‘What would the Bible say’ about religious family violence, victims wonder

Emma ColindresThe author of a new paper by the Australian Institute of Family Studies says religious or spiritual abuse is more common than most people realise, is under-researched and often involves religious teachings being used to justify control, manipulation, coercion or other intimate partner violence, or to ridicule victims to destroy their confidence.


When devout Christian Emma Colindres was leaving her home in Nicaragua to seek a better life, her mother gave her a Bible that became her most treasured possession.

“She was going through cancer, and [the Bible] was the kind of thing that you want to keep for the rest of your life, and pass it on to your children,” said Colindres, who works in Melbourne as a donor relations officer at an Australian medical research body.

“I brought it with me [to Australia]. It was something very, very precious to me.”

Years later, Colindres’ then-partner tore her Bible to pieces and threw it in her face. He was a man of another faith – who did not respect hers – and the outburst left Colindres distraught and terrified.

That was not the only form of abuse Colindres experienced while in a relationship with the man, who she said was so ashamed of her faith that he kept her identity a secret and did not introduce her to his family and friends in the years they lived together.

But the psychological attacks she experienced, based on her religion, were among those that left the deepest trauma. She describes losing the Bible inscribed by her mother as like losing a child.

The author of a new paper by the Australian Institute of Family Studies says religious or spiritual abuse is more common than most people realise, is under-researched and often involves religious teachings being used to justify control, manipulation, coercion or other intimate partner violence, or to ridicule victims to destroy their confidence.

Dr Mandy Truong, a senior research fellow in child and family violence, said while faith-based abuse was a lesser known form of family violence, it has in part been kept quiet due to taboos and the fear among victims of being ostracised.

Evidence of coercive and controlling behaviours could be found across a range of religions, including Christianity, Islam and Judaism, she said, and “the abuse may be subtle and go unnoticed unless it’s paired with other types of violence such as physical violence”.

“Research shows that some faith leaders may minimise and ignore abuse, instead focusing on relationship counselling, regular prayer and attending their place of worship rather than victim-survivor safety,” Truong said.

Anglican pastor Erica Mandi Manga, a domestic and family violence spokesperson for the Christian organisation Common Grace, said traffic to the website’s intimate partner violence resource, Safer, showed people experiencing it were curious about what their faith said about it.

“One of the most common searches within that resource is the ‘What does the Bible say about’ section … it’s clear people are seeking to know what God says about spirituality-based abuse and what they’re experiencing,” Mandi Manga said.

“They want an outside voice on that, other than what their abuser is telling them and even maybe what their church might tell them.”

Mandi Manga said some faith leaders still struggle to understand religious abuse. “There are still, sadly, a lot of instances where people get sad advice from their ministers about how to respond and how to classify the violence, [there are] ways in which it gets justified and diminished.”

“One woman was told by her faith leader to have a child for her ‘spiritual purity’, even though the child was conceived through rape.” – Lawyer Yasmin Ildes, inTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence

Religious leaders need to know that in the hands of abusers, what matters the most to victims can be used to harm them. “Everything you value in your community can be used as a weapon,” she said.

“[Victims] can feel like they have almost their entire faith community standing behind them to control their behaviour.”

Lawyer Yasmin Ildes, of the inTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence, said she had clients whose abusers misused religious teachings or doctrines to isolate, control and “gaslight” them into believing they had no choice but to remain in the situation.

“I had a client whose religious leader made a really harmful interpretation of teachings and used them to justify the abuse she was experiencing. She was told, ‘Submit to your husband, he’s the head of your house, the head of your home’,” Ildes said.

“There is also a lot of pressure around marriage and reproduction; to remain in an abusive relationship and dictating reproductive choices.

“One woman client was told by her faith leader to have a child for her ‘spiritual purity’, even though the child was conceived through rape.”

Ildes said victims of intimate partner violence could be made to feel as if seeking help was a sign of spiritual or religious weakness.

Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine, chief executive of the federal government’s family violence research organisation ANROWS, said religion was often overlooked as a factor in family violence “because we think of it as a private issue”.

“This research reminds us that religion … is not immune, and needs to be a part of the work to tackle domestic violence, like all of us.” She said she had been sent internal research by faith groups, showing they were trying to tackle the issue of religious and spiritual abuse.

Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth said the Australian Institute of Family Studies’ research confirmed the need for increased training for faith leaders about family, domestic and sexual violence.

Her department recently released a training program for faith leaders of culturally and linguistically diverse communities to improve knowledge and intervention strategies to better respond to abuse disclosures.

 

Emma Colindres
Emma Colindres, an observant Christian, was abused and ridiculed for her faith by a previous partner.CREDIT:DARRIAN TRAYNOR

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