Shattering the silence: Australians tell their stories of surviving domestic violence in the church

Shattering the silence: Australians tell their stories of surviving domestic violence in the church

Shattering the silence: Australians tell their stories of surviving domestic violence in the church

Updated 18 August 2017, 7:00 AEST

These are first-person accounts from 20 women and men who want their tales of suffering abuse in Christian communities — many at the hands of pastors and pillars of their parish — to be told for the first time.

Below are first-person accounts from 20 women and men who want their tales of suffering abuse in Christian communities — many at the hands of pastors and pillars of their parish — to be told for the first time.

Raped for decades. Scalded with hot water. Punched in the shower. Threatened with a noose left hanging in the garage. Hit, shoved, strangled. Yelled at daily. Called a "slut" by a priest husband. Told to "submit" to sexual abuse. Pushed to suicidal thoughts.

After ABC News recently published a series of articles on domestic violence and the Church, hundreds of Australians emailed us to tell us about their own experiences of abuse.

Most of their parishes responded clumsily, or ignored them completely, but others protected them. While some priests were critical, others were supportive: testament to genuine efforts being made in many churches to address domestic violence, which we have reported in some detail.

As Sarah said: "My church family has been at the core of my journey — helping me back onto my feet and loving me through the toughest, cruellest experiences of my life."

But all are asking the Church to urgently heed their tales, and recognise how insidious, prevalent and destructive domestic abuse can be.

Lynette

Evangelical Baptist

For more than two decades I was in a marriage in which I experienced increasing domestic violence, though I didn't recognise it as such at the time.

My faith is at the core of my being — this has not changed despite what I have been through. Growing up in an evangelical Baptist church, however, I believe I was vulnerable to the abuse I came to endure.

Women were not allowed to hold leadership positions, and no woman could "preach" in my church. At one stage they appointed a deaconess, but she was to be involved only with women and girls.

Scripture was and is so important to me, but it was twisted and used against me.

I internalised all the warped interpretations and meanings given to particular parts of scripture — for example, Ephesians 5:22-33 ("Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour") and Colossians 3:18-19 ("Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord").

The call to "submit to one another" was skimmed over, as was the call for husbands to love their wives.

So I learnt that to be spiritual, to be godly, to be obedient to God, I was to submit to my husband.

He had the final say in decisions; I was to give myself to him and uphold my responsibility to submit regardless of whether or not he upheld his duty to love.

Nobody else knew what was happening — they saw my then-husband as a bright, bubbly, kind and helpful person.

Driving to church he could be yelling at me or the kids, but as soon as he stepped out of the car, he would be charming, pleasant and happy, talking to people he met on the way in to church.

As everything was always my fault, I tried to appease him, I tried to change for him. I often walked on eggshells to keep the peace and protect my children from his abuse (they were largely unaware of what I was going through).

At times his behaviour towards them was abusive, but I would stand up for them to minimise the impact.

And although I knew my marriage was 'sick', I blamed myself. Divorce, meanwhile, was an absolute 'no-no'; I saw it as my responsibility to make things better.

I found it hard to come to terms with the fact that what was happening to me was in fact domestic violence.

For many years in my work I have seen the effects of domestic violence in families who were my clients. But it never occurred to me that it was happening to me, too.

A few months before I left my marriage I participated in a domestic violence training workshop as a part of my professional development.

As the workshop hosts listed the various forms of domestic violence — verbal abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, spiritual abuse etc.

I sat there, stunned. I could tick every box except physical abuse: I was never hit.

That's one of the things about the ongoing discussion of and commentary on domestic violence that frustrates me — the emphasis is usually on the more extreme forms of physical violence.

The deaths and injuries from domestic violence are heartbreaking. However, they often come at the end of years of non-physical abuse.

I could never go to the police because I believed there was nothing illegal to report.

During counselling sessions after I had left, my psychologist commented that my ex-husband was such a "violent man". I stopped her and said: "But he never hit me!"

She went on to point out all the ways I was violated; how I had been destroyed from the inside out.

Today, I can look back and smile. Instead of bagging myself, I can acknowledge the strength and courage it took to be able to make it through.

But although nearly two decades have passed since I left, my scars remain — sometimes they open up again.

There are two books which have been so helpful to me.

One — Divorce, the Unforgivable Sin? by lawyer Ken Crispin (now out of print) — was given to me to read prior to my final decision to leave my marriage.

The other book I found about 18 months after I had left: Women, Abuse and the Bible, by American authors Catherine Clark Kroeger and James R Beck.

I mention these books to show that there are people within the Church who have been trying to tackle this issue for a long time, though I fear it may never be truly dealt with.

I don't know how things can be understood and changed in the Church. All I know is that more people must speak up.

Ministers, priests, pastors and church leaders must take responsibility and be accountable. They can do this by listening to what women are saying, and admit when they have enabled abuse.

They need to be open to finding ways of correcting the false teaching that has been going on for years; to believe in, and give real support to women experiencing domestic violence.

I have been wanting to scream from the mountain tops much of what is in the ABC's reports on religion and domestic violence.

I was fortunate in that, towards the end, I was part of a small church whose leaders saved me. I don't know where I would be today without their support.

Diane

Former clergy wife

A few years after I joined a liberal church I started a relationship with and eventually married a priest (clergy of this church are allowed to marry).

This man was exceedingly popular and charismatic; publicly he had the appearance of a mild-mannered, kind-hearted servant of the Church.

But at home he turned out to be a different person: volatile, controlling and violent in many ways.

He moved in and took over my home, leaving me with little space to call my own. He oscillated between idealising me and belittling me.

He abused information I'd told him about myself in trust, claiming it showed I was mentally unstable and unreliable.

He would yell at me and call me a "slut" and similar slurs, and would later claim I made him lose control, that it was me who drove him to violence and foul language.

He would bully me until I broke down, then accuse me of being hysterical.

One morning, before we were due to head out for Mass, he poured hot washing-up water over my head.

One night, he pushed me out of bed onto the floor: I still get shoulder pains from the incident.

On a different night, I tried to escape and take shelter in the church, but he pulled me out and dragged me home, yelling that I had fouled the building by being there.

The next morning in church he stood at the pulpit preaching about Christ and love and mercy.

He was also dishonest in financial matters, appropriating money I'd set aside for shared purposes (holidays, car repairs, etc.) to repay a credit card debt owing from before we met, and about which I knew nothing at the time.

When I later confronted him about it, he said it was my fault for making the money accessible to him.

People often told me how lucky I was to be with such a man. Because of his popularity, I felt unable to report his behaviour to the vicar or any of the other clergy, doubtful that anyone would believe me.

After he chased me around local streets in his car one evening, I reported him to the police but did not press charges.

A priest has a respected standing in society, and the Church and pastoral care team would've given him such a glowing character report that he was sure to walk out of court free and vindicated.

Many times I prayed for some guidance or resolution, but none came. Finally, I took the matter into my own hands and asked him to leave, which fortunately he did straight away.

Uncertain of my status in the Church, I stayed away for a couple of months. In that time, only three church members contacted me.

When I told them of my ex-husband's behaviour they did not respond — I assumed they didn't believe me. My only other contact was a woman who rang me late one night, telling me vehemently that I should be ashamed of myself.

Meanwhile, my ex-husband continued celebrating Mass in the Church as before.

I went back there a couple of times, but received only cool politeness from most of the congregation.

Soon after I moved away, and wrote to one of the bishops to explain my side of the story. He called back and seemed sympathetic, but as to whether he completely believed me, I'm not sure.

I did gather from what he said that the Church and congregation were aware of why I left the marriage, but at no time did I get an apology or an offer of conciliation.

Consequently, I've never been back to that church, or any other.

My trust in the Church as an institution has been totally broken.

Patrick

Pentecostal, Baptist

The abuse I suffered was a product of dominance, but the gender roles were switched.

My wife was older, had a dominant personality and was used to getting her own way. I was a quiet and sensitive person from a loud, working-class area and used to being bullied.

Our relationship had sprung out of that power imbalance.

Initially, I was shocked by her sudden, disproportionate rages. They developed into violence within months of marriage, with knives thrown and a lot of hitting.

Her violence pushed all of my buttons from a childhood of being bullied, and I sometimes felt an impulse to hit back, but my strong belief against hitting a woman prevented me.

