leaders recognised that no faith community is immune from family violence by reason of their particular faith. The consultation also afforded the Commission an opportunity to hear about work being done in some communities to prevent and respond to such violence.

“Faith communities are ‘vital settings’ for dealing with family violence… They have an ability to reach and engage people who might not approach formal service providers in the family violence system. They are places where people can go to find ‘solace, meaning, comfort and support’, and they can create supportive social networks for their members who are affected by family violence. They can provide education to their members about family violence. Faith leaders occupy a position of authority in their community and have the ability to influence the behaviour of community members. They can sensitively introduce ways of seeing the roles of men and women in society to members of their own communities, without being seen as ‘outsiders’. Along with friends, family members and work colleagues, ministers of religion feature among the groups of people identified as the most common source of support following a woman’s most recent physical assault by her cohabiting partner and in cases of assault generally.”

The report said a number of faith communities had been doing important work on preventing and responding to family violence, citing among others Anglicans Helping to Prevent Violence against Women, launched in October 2011, a model of primary prevention that sought to reduce the prevalence of violence by building a culture of equal and respectful gender relationships in Anglican organisations and local churches.

“The Anglican community has delivered active bystander training, peer mentoring and training in violence prevention in a number of parishes,” the report said.

It quoted evidence from Melbourne Anglican priest, the Revd Scott Holmes, that “it is probably much more productive to actually work from a faith-by-faith basis so that each of those faith traditions can be dealing with the issue in the context of their sacred text, their cultural backgrounds, their world views and so forth”.

Mr Holmes has been active in the prevention of violence against women and children through the Northern Interfaith Respectful Relationships Project – a partnership between Darebin City Council and VicHealth – and as Project Manager of Health Promotion at YMCA Victoria.

But the Commission also identified failures by faith communities in preventing and responding to family violence.

“In the majority of cases where women had sought assistance from faith communities… the Commission was told the leaders were predominantly or exclusively men,” the report said.

“Some women received valuable support after they had disclosed family violence. For example, one woman told us her priest helped her secure sole custody of her children and was of great emotional support to her, which was particularly important since she had no family in Australia.

“For many women, however, the response was inadequate. The Commission heard that some faith leaders were uninformed and ill-equipped to respond to such disclosures: ‘Often the advice given wasn’t helpful because the faith leader didn’t know what kind of advice to give.’

“In other examples provided to the Commission, faith leaders colluded with perpetrators of family violence,” the report said.

The report said some women felt pressured to remain in abusive relationships because of attitudes towards marriage and divorce.

“There was also a perception that ‘religious leaders simply reinforce the patriarchy’. This view, which was expressed during the community consultations, has also been noted in recent research.”

The report quoted Mr Holmes  saying that “… the faith leader might think that they can care for both the victim and the perpetrator equally and not understand that there’s differences of power going on in those relationships and that they may not be the best person to care for both the victim and perpetrator, or indeed either, and need to refer elsewhere”.

“As was noted during the Commission’s consultation with faith leaders: ‘We also need to have women in pastoral leadership roles as sometimes women won’t feel comfortable coming to a priest in what they perceive to be a very patriarchal system. ”

Anglicare Victoria’s Chief Executive Mr Paul McDonald said the Royal Commission was “a game-changer” for Australia and praised Premier Daniel Andrews on the leadership he had shown on behalf of all Australian women and children affected by family violence.

Mr McDonald said the report had identified Anglicare Victoria’s Beyond the Violence program as one of the few programs in Victoria that directly worked with both the mother and child to strengthen the parent-child relationship and rebuild family relationships after experiencing family violence.

“Beyond the Violence program attendees report significant, often life-changing benefits – 80% of those we surveyed reported an improved relationship with their child and 87% reported their parenting improved after attending the program,” he said.

Testimonies to the Royal Commission:

“At some point in our marriage I went to speak to our religious leader and ask advice about my husband’s abusive behaviour. The religious leader advised me that perhaps if the house was cleaner when my husband got home, or if I cooked better, he might not be so angry. As a result of confiding to my religious leader, I was referred to a counselling service that advised me on how to be a more obliging and obedient wife.”

“My mother was repeatedly advised by elders in our church that she should stay with my father when she approached them for advice or when things at home had become intolerable.”

“I was manipulated to stay within my marriage by five different ministers and respective congregations… One church assisted my ex-husband to hide assets. Another minister phoned my friends and warned them to have nothing to do with me, [and] reveal where I was hiding. Another declared I was protected by God because I didn’t die in the assault and to drop the AVO and return to my marriage because I married in sickness and in health, and he was only ‘sick’. I was told I am my husband’s property… to be obedient so he wouldn’t have to hit me, don’t place demands, allow him to try and be a man, and be more loving etc, to the point of one congregation member coaching him in how to respond/act regarding psych evaluations and questioning… I am gravely concerned about the lack of skills for lay ministers, counsellors and psychologists in the area of family violence counselling. One church-sponsored counsellor said: ‘Be gentle with him, he’s trying to be a man.’”