We hold dearly to a dangerous misconception - that our ecclesias are easy to approach about a problem. I have had arranging brothers say to me, “I don’t know why [a victim] didn’t come to discuss it with us”, and this just emphasises the reality - separating from their spouse and getting help from the specialist domestic violence services and women’s refuges is the approach we find most victims take when finally they reach breaking point.
Trust - we believe the root cause issue is lack of trust that the ecclesia and the support mechanisms available will be able to help. By this we mean everything from distrust about how an individual brother or sister who is told of the abuse might respond, through to distrust about how welfare committees and arranging brothers groups would handle a report of abuse.
Confidentiality - some of the trust issues are about confidentiality. This is a serious but challenging issue for the body of Christ to recognise and change. This will not change without a grass-roots willingness to call out breaches of confidentiality and to refuse to be told, much less be a conduit for confidential information and gossip. Even though we talk of the “Christadelphian grapevine” it is to our shame - scripture expressly forbids gossip (1 Cor. 12:20; Eph. 4:29; Ex 23:1; James 1:26; 4:11 for instance). Our discussion paper makes recommendations on how confidentiality can be managed even within arranging brothers and welfare committees. We know how challenging this is - when abusers manipulate their friends in the brotherhood, indeed whole ecclesias, to make appeals on their behalf and accuse the ecclesia genuinely trying to handle a difficult case of being one-sided or of being prejudiced against the abuser it is hard not to immediately go into a defensive stance and justify the ecclesia’s actions based on the terrible things we know about. We should not - we need an excess of care and patience not to be drawn into breaching confidentiality in any way. As individual brothers and sisters we need to show our support for the victim, and ensure we remain close to the abuser - again our discussion paper makes recommendations on how we can do this. Our relationship may be vital to recovering the abuser - something we are called upon to do.
Fear - even when the abuse is emotional and psychological abuse, the abuser uses threats of all types to make the victim fearful of the consequences he will mete out on the victim, their children, their family and even their pets. Threats can include threats to use the legal system as a weapon - they will ensure that she does not get access to the children if she leaves, for instance. If the victim believes the first thing the ecclesia will do is go and speak to the abuser and tell them of the disclosure the fear has been effective in providing a barrier to disclosure by the victim. The ecclesia needs policies to ensure that there is no automatic response to disclosure that alerts the abuser unnecessarily.
Shame - perhaps one of the biggest issues arising in part from the effectiveness of the Christadelphian grapevine is that victims rightly feel that if people know of their abuse they will become the subjects of shame. This also is to our shame - our shame because there should be no shame to the victim, but unfortunately it is the reality. We have seen letters written to victims, we have heard victims tell us the things people (including sadly sister to sister) have said to them. These things are extremely judgemental, wrong and calculated to shame the victim. The only shame in domestic abuse should be to the abuser and those who are complicit in the abuse.
Finally, we have heard numerous victims tell us that they have told their ecclesia in one way or another. One young newly married sister went to an arranging brother and his wife for help. She was told that when her husband threw the meal at her she should clean it up and make him what he wanted. Then ten years later when she finally could bear it no more, the brother sat quietly through an arranging brothers meeting where the victim was questioned and said nothing about what he had known from the previous ten years.
Loudly and clearly our ecclesias need to be discussing domestic abuse and sending a believable and trusted message to victims that they if they choose to disclose their abuse they will be heard, they will be believed and action will be taken.
Start the discussion in your ecclesia today. Consider if your ecclesia could have a policy about domestic abuse so that everybody understands the issue better and the ecclesia is better prepared to act.
If this article raises concerns you have about domestic violence in your own life or those around you can call 1800RESPECT (If in Australia) or similar services in other countries. There is also a list of support services on this website including Christadelphian Support Services.