I never told my pastor about the violence at the time because it felt weak, and I figured I could defend myself. I did, however, tell him about the rages, and he backed her up consistently.

I discovered over the years that this was fairly typical, that the role of pastor often attracts people who don't like conflict and deal with it by encouraging the more reasonable party to give in.

There was a subset of Christians, largely from Pentecostal circles, who saw a problem. They talked about "Spirit of Jezebel", by which they meant a woman who doesn't know her place.

I was told by several people that my wife was not submissive enough, and that I needed to "take headship".

This deeply disturbed me, because I felt they were encouraging me to violence while deliberately avoiding the words.

They may not have been, but I think that if you give such vague advice to a young man struggling to survive, that will too often be his interpretation.

None of these Christians knew what was actually going on. The verbal abuse was crushing to start with — she used to scream with such intensity what a useless failure I was.

But this often escalated, and it was the worst if I was subdued because I had done something wrong.

She would make me stand still so that she could punch me in the face. I remember sitting with our two-year-old on my lap, while she held a knife to my throat.

Several times she swung a poker at my head with all of her force.

After one particular attack, I went around to the local Baptist pastor's house, not realising I still had glass in my neck. He was comforting, and suggested we come around for counselling.

We did, the next night. But when I told him about her violence, he corrected me. "Our violence. You need to own it as your violence too," he said.

I explained that I had never been violent, but it was beside the point. I shouldn't point fingers; who among us is without sin?

I received a similar response from other Christian counsellors I sought help from. They were often caring people who wanted to avoid conflict and do something good, but they seemed to lack answers.

Their unique field was Christianity, and the only guidance they had from the Bible was:

  1. Wives obey your husbands
  2. Husbands love your wives
  3. Don't get divorced unless there's an affair.

Everything had to be answered with those three tools.

Unfortunately, I was just as bound by them. One Baptist pastor stood out from the others, because in the first few years of marriage, he saw my wife in a rage, then told me privately afterward that I needed to leave.

I was genuinely shocked. Divorce was a sin.

The only answer I could come up with was that I needed to love more. Surely, then whatever was keeping her prisoner to this would eventually drop away and she could be free to become a whole person.

I had to lay down my life, prefer to be wronged, forgive no matter what, and absorb her hatred like Jesus absorbed hatred on our behalf.

My wife quit work because she knew I would forgive her and would never force her to do anything.

She continued to abandon friendships, slept most of each day, left all of the housework to me, and although her anger was less frequent and mostly she was grateful and pleasant, it still came unannounced — sometimes with fists, other times with threats of self-harm.

I still occasionally wake from dreams that she has snuck into the room with a knife.

Eventually I accepted that I had no answers. That was the point where I think my faith went completely.

If even love Himself had no way to bring her freedom in His holy institute of marriage that symbolises His love for the church, then what was the point?

I could see clearly that the kindest thing to do was to leave, and eventually I did.

Losing my God was like a second divorce to me, and I still grieve for it.

Sarah

Pentecostal

So much of what has been said about the misuse of scripture in the ABC's reports on domestic violence and the church has struck a chord with me.

Unfortunately, my husband used religion to hurt me too.

I heard the very same words — that a wife must "submit" to her husband and do what he says — come out of his mouth.

My husband and I were married for many years, but life together was generally tough.

He is a very charismatic man — a great public speaker and personality, an extrovert through and through. But in our marriage, I often felt very alone and unloved.

His ambitions were outside of our home and I believe our family suffered because of it. We spent a lot of time over the years in counselling.

But one particular incident changed everything.

While my husband was completely consumed with building his business, I worked hard to make a home for our family — creating a beautiful bedroom for our children, cooking all our meals, cleaning and maintaining the house, keeping everyone clothed and looked after — all on a budget of $150 a week, which he deposited into our bank account for me.

I felt like a sole parent.

Still, he told me the house was a mess, that instead of painting a bedroom for the kids, I should have been washing the dishes. I remember feeling like I didn't exist.

So I told him that he could help out once in a while, and angrily started doing the dishes.

But before I knew it, he'd grabbed me from behind and dragged me from the kitchen towards the door. Shocked and scared, I fought back.

I never thought I wouldn't be able to defend myself, but he overpowered me and tried to throw me outside.

I put my feet on the door to prevent this and struggled to get away, throwing him off balance. But he grabbed at me and I tripped, hitting my face on the wall as I fell. He didn't care.

He wrestled me, sat on me and pinned my body to the ground.

At this point my eldest came in and asked her dad what was happening; he yelled at her to go back to her room. I couldn't move. I still had the washing gloves on my hands.

Eventually, he just got up and left me on the floor, in a state of shock. I asked him to move out, to give us time. He had not physically hurt me before that day, but it wasn't the last time.

I chose to share my experience of domestic abuse with close friends, pastors from my Pentecostal church and certain counsellors, who have all been very supportive of me.

They also insisted that if a husband is physically abusive — whether the abuse is ongoing or on a single occasion — he has broken his marriage vows and needs to leave and seek help.

My pastor worked with both of us to try and figure it out, but my husband chose to commit adultery and left me and the children.

Not once did the pastor condone his behaviour — the violence or the adultery.

He told me that there were worse things than divorce: for example, staying in a relationship with someone who had been physically abusive.

The staff at the domestic violence support services I sought help from were also wonderful.

They explained how abuse often starts and escalates and told me my story was not unusual — they also said I had done the right thing by asking him to leave straight away.

Some beautiful older women from church came and prayed throughout my home, where the abuse happened. This was so amazing and comforting.

I also met regularly with two different pastors who checked in on my healing process and the upcoming divorce that my husband instigated.

I was prepared to do the work and not get divorced because I believed our marriage was worth saving, but he wasn't interested in even acknowledging what he had done — he still hasn't taken responsibility for his actions.

He has continued to blame me for both his violence and adultery; he claims it wasn't really adultery because I didn't submit to him as a Godly wife in our marriage anyway, so therefore, he argued, our marriage wasn't real.

My pastor was brilliant as far as this issue was concerned. He said that if anyone has to demand submission, it speaks more about the issues of the one demanding it — not the other way around.

The experience of abuse and then divorce has been a huge ordeal for me.

It affected the way I felt about myself: I stopped believing I am a strong woman, and have had to re-learn who I am as a single mother.

But I haven't walked alone: my church family has been at the core of my journey — helping me back onto my feet and loving me through the toughest, cruellest experiences of my life.

My faith was and is the very thing that keeps me strong when I feel fragile.

Time and again I have been loved and looked after — that's the faith and hope that I have: one that doesn't leave you alone in a crisis, one that loves and supports you through it all.

Erin

Conservative evangelical, Sydney

I met my husband at an Anglican church. One of his qualities I found attractive back then was the way he took control whenever a decision had to be made at the church fellowship group we attended.

When I was a relatively new Christian, I heard people talking about how the wife had to promise to "love and obey" her husband in her wedding vows. I couldn't understand that.

Why was the husband the "head" of the relationship? I thought, "they're just playing with words", and a wife would get to make half of all the decisions, surely.

The whole concept of "submission" was bizarre to me — I was a professional woman who'd spent most of my life making all my own decisions.

For many years during our marriage I heard sermons on the husband's headship and wife's submission, the tone of which often made me uncomfortable.

My husband went ballistic every time I "undermined his authority", as he called it, justifying his anger with the preached line: "The Bible says 'wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord'."

He never once hit me, but he dictated everything right from the start: simple things like what activities we did together in our joint leisure time, what he would do with our money.

A few years into our marriage, I found out he'd given serious thought to killing me [details redacted to protect Erin]. So from that point on he had even more power over me. I didn't tell anyone this.

Whenever I asked my husband where all his pay was going, he'd rant and rave about "submission" and how, as head of the family, he didn't have to tell me what he was doing with his pay, and how un-Godly I was to distrust him.

At one stage, I bought something for my personal use — an item I would use frequently, not a 'luxury' item which I would seldom use. He verbally attacked me: "What do you need that for?"

I became so scared of making him angry by spending money on myself.

He made me "service him" as a prostitute would, and he made me dress up for sex just how he liked — it was disgusting and humiliating.

He would get angry if I objected, saying, "the Bible says I'm the authority".

To give myself strength to continue, I read a certain devotional book over and over, for years and years, as it said: "Keep praying, trust in God through the trials God is sending you … He is refining you with fire. He will answer your prayer if it aligns with His will."

That's how I hung in there for so long: believing that I was just being "refined by fire" and that some day God's will would prevail, and my husband would become a kind man.

After many years of marriage, he came home from church and threw the print-out of the sermon at me, angrily saying: "You don't get it, do you! The wife is to submit."

The sermon had been about how God has a particular role for wives, a place in his order that is designed for the wife's good and God's glory.

The saved woman is called upon to make a decision to submit to and help her husband, because God has put her husband in authority over her.

These words gave my husband such fuel for his cruelty.

Although the sermon script also said the wife is not meant to be a passive victim, and the husband is not meant to lead with oppressive headship, the whole script is so ambiguous that any controlling man can justify his actions with it.

If I ever voiced a contrary opinion to his, or made a simple and entirely reasonable request, he would say with indignation: "You constantly challenge my headship. God intended that I have the authority and you just can't accept that. Until you can accept it, our marriage will be hell."

To this day, I think my husband has it wrong. Surely no loving God would intend a marriage to be so hard?

What makes me angry is the naivety of the male Anglican ministers that I've listened to for decades.

They are the ones who just don't get it: they don't get the fact that they are perpetuating domestic violence.

It is so important to acknowledge that we don't need to be physically hit for it to be soul-destroying, confidence-eroding, terrifying, domestic abuse.

However the male ministers try to phrase this message of "wife's submission" and "husband's headship", which the controlling men in the congregation will interpret to their advantage, and continue to shame, humiliate and terrorise their wives.

In the Anglican church I've attended for many years, I don't expect the ministers to support the wives.

Indoctrinated in the dominance of the male, by males from the pulpit, I've never felt they were going to be sympathetic to my complaints. And they haven't been.

I've pleaded with them on many occasions to speak to my husband, too embarrassed to disclose the truth of his behaviour, insisting that his "depression" was shattering our family life.

But the ministers have never made any effort to get involved.

I am ashamed and humiliated that I allowed this man to treat me as he did for so long.

But when I saw the ABC's reports on this issue I suddenly realised it was not just me.

Carol

Pentecostal, former clergy wife

I was married to an abusive Pentecostal minister for many years.

I met him in my twenties, and we went out for a few months, became engaged and then married — all within a year.

Early in our courtship he became quite defensive. If I teased him gently amongst the company of his close friends he would scold me afterwards in private.

I was surprised at how touchy he was. I tried to be compassionate and understanding, and just dismissed this as a strange trait and proceeded to get to know him.

He was otherwise so much fun to be around, and we had wonderful conversations.

But over time, he began telling me off fairly regularly; he would speak to me as if I were a child that had done something wrong.

Sometimes he would be gentle and seemed to be trying to help me, but it did seem a little strange to me that he would lecture me.

I would endure his lectures and again dismissed them as an odd trait. I figured no-one was perfect, so I might have to put up with a few annoying things to make the relationship work.

One week before our wedding, he yelled at me. I was too scared and humiliated to face disclosing the abuse to family and friends.

People had purchased airfares and rearranged holidays — many were beginning to arrive. I dismissed his yelling and put-downs as "stress".

But I would soon learn there was no escaping his regular verbal tirades. He would build in tension then explode. Lectures became the norm.

He made me change churches. He told me I didn't pray properly because I didn't do it just like him. He told me I was not devoted enough, and stopped me from going to women's meetings.

When I started going again a few years later, he yelled at me that I didn't have his blessing.

He sabotaged my ability to volunteer in our church. He also made me change social groups, and limited my involvement with people outside the church, too.

He put me down. He criticised and undermined my decisions and my skills and my parenting.

We were married for a number of years before the penny dropped that our relationship was, in fact, abusive. My friend helped me come to the realisation.

I began trying to disclose it to the church and to counsellors, but they were of little help — they didn't seem to be knowledgeable about how to handle domestic violence.

I also started to tell to my parents.

After a few months of making no progress with him — despite attending counselling regularly — I thought about forcing a separation, but our counsellor talked me out of it.

It then took several more years for me to build up the knowledge and courage to leave him.

During this time, I hoped our relationship would improve, and I tried many things to that effect: from prayer to patience to gentleness to meek submission to assertiveness to counselling — but nothing worked.

His abusive behaviour only increased in frequency and intensity. He stopped becoming remorseful in the cycle of abuse. There were definite patterns, but he had become too volatile to be around.

When he began to lose control over me he raged — often in front of our children.

He threatened to leave, told me I was a disobedient wife, lied about me to whoever would listen and continued to prioritise maintaining his ministerial image instead of being honest and attempting to make amends with me.

He would mock me for mentioning that his behaviour was abusive, and for wanting peace in our home. He would even try and tell me he wasn't abusing me.

I didn't want to leave him. But his actions and choices were harming our family, so I needed to.

It was a difficult decision; I also wanted to be careful to do things in the right way. I was used to having a husband as a spiritual head, and was unsure about stepping out from under his authority.

Our church refused to help — they failed to see the seriousness of the matter at hand, and sided with him, which felt like a continuation of the abuse.

But by that point I had sought the support of a network of friends who assisted me to leave him, with the help of the authorities.

Friends and ministers of other denominations also provided support, including pastoral care, and practical assistance with crisis accommodation, meals, food vouchers and baby sitting.

I now attend a new church — they sourced a counsellor and subsidised the cost of counselling for me — and I attempt to focus on our healing and stability.

I grieve my fractured family, broken marriage, and the loss of friendships, but try to focus on being grateful.

I still have faith in God, but the leadership of my old church have lost my respect.

There needs to be a significant paradigm shift in the way the church handles domestic violence — it is long overdue.

Many churches overseas have made solid efforts to develop guidelines for responding to both perpetrators and victims, so there is absolutely no excuse for the Australian church to continue to lag behind in ignorance.

Paige

Anglican Priest

I was still a teenager when the abuse started in my relationship. My Christianity was one of the weapons used against me.

I was raised by two loving parents, so I never knew that life with a partner could be violent. But I normalised it and hoped it would change.

It started with a push against the wall — we had been arguing about money. I wrote it off as "heated emotions".

Later, that push turned into more pushing, grabbing, manoeuvring, and eventually into punching.

Whenever I prepared to leave, he would remind me that Christians are called to forgive, and that I should forgive him and stay together.

I was young, I fell for it. I felt that if I did leave then I would be a failure. We also had a young child, which made me feel even more vulnerable.

My conservative Christian friends believed strongly that I should stay in the relationship for the sake of the child, regardless of the quality of the relationship.

I was too ashamed to tell my parents of the abuse because I wanted to be strong and independent.

My beliefs were being twisted against me, and I didn't know what to do about it.

The relationship kept deteriorating. After the hitting, sleep deprivation became the new tool.

If he was angry at me, I wasn't allowed to sleep: he would come in and repeatedly wake me up if I had fallen asleep. This went on until 4am when he finally fell asleep.

I would then get up to the baby at 6:00am, but at least my morning was quiet.

I remember waking up another night to a punch in the face, and slept on the couch for the remainder of the night.

A friend later saw my face and told me that what was happening wasn't right, which was a great relief for me to have this recognised.

Another time, I was woken up by him dropping all of his weight onto my back with his knee — because I had upset him before going to bed.

After I'd gone to bed he'd started drinking and had clearly decided the argument wasn't over. He dragged me from the bed and pushed me around the house.

I left him shortly afterwards; I'd endured his abuse for months and things clearly weren't going to change. But the abuse didn't stop.

For the next two years, I was sexually abused, verbally abused, stalked and had nails driven into my car tyres — all because I wouldn't go back to him.

I felt powerless to stop him; I was worried seeking an intervention order would push him over the edge, that he would have nothing to lose any more and my life would be in danger.

He told me that if I were a "good Christian" then I should forgive him and stay, that I should submit to him, that I should be a "good woman", that our child needed our family to be together and it would be my "failure" if we broke apart.

He would tell me that was how a "good Christian woman" should act. And yet he wasn't a Christian — he just used whatever weapon he had to make me stay.

Two decades later, I still feel the shame, I still feel sick in my stomach. How could I have let this happen to me?

When I look back, I can also see that the abuse started much earlier than the first push: he deliberately got me pregnant when I was still a teenager — a secret I held onto for years.

It had been an act designed to entrap and imprison me.

One of the main reasons I left was that I couldn't let my children think their father's behaviour was acceptable.

I know domestic violence is present in the lives of many women, even strong ones. That this sort of distorted love can warp your mind and your view of the world.

This 'love' makes your world very small, to the point where you feel trapped.

But there is a big world out there, full of compassionate people who will help others who need it.

Many of those people are in churches: I found safety in a progressive church. God isn't a God who wants you to live your life in fear and violence.

I believe God wants a full life for everyone, and if theology is leading you to stay in an abusive relationship in which you're required to "submit", it is bad theology.

Today, nothing could make me "submit". My husband would never raise a hand to me or "lay down the law" — just as I wouldn't to him. We are equals in our relationship.

I am also now an ordained priest in the Anglican Church, and my experience has made me more aware of what can happen in people's homes and the need support victims and survivors of abuse.

If this story sounds like your story, I want to give you permission to leave, and never look back.

I want to give you the strength to be steadfast and seek help. Log it all down, every act of abuse, in a diary with dates, descriptions, and pictures if you are able, and give the diary to a friend.

Domestic abuse support services like SafeSteps can help you.

James

Son of a Christian "family man"

I think it's crucial to highlight the myriad stories of church domestic abuse, including the impacts such abuse can have on children.

My first memory of violence is of being dragged to my room by my panicked mother, who wanted my siblings and me — I was very young — to be quiet before my father arrived home.

As a young child I regularly saw and heard my siblings being "disciplined" by our violent father, who would overreact to usual childhood misbehaviour.

We regularly heard him screaming at my mother late at night, and often saw her with bruising.

My father would often speak in our church, which he attended regularly. However, he never really formed any friendships with other men there.

He went out of his way to show charity and compassion to people outside his family, but seemed to lack generosity in time and resources for his children.

His abuse affected us all, with some of my siblings going on to repeat this violence — or endure it in other forms — in their own, often dysfunctional, relationships.

He physically abused us until I was almost out of primary school, when my eldest brother — who bore the brunt of my father's abuse — stood up to him.

At this point, my father's physical abuse of my mother ceased, but his emotional and financial abuse continued, if not increased.

His church attendance has declined in recent years, unlike my mother's, while his financial abuse of her has increased considerably, totally reducing her ability to leave on a financial basis alone.

Members of our extended family, as well as church pastoral care teams, tried on several occasions to intervene, but at no point has my mother actively tried to leave her marriage.

I suspect she is heavily influenced by an unhelpful form of the complementarian "headship" model taught in church.

I also believe she is ashamed to break her marriage vows and abandon her "Christian marriage".

Growing up, most of us kids got the impression of a God that was harsh, lacking grace and heaping blame on believers for their shortcomings.

I think this teaching can prevent people from intervening in abusive situations, and far as I am aware, no one in the churches we were involved in ever directly confronted my father about his abuse, even when overwhelming evidence was there.

All of the interventions made were "soft interventions" — they'd mainly give mum or us kids respite somewhere until things cooled down.

Promises would be made by my father to the family, only for the cycle to eventually repeat.

I still go to church regularly today, though it's had its ebbs and flows. My relationship with my father has ceased, my relationship with my mother is difficult and limited, though I hope for it to improve.

My childhood experiences have dramatically skewed my understanding of who God and Jesus are.

It has also impacted my capability to serve effectively in my local church, and lead in the workplace.

I regularly have to "check" my own behaviour, to reflect on the difference between "normal" life and the environment I grew up in.

If anything positive comes from the current conversations about domestic violence and the church, I really hope it's that systems and programs are put in place so that children who are going through what I did can be identified and removed from abusive parents, plus action taken against churches that have been passive in response.

I can't change my past, but I can change my future, and the future of others.

I want to hear more about successful interventions, of good news stories about the way the church is handling abuse: how they bring awareness and encouragement for others to get out of domestic violence situations.

I don't want these stories to be vaulted away to the select few of church leadership under the guise of "reputation management", but to be shared just as a missions or local homeless issue would be.

I want to the church to "put domestic abusers on notice" and actually follow up on their promise to do so.

Church leaders who argue about the statistics of domestic violence are, in my view, missing the point, as they are moving the focus and emphasis away from the central issue, to peripheral ones, that I'm confident future research will clarify.

A "0.5 per cent correction of a statistic" won't prevent "eight-year-old me" suffering domestic violence.

If church leaders devoted more time to sharing the "good news stories" and developing practical outcomes for "eight-year-old me" as they do defending themselves by arguing about peripheral statistics and how they have been interpreted, perhaps I could take such points of argument seriously.

But right now, I can't.

Georgia

Anglican, daughter of a mother who "failed to submit"

While it made for a searing and uncomfortable read, the ABC's series on religion and domestic violence helped me make more sense of my childhood, which was ruled heavy-handedly by my Christian father, a Jekyll-and-Hyde character who regularly screamed Ephesians 5 ("Wives, submit to your husbands") at my long-suffering mother.

During the decades they were married, my gentle, loving mother was socially isolated and continually berated by my father.

He undermined and bullied her until she eventually lost every shred of self-confidence; he yelled and screamed at her for hours, every single day and night.

Most of his tirades revolved around the Scriptures and my mother's "failure to submit" to him.

She was the sweetest, gentlest woman you could meet, and hardly spoke at all, but apparently was not submissive enough for my father.

I actually think he was jealous of her deep faith, and exploited it to bend her will.

She tried to leave several times but was unable to stay away; my father always lured her back. If she'd had support, I think she could have left him for good.

She left the family once when I was a young girl, and was able to regain some strength.

But she could not leave behind her children forever, and it would have been financially very difficult, if not impossible, for her to raise us on her own.

And my father could be extremely charming and beguiling.

When she returned after leaving, there would always be a period of calm; my father would be soft and kind and peace seemed possible — though this only ever lasted a couple of weeks before the beast in him returned.

Outside the family home, my father was outwardly very charming and no one believed mum, or any of us, that he could be abusive.

No one saw how he could switch from raging, misogynist demon to sweet and warm, sometimes within seconds.

His mood swings could be breathtaking, happening so fast you wouldn't believe it unless you saw it with your own eyes. Dad made sure no-one but us did.

At one stage, mum moved into a small flat in town for a while. One image from that time is still with me: each morning I'd get up for school, cold and anxious.

I'd make breakfast and tea and try to entice mum to eat, too. But she couldn't — she'd just sit at the table, sobbing.

I'd go off to school, leaving her there with her face in her hands. When I returned, she'd be in the same spot, still crying.

I did my best to comfort her, but I was young, clueless and felt utterly helpless and alone.

She continued to go to her Anglican church on a Sunday, but no one called or checked in to see if we were alright.

She also turned to various church ministers for help, and at times sought counselling from these pastors (who were, of course, all men) who encouraged her to stay in the abusive relationship, or just ignored it.

They may not have deliberately shunned her, but no doubt they were bewildered, and did not want to get involved.

Even so, the silence hurt so much. My mother would have given her last breath to save a soul, but the church "community" she was part of turned its back when she needed them most.

In my view, this turning away — by people who had the power to help, but didn't — was almost as damaging as the abuse itself.

After a while, she stopped trying to tell anyone.

She had a nervous breakdown: I believe she'd come to the realisation she had no support and no one to turn to: it absolutely broke her.

My mum died too young. My siblings and I have forgiven our dad — after all, forgiveness is about setting yourself free, not about letting the other person off the hook. (While my siblings remain church-goers, I am agnostic.)

But we cannot forget, nor can I forget the failure of the church and other institutions — including the local doctor, who told mum she was "imagining things" — to ask questions, actually listen and offer better support and advice than to simply "pray about it".

It is clear to me the Church — and society — has a great deal of work to do when it comes to addressing domestic violence.

This is a conversation we need to have: thank you for starting it.

Tessa

Pentecostal

I grew up in an atheist, upper-middle class household, and have been afforded many privileges in my life, including an incredible education.

I have a great job and earn good money. My friends and family describe me as strong, independent, driven, articulate, funny and self-aware.

I am not what you would expect the profile of a victim of domestic violence to be — and yet I am.

I first joined the church in high school because many of my friends went, and attended a few different churches over the years: Anglican, Baptist and Pentecostal.

I was married in the Pentecostal church, and was a member there for a long time.

My ex-husband is an intelligent, outgoing, adventurous guy. It was a whirlwind relationship — we got engaged and married soon after we got together.

But his abuse — which was mostly emotional — didn't show itself properly until after we were married.

A few times he grabbed me, threw items and used his physical presence to control me, but never the stereotypical 'walked into a door' style punch or anything.

It all followed the usual cycle of peace and eggshells, an outburst, fake repentance, and reconciliation — but he never really changed and would abuse me again.

On one occasion, while we were washing his car, I suggested something be done differently to save time and money and it resulted in him losing control, verbally abusing me for over an hour and eventually throwing some outdoor furniture around to get me to submit to his view and stop questioning him.

Even in public situations he found ways to intimidate and control me.

One peaceful weekend, we were picking up some furniture from my parents' house. When my parents were distracted on the other side of the house, he glowered at me until I asked him what the matter was.

He said, "You're right, I don't want to be here, you know I hate your parents and everything about your family. The sooner we get away from them the better."

With my therapist, after I permanently separated from him, I realised there had been smaller signs that he desired control over me.

I once got given tickets to a sold-out concert at the last minute. He took most of the afternoon of that workday to convince me that I shouldn't go because he thought that we were going to see each other that night.

And, when we first met, I was open with him about my previous relationships.

But he expressed judgement at my "loose morals" and told me how "disappointed" he was that he wouldn't be the only person I had been with if we ever got married.

The next day he told me he'd "forgiven me" for my past behaviour and that he loved me.

In fact, he often used religion to justify his abuse. It usually followed the lines of, "You can't leave me, we're married and Christians can't get divorced".

I also believe he had a twisted perspective of "male headship" and the role of a man in a marriage, however he never articulated this in theological terms.

It took several months after I left him the final time for him to accept that I was definitely not coming back and that I would seek a divorce.

During this period, he used quite a lot of language about "praying for me to get through this trying time" and "seeking god for reconciliation" in between sending me vitriolic emails with more abuse.

After initially separating, then reuniting, and mounting evidence that things had not changed nor were improving, I resolved to remove myself from the marriage — at which point his behaviour became more aggressive.

He continued to verbally abuse me all day and night, even while at work, demanding that I leave the office, or stay on the phone with him for hours at a time.

With some exceptions, the response of the church to the abuse was one of condoning the actions and tolerance of the status quo.

Up until I made the decision to leave the marriage and informed the church, the discussions held with pastoral leadership centred around reconciliation, repentance and enduring through a 'temporary separation'.

One young male pastor suggested multiple times that I "just go back and humour him and see how things go". He could see I was suffering but seemed to be at a loss as to what else to suggest.

A female pastor at the church had identified the escalating aggression in my ex-husband and supported the idea of a separation, but was always pushing for reconciliation between us.

She was very insistent that I accept the idea of us "dating" each other while separated, to get used to the idea of being together and sorting through our relationship issues.

This was despite me saying to her that I was scared to be with him. She consistently tried to persuade me to forgive and pray for his "healing" and remain open and hopeful that he would change.

I was always believed by the senior pastor, he never doubted me. It's also important to note that I do believe these are very good people at heart — some are just unprepared for and inexperienced at dealing with issues like domestic violence.

It's taken a long time for me to recover. I still sleep poorly as a result of having to endure nights with him, not knowing when I was going to be dragged out of bed for doing something wrong.

I know all this will get better with time.

I deeply want to belong to a congregation again. I miss the communal worship and community relationships.

However, it was far too stressful for me to return to my previous church and now I find it hard to feel a sense of belonging in most congregations — especially churches that are led by men.

The stigma of being a divorcee and also someone hoping to one day be remarried in a community that judges both divorce and remarriage is also troublesome.

Thankfully some church friendships — and my faith — have survived a rather dark and disappointing chapter in my life. I'm still grateful to God for both of those things.

One day I hope to find a congregation that doesn't judge victims, but celebrates healing.

It's going to take a lot for a single congregation, let alone a whole denomination, to culturally reassemble in a new understanding of gender and power so that all members are protected.

In the meantime, I'm thankful that heaven is perfect and eternal.

Anna

Pentecostal

I met and married my ex-husband whilst attending a Pentecostal church several years ago.

We were pushed into getting married by the church because, they said, we were "sinning" by having sex outside of marriage.

He regularly used scriptures from the Bible (for example, Ephesians 5:22: "Wives, submit to your husbands") to coerce me into submitting to him, and to control and manipulate me.

I was also spiritually abused at church: I was told by senior church members during services that I had the spirits of "Jezebel" and "witchcraft" on me — which apparently explained my rebellion and promiscuity (my children, from a previous relationship, were born out of wedlock).

Jezebel was a malicious, rebellious, adulteress, murderer who, the Bible says, hated God and used witchcraft.

I recall a time when I was crouched in the corner of our kitchen, wetting myself in fear, while he held his fist in my face, threatening to punch me. It seemed to go on forever.

My young children watched on; the argument had started over him threatening one of the kids after he helped himself to food.

On another occasion he threatened to leave me in the bush when we went for a drive because I was "disobedient".

The emotional abuse was terrible. I lost my sense of self and self-esteem; I was suicidal and extremely distressed. I was also isolated from my family — who were beside themselves with worry — and felt very alone and hurt.

He also physically, emotionally and mentally abused my children, based on scriptures such as "Spare the rod, spoil the child" — this led me to flee the marriage and seek an intervention order against him.

I was pregnant at the time, and made the agonising decision to terminate the pregnancy due to the ongoing abuse and violence I was subjected to.

I reported the abuse to my church minister and other church leaders, hoping they would help and support me.

Instead, they dismissed his violence; I was told my husband was "a naughty boy" and that I had been a "naughty girl" for antagonising him.

I was told that I was hurting because I was unfaithful and had evil spirits on me. I thought it was all my fault.

I now understand domestic violence and the support systems available to victims, but I wish the church had been aware of it, and had zero tolerance for abuse within its community.

I wish the church had properly trained counsellors to support congregation members. I wish the church had not validated the abuse, I wish it had supported our healing.

Their lack of support impacted me greatly; I felt unheard, distrusting and wounded — I no longer attend church because I don't trust people.

I am fearful of being abused spiritually, mentally and emotionally by a church body. I still believe in God, but I struggle with faith as I guess I'm scared that I really am "evil" and undeserving of forgiveness and love.

I'm not healed, but I'm trying. I get up every day and fight to be the best person I can.

My children have been traumatised and have ongoing mental health issues, as do I. But I still pray every day.

My grandmother was a Christian and I take more inspiration from her way of living than what I learned at church. Her faith brought her joy, comfort and peace.

I hope that, one day, my children can say the same for me.

Marie

Evangelical

I left my ex-husband after nearly two decades of marriage, but would have left much earlier if it wasn't for the shame of divorce instilled in me by some people at church, and the feeling that I had to put up with his behaviour in order to be "forgiving".

I also watched my mother put up with a lot of verbal abuse from my father — for a long time I thought that was normal behaviour.

She told me that unrepentant adultery was the only reason for divorce.

If you divorce for any other reason, she said, the next marriage would be considered by God to be adulterous.

My ex-husband was an infrequent church attender, and a very clever, narcissistic personality who charmed everyone we knew.

But at home he was a different person. His abuse began only a few months into our marriage.

He was verbally, emotionally, psychologically, financially and sexually abusive, but he wasn't physically abusive towards me, except for threatening a few times.

He expected me to do everything for him like his mother did, and he didn't like it when I suggested that, since we were both working, we should share the cooking and housework.

He verbally abused me for not doing enough around the house, and yelled that his mother could do more housework in half the time as me.

He told me I didn't "deserve good things", that I wasn't "worth the paper" I was writing on, that I was hopeless, pathetic and lazy.

His constant criticism made me feel like I wasn't good enough. What he said wasn't true, but as they say, when you hear something often enough, you start to believe it.

He criticised my family and friends, and made me feel like I shouldn't be talking with or spending time with them, which cut me off from the people who could have been helping me.

He would insist that I take any demerit points he lost on his licence, because he needed his licence to be able to earn money.

I would refuse to say that I was the offending driver, but he would wear me down until I agreed.

When I found out he was spending a lot of time with another woman, he told me: "If you were a good enough friend to me, I wouldn't need a friend like her."

When I asked why she needed to call him so often, he said he'd ask her not to call in the evening so that I wouldn't be upset by it.

When I discovered I had contracted a sexually transmitted infection from my ex-husband, I asked my church pastor for help.

I had some counselling sessions with a lovely lady from church which really helped, but my ex had some sessions with the pastor, who later came to our house to speak with both of us.

He explained that my ex was very sorry and wanted to change and work on the marriage, and that I should trust and forgive him.

I told the pastor that I didn't trust him, and thought that my ex was only sorry that he had been caught.

Still, he insisted I give him more chances. I tolerated living separately in the same house for months, not sure what to do.

I was confused by the advice from the pastor, but knew I couldn't be a doormat anymore.

My ex was still getting some counselling, and eventually started talking to me about some of his sexual addictions.

At first, I thought he was just trying to be honest with me, but then he started suggesting that we do these things together. I couldn't believe what I was hearing!

I told him that if that's what he wanted, I couldn't be married to him anymore.

But when I told him that I had made enquiries about the separation process, he told me he would destroy my reputation and make sure I wouldn't get to keep the kids.

He even suggested he had friends that would say I was working illegally as a prostitute and that I would probably go to jail.

Sadly, I believed he would do those things.

I waited and prayed, and eventually took our kids to live with some relatives of mine. It took me a long time to get myself out of the debt he'd left me with.

Today, I have a better job, and my children have grown up. My eldest struggles with anxiety and depression, however, which the psychologist describes as being more like post-traumatic stress disorder.

Counselling has been helping them a lot.

Since leaving my husband I've learned that I can forgive him, but trust is something that needs to be earned.

I have also learned that putting up with bad behaviour is not the same as being forgiving.

I can forgive without the offender even being sorry, but I can also put boundaries around what type of behaviour I am willing to put up with.

I now attend a Baptist church — I have found so much good support there.

My faith in God has been the only thing that has helped me get through all of this. God has always been faithful, even when people haven't.

In fact, this is the first time I have been able to write about my experiences with my ex without feeling physical symptoms such as shaking and nausea — that's a sign of healing.

Jennifer

Jehovah's Witness

My mother became a baptised member of the Jehovah's Witnesses when I was a young girl.

From the outset it must be explained that Jehovah's Witnesses believe there is only one allowable reason to divorce, and that is infidelity.

Those who commit adultery are encouraged to repent and to return to their spouse — if they forgive them. The unrepentant adulterers are "disfellowshipped" (excommunicated) until such time that they show repentance and are allowed to return to the congregation.

The congregation — as well as friends and family — are forbidden from having contact with a "disfellowshipped sinner".

Domestic violence is not a 'get out of jail free' card. Where domestic violence is prevalent, separation is allowed (but not encouraged).

Those who separate and wish to remain as Jehovah's Witnesses are required to stay single, living in a kind of limbo.

I can remember from a very young age hearing stories — told from the pulpit — about faithful sisters remaining with their abusive non-believer husbands in spite of great opposition.

(I later came to see this as inadvertent conditioning for domestic violence, both in young girls and boys.)

Quite literally the stories told revolved around women who were bashed, beaten and returned home from Jehovah's Witnesses meetings to find themselves locked outside, or threatened with baseball bats.

The wives in these stories were applauded for their stoicism in maintaining their faith and in staying with their husbands. The messages were tacit but clear:

For the young girls in the congregation: Divorce — except in cases of infidelity — was forbidden, and domestic violence was to be endured. Those who stayed were praised and applauded.

For the young boys in the congregation: Divorce — except in cases of infidelity — was forbidden, and your wife should never leave you. In fact, even in the face of severe violence, she is required to stay.

My mum had a close friend who was living in an extremely violent relationship. As a young child I remember seeing this woman with black eyes, a broken arm and often in tears.

She had several children who grew up watching her return time and again to her husband (they ended up with emotional issues of their own).

Marriage to someone strong in the 'faith' was encouraged. I married in my early twenties — my husband was several years older.

Not long after we married he became verbally abusive, denigrating my appearance, my weight, my personality. He told me I was a "worthless piece of crap", that I was "useless", "pointless" and had no redeeming qualities.

I seemed to fail his expectations in every way. I wasn't submissive enough, not in subjection to him enough.

His verbal and emotional abuse soon progressed to physical abuse; I was hit, shoved and roughed up regularly.

To others, though, he was a good Christian; he was a leader in the congregation.

Eventually, I gathered the courage to speak to the 'elders' (priests) about his treatment. I remember clearly the wry smile one of them gave me when he said: "No marriage is perfect, you must try harder to support him and boost his self-worth."

One night, my husband had his hands around my throat, strangling me in a rage.

When I later asked his mum to speak to him and help me stop what was happening, her reply was: "What did you do to provoke him?"

The blame seemed to be placed at my feet.

To be clear, I was (and thankfully still am) a strong-minded, independent, intelligent woman.

However, I quickly lost confidence in myself — I developed eating disorders and my weight became dangerously low. I was desperately unhappy.

Why didn't I leave?

It's a complex question. When you have grown up in a religion that teaches you to shun "the world" and to have friendships only with members of the church, your only network and support is within its walls.

My family were all Jehovah's Witnesses. They knew I was miserable — it was painfully obvious.

I also believed that if I did leave, I would bring shame on the congregation, Jehovah and my family. I had young children and no job; leaving my husband would mean complete isolation.

In the end, I had no choice but to leave. I realised that my children would soon learn to despise me if I stayed, and worse: they would grow up believing that this kind of treatment was acceptable.

I left him after nearly two decades of marriage. I committed adultery and because I wasn't repentant (why would I be?) and I was disfellowshipped.

The Jehovah's Witnesses in my immediate family had nothing to do with me for several years; I no longer have a relationship with my mother, and I lost almost every friend I had, including friendships I'd had since I was a young girl.

Recent research has shown that leaving a fundamentalist religion such as the Jehovah's Witnesses can cause PTSD-like symptoms: I can vouch for that.

The emotional fall-out has been devastating in many ways, but I eventually built a better, happier life for myself.

Alice

Anglican

Our marriage began in the usual way. We met at university and worked alongside each other within the Christian group on campus.

He was charming and decisive, a strong character who took his faith seriously. We both had fiery personalities, and I thought it would stand us in good stead going forward.

The fighting started early on. On our way to catch a plane to our honeymoon destination, he lost his cool.

When we ran toward the gate for a plane that we were not actually late for, he grabbed my arm roughly.

And when he sat stony and unflinching — without saying a word to me — at the gate, I thought for the first time, "Do I know this person?"

Our relationship became cyclical. Fight. Silence. Belittling behaviour. Crying. Pleading. Silence. Lavish, grand gestures.

Repeat.

The cycles gave me twisted hope that he would change and remain who he was when he was at his best.

One moment, he'd be the charming life of the party, warm and generous, promising gifts, trips overseas and ways to support me so that I could fulfil all my career dreams.

In the next moment, he would turn and become so angry; nothing was spared under his wrath and burning disapproval.

From the way I stacked the dishwasher, to how many jokes I told at Bible study, to how much I told others about our finances or relationship.

If I upset him, I was punished. Punishment would come in all different forms — mainly a litany of insults aimed at myself or my loved ones or stony silence for days, weeks, months in the face of pleading.

Other times it would be fast, erratic driving that would leave me breathless and wracked with fear that I would die in the front seat.

Once he left me in the middle of an unknown suburb on a hot summer's day with no phone, wallet or hint of when he would return.

If he was upset, there was nothing I could say or do in the moment to stop the onslaught. I could not satisfy his desire to control; I could do nothing right.

A few years into our marriage, we started attending a new church closer to home because he didn't like the leadership at my home church.

At first, we were held up as an example of a Christian power couple; highly educated, mature, switched on Christians with great jobs and a commitment to serving the church wholeheartedly.

We'd gotten so good at putting on a face.

But the cracks started to appear when, after a minor argument, he refused to speak to me or leave the house with me.

Alarmed by his lack of attendance, and my emotional decline, a group of people from my church called me in for a meeting.

They acted swiftly. My minister called my ex-husband and told him his behaviour towards me was wrong, and not consistent with his role as a Christian husband.

He told him he needed to start treating me better, that he needed counselling.

That was the first time anyone in my life had made me feel that it wasn't just my private problem — that it was an issue for us as a church community to deal with.

I eventually left our home but only for a few weeks.

The people at my church helped me draw a line in the sand when I didn't have the strength or presence of mind to do so.

They gave me words for the abuse when I didn't know how to articulate what I was experiencing. In their eyes, marriage before God was of immeasurable worth.

They spoke of the seriousness of the vows we made to each other — how they break down when there are long periods of deliberate and unrepentant failures to meet those vows.

They spoke of the harm being done to me. And most importantly, they spoke to me of God's grace, of how it meets us in our brokenness.

I returned to our home, lured by promises of love, change and counselling.

Eventually, we left that church to go to a church where fewer questions were asked and our issues were treated as marital problems that could be solved with counselling or sessions with the minister.

I was too tired and too desperate to think much of it. I was a shell of a person, functional in many ways, but I was not myself.

I retreated completely and life felt like but a dream I passed through in a distant or passive way.

I stared at the knife block in our kitchen a lot during that period. Or thought about painless ways to end life.

To my ex-husband's displeasure, ministers from my previous church continued to meet with me.

They patiently prodded me with questions about how I was going and tried to put a different lens on the abuse when I dismissed it as "personality differences", "mental health issues", "a matter of forgiveness" or "my Christian duty" to care for and never abandon my husband.

It took several years and multiple times going back and forth before I left for good.

There came a point when I could no longer deny that, in God's eyes, I was more than my marriage and more than my role as a wife.

I was a cherished child of His and my demise within such a destructive relationship was not good or right.

If I continued down the same path, I was in danger of remaining a shell of a person who would never find a way back.

Thankfully, I did. My mind is clear, my confidence is back, my faith is strong and my heart is whole.

Nicola

Evangelical

My former husband was violent throughout our marriage. He is not a Christian, but I am, and he used that against me to demand that I forgive his behaviour.

"You are a Christian," he'd tell me. "You have to forgive."

It was different at the beginning of our relationship; my husband was a charming man. He was kind, attentive, considerate, generous — all the things one looks for.

But when we got married, everything changed, right from the time of our honeymoon, if you could call it that.

He was physically abusive on a number of occasions. The first time it happened, I had asked him to help me move some furniture, but he refused, saying he was busy.

I walked into the kitchen and he followed me. He had become angry — he was often in a bad mood — and came right up to me and forced me against the bench so that I couldn't move.

I was shocked, and asked him to calm down, but he raised his right arm and with a clenched fist hit me on the side of the head.

I crashed to the ground, momentarily knocked out, and came to as he was stomping out of the room.

On another occasion, he cornered me in the kitchen, and punched me repeatedly in the left arm, shouting, "You are mad!"

I still don't know why he would get so angry; so many times he accused me of things I hadn't done.

Once, as we were walking down a main street in our town, he tripped. He was furious, and accused me of not telling him there was something there for him to trip on.

After he attacked and shoved me on another occasion, I fell and hit the floor hard. I still have back problems and incontinence as a result.

This was the last time he assaulted me.

I did go to the police, who were wonderful. The policewoman who interviewed me helped me realise he had been abusive and controlling in a range of other ways, too.

For example, he demanded that I account for every cent I spent, he demanded to know where I was at all times, and I was unable to have friends in the house.

Sex was also very important to him. At one point, I had major surgery which made sex painful for me, and I told him I was unable to.

But he continued to demand it, and I was accused of denying him sex. I was always on edge — it was like a living hell for me.

And he continued to tell me I had to forgive him.

When I sought help from my church, the senior and assistant pastor listened to me, but said very little.

When I later asked the senior pastor if he had spoken to my husband about his behaviour, he simply said that he had — nothing more. He never even asked if I was alright.

I felt deserted. Until I told him about the abuse, I had a very close working relationship with the senior pastor.

But it quickly changed, and we became estranged. I still think it was because he did not believe me.

The next week, I was told that I could no longer be the leader of my home fellowship group at church.

I finally left my husband a few years ago after many decades of marriage.

I joined a new church, and people there have been very supportive, especially during the settlement.

One of the elders and his wife came around and listened to me as I sobbed my story, calmed and prayed for me, leaving me completely at peace, something I had never experienced at any other church.

My personal faith has grown as a result.

Belinda

Pentecostal, former clergy wife

My husband was abusive from day one. I was shocked on our honeymoon to discover his explosive temper. He would slam doors, and on one occasion ripped our front door right off its hinges.

If I tried to speak, he would silence me, and he threatened me often. If I said anything intelligent or funny whilst we were with other people, he'd later yell at, berate and ridicule me in private, not stopping until I was in tears.

He believed that women should "be seen but not heard". He was a Pentecostal church minister.

Once, when I was heavily pregnant, he lost his temper and knocked me to the ground in our hallway and kicked me with his hard boots. I was terrified, and felt shocked and betrayed.

He bullied me, telling me that if I told anyone about his abuse, he'd turn our children against me, which he later did.

As the years went by, he became more and more controlling and regularly exploded into fits of rage. His verbal abuse also escalated, and he became addicted to pornography.

I lived in a constant state of fear — to the point that I hid the machete and gun we kept (we lived on a farm).

But as a minister's wife, I felt I had to "play the part". Who would believe me if I told them? My husband was a charismatic man, and was well-loved by his congregation.

I also had nowhere to go; I felt trapped and alone.

Our church had a strong teaching on submission: that a man was to be the "head of the house" and his wife should submit to and obey him in everything.

I can remember thinking, surely God doesn't believe that, as a woman, I am a second-class citizen?

But when I went to other church leaders for help, I was told I had to forgive and endure my husband's abuse because I had married him, for better or worse.

He worked to keep the leaders on side, and they supported him, not me.

After many years, he declared our marriage was over, and moved out. At this stage, he wasn't active in ministry, though we were still members of the church — not that he attended regularly.

Still, after he left, the church — and all my friends there — turned against me. The leadership supported him, while I was shunned. I felt abandoned.

I had close friendships in the home group within the church, but the minister's wife was sent to tell me I had to attend a different group.

In a very short space of time, I lost my marriage, my home, my church community and my life as I knew it. I felt so alone, and totally misunderstood by the people in my life who should have supported me. I was suicidal.

Thankfully, I found a great doctor — a counsellor from outside the church who helped me heal — who worked with and supported me for many years.

Eventually, I moved away from the area, and established a new network of friends.

I have faced many cruel situations and rejections, but I have survived, and today am happy, well and healthy.

I am also amazed and incredibly proud that I have been able to make it through everything.

Amy

Evangelical

My ex-husband's domestic violence was often physical, but he was also controlling and abusive in other ways.

It took me many years to tell anyone what had happened — it wasn't until I studied it at university that I realised control is an integral part of the domestic violence cycle.

My ex-husband was a pillar of the church. He was (and still is) on many committees, was active in ministry and people thought of him as a charming, educated, godly man.

After years of deep friendship with our church minister's wife, I opened up to her about the fact my ex-husband had hit me several times. Her response was, "Well, it takes two to tango: what did you do to deserve it?"

Needless to say it took several more years before I attempted to tell someone else. This time it was a minister we had known for many years who headed up a large church.

He had heard (from my husband) that things were not going well in our marriage — one that had always been admired from the outside by other Christians. I was called to his office to explain myself.

Bravely, I told him the truth, naively assuming he would help and protect me. Instead he told me to "forgive, get over it, and get it sorted out".

He then announced our marriage "difficulties" to the parish council and told them I was being stubborn in holding onto the hurt.

No-one helped me, and I lost my church family because I was too embarrassed to continue attending there.

Still in the marriage two years later, I told a non-Christian about my husband's abuse. I was believed and supported. This went well, so I decided it was time to tell my Christian best friend.

She said she "couldn't believe me" and refuses to hear anything bad about him to this day. It's a no-go zone in our friendship and she maintains contact with him.

Through all this my faith has wavered, but Jesus has never let me go. If only His church could show love like He does.

This domestic violence nightmare has cost me my church, friends, and nearly my faith, through no fault of my own.

This story was originally published at Fixing Her Eyes.

Farah

Evangelical

He deliberately ran over a cat when we were engaged. You might think that was an obvious red flag and I was stupid to go ahead and marry him. I have thought that too — a thousand times.

He wouldn't look at me when he was saying his wedding vows. Perhaps I should have walked out then and saved myself the anguish of the ensuing years.

He started the silent treatment on our honeymoon. For not buying him a snack that I didn't know he wanted.

A few months later, when my grandfather died, he stopped talking to me for three weeks because I had not consulted him about attending the interstate funeral. I just assumed it was okay to go.

He also had a sex quota for every week. When I didn't meet it, he punched me in the ribs and kicked me. I owed him sex according to the Bible verses he quoted to me.

He made jokes about me being "frigid" to our friends. Over dinner.

Then he decided to go to Bible college. I took myself to a Christian counsellor. I told him that my husband thought I was frigid and that he hit me.

The counsellor told me to keep forgiving him and that I needed to heal from the sexual abuse I had endured as a child. That would fix it.

My counsellor told my husband about the sexual abuse in my childhood. Later my husband forced me to re-enact the abuse because he was angry with me and he said he knew it was the best way to hurt me.

He raped me a number of times. I refused to have anal sex but he forced that on me too.

After two years of counselling my husband was still hitting me. I was crying through every counselling session, but the counsellor said I was getting too depressed and needed a break from counselling.

By this time, my husband was a student pastor. He punched me on the way home from church because I hadn't smiled enough. He punched me when I was taking a shower because I asked him about our finances.

He threw furniture around the room when I refused to have sex with him. He drove dangerously to scare me. He would slam on the brakes if I asked him to slow down.

He would race other drivers in the backstreets at night. One night he forced another driver into a parked car at high speed and kept driving.

He threatened to drive me in front of a truck so that I would be hit on the passenger side. He drove up and down streets where prostitutes stood waiting for clients, and would slow down and point them out to me.

He told me I was ugly and useless. If I stood up for myself, he said I was arrogant.

One day I found one of his study notebooks lying open and noticed my name. I kept reading. He had written that it would chill me to the bone if I knew about his fantasies: to rape prostitutes and men.

He also wrote that he had planned my murder.

I asked him about the notebook when he got home, but he took it from me and threw it in the fire.

Then he told me how he was planning to kill me and that if I tried to leave, he would hang himself in the garage. He strung up a rope for that purpose. To remind me.

For the next few days I went to bed early each night, pushing furniture up against the bedroom door so he couldn't get to me.

I decided to see another counsellor. When she heard my story she insisted that it wasn't safe for me go home. I stayed with a friend and wrote a letter asking my husband to leave the house — he agreed.

It was the middle of winter. When I returned to the house he had left all the doors and windows wide open; all the light bulbs had been removed. He had also cleared our bank account.

Over the next few weeks he stalked me. The police were quick to respond when I called — they urged me to get an apprehended violence order, and the magistrate readily granted one.

My Christian boss did not know what an apprehended violence order was and expressed surprise that I needed one. My Christian colleagues wanted to have a dinner party to try and reconcile us.

My Christian grandfather (the one still living) wrote to me and told me I needed to go back and stick it out.

After I left my ex-husband, no one from the church or Bible college asked me what had happened.

I wrote to the Bible college to tell them about my husband's behaviour and my concerns for the safety of the women on campus. They did not respond.

I went to another church where, coincidentally, one of the Bible college lecturers attended. He brushed me off when I tried to have a conversation with him.

I tried another church. When the subject of my divorce came up I was told that I should never have left the marriage, and that I should have endured the suffering as Jesus did.

That I should have had the faith of Abraham. That there were no grounds for divorce except sexual infidelity. That I had sinned by filing for divorce. That I would never be allowed to marry again.

My now ex-husband went on to graduate from Bible college, remarried and worked as a church minister for many years.

My story is not unique. Domestic violence in all its ugliness is frustratingly commonplace, and devastates the lives of many people in our communities.

In light of recent discussions among Christians about domestic violence, I am compelled as a survivor to speak up.

I hope that my story can shed more light on the issue of domestic violence so that effective strategies can be developed to address it.

I also hope my story is of some consolation to others who are being or have been affected by domestic violence.

Victims of domestic violence are often ignored and/or blamed and the actions of perpetrators are denied and/or covered up.

It is tragic enough that these layers of abuse occur in the wider community but when they occur as pervasively as they do in Christian contexts, we need to ask some serious questions of our culture and leadership.

This story was originally published at Fixing Her Eyes.

Leigh

Evangelical

I got married nearly two decades ago in a Christian culture that taught that wives should leave all decisions to their husbands and treat their husbands' directions as God's will.

I thought this was how God wanted me to live and that it would glorify him if I obeyed my husband in everything. I believed my husband was trying to love me like Christ loved the church.

I didn't see that he was taking away my agency in every detail of my life — choosing what I wore, what we ate, how I spent my time, how often I saw my family, what friends I could see — he controlled me emotionally, socially, financially, and spiritually.

I often felt unhappy, but blamed myself for not being a better wife and being more appreciative of his care.

After we had children he became even more coercive, telling me when to feed the babies, change their nappies, put them to bed.

He constantly criticised my parenting and anything I did around the house (I was a stay at home mum and very isolated) and I believed that I was a terrible wife and mother and that he was wonderfully kind and patient to put up with me.

For much of our marriage he was based at home as he was in ministry positions or studying for ministry, so he was always watching, directing and criticising what I did.

He made me believe that this was because he loved me and I needed him to 'manage everything' because I was incompetent, and that I should be grateful for how devoted he was to taking care of me.

I reached a point where I was heavily medicated because I believed that I had a major depressive disorder.

Eventually he decided that I was a liability to his career, and began telling me that I needed to be locked away in a psych ward, or else that I should suicide, because he and my children would be better off without me.

I felt really scared and confused and tried to get away to a friend's place. But he found me, brought me home and raped me, and told me I couldn't see that friend any more (she was the only person I felt I could trust as she wasn't a Christian).

I escaped again to a safe place where some other Christians helped me see the abuse.

After two decades of thinking he was the perfect Christian leader and husband, it was really hard for me to see that I was being abused. But it became much clearer after I left.

I am now on my own and waiting for the family court process to take its course. But I am sane and happy, functioning well, holding down a full-time job and surrounded by supportive family, friends and church.

I'm thankful to be alive and I'm trusting God for my children's safety and for our future.

This story was originally published at Fixing Her Eyes.

Carmel

Evangelical

My ex-husband was a member of the worship team at a church I started attending as a teenager. He was raised in a very strict Christian family and had attended church his whole life.

I fell head over heels in love with him.

Our relationship was dysfunctional from the start as my ex was living two separate lives — One as a clean-cut church boy and the other as a university party animal.

In the early days, I thought his behaviour was normal, and he treated me well. We were together for a few years before we got married.

We were married for more than a decade and throughout that time he was unfaithful and physically, verbally, emotionally and financially abusive.

I felt pressured into having sexual relations with him, thinking and knowing that he would go elsewhere if I didn't.

My ex was raised in the church culture of "male headship", whereby the husband is the leader and the wife "submits" to his authority.

My ex made business deals involving hundreds of thousands of dollars without me even knowing until the deal had been made because he believed that I had no right as a woman to be involved in these types of decisions.

My role as the wife was to raise the children, cook and clean, provide for his sexual needs and nothing more. I was his slave.

A pastor from my former church knew my struggles with my ex. I attended his bible study for years and shared openly with him and the group.

I thought that he was a friend, that I could trust him and that he would help me.

During one of my pregnancies I discovered that my ex was cheating on me — again — and decided to separate.

My pastor helped me through this time but there was an expectation that I would take him back because the baby was on its way. I ended up reconciling with my ex because I couldn't cope with the demands of raising small children.

I ended up staying with him for a couple more years until I finally decided to leave him for good. But during this time his abuse only got worse.

He also made it very difficult for me to leave. I feared for my life and I didn't think that I could escape from him. I started having suicidal thoughts, and believing the lie of 'no escape'.

I told my pastor everything, but he showed little concern for my safety or mental health and encouraged me to stay in the marriage.

I didn't stay in the marriage; I left my husband and that pastor for