SYDNEY, Australia — One Sunday last year, Isabelle’s husband, Max, came home from his Anglican church in Sydney brandishing sermon notes. The minister had preached that day on the need for wives to accept their husband’s authority.
Max, a parish leader, yelled: “You don’t get it, do you? The wife has to submit.” Then, as he often did on weekends, he took Isabelle into their bedroom and raped her.
The words he had heard in church, she told me, gave him “fuel for his cruelty.” Isabelle, which is not her real name, had been crippled with shame and fear, but she eventually left him after he threatened to kill her.
For more than a year, Hayley Gleeson, a colleague of mine at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and I have been investigating how religion intersects with domestic violence in Australia. We’ve studied how church culture affects the behavior of perpetrators and victims, what teachings can be exploited by abusers, and how faith leaders respond to accusations of domestic violence.
We spoke to more than 250 counselors, church workers, psychologists, clergy members, theologians, social workers, sociologists and survivors. We discovered aspects of the culture that allow abuse to occur and continue: the teaching of male “headship” and the domination of women, a dearth of female leadership, the church’s emphasis on forgiveness, stigma surrounding divorce, the lack of understanding of domestic abuse, and a covering-up of women’s experiences.
We found that many local pastors did not believe women who came forward with stories of abuse. Church leaders often told women to submit to their husbands, to endure and stay.
The stories we heard were brutal: decades of repeated rape, assault, financial control, emotional abuse, needing to ask permission to perform mundane acts like drinking lemonade, suicide attempts, shattered lives and crushed self-esteem. A significant number of perpetrators were church leaders. Police reports of rape by clergy husbands piled up on my desk.
The same kind of horror stories are now coming to light in the United States. In one of the most prominent recent examples, the Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson is accused of misogyny and of counseling an abused woman to stay with a violent husband.
Our reporting was greeted with defensive fury in some powerful church quarters. Conservative commentators decried our work as an “attack on Christianity,” ignoring that the abused women we interviewed were Christians.
Of all the some 20,000 words the ABC published on the subject in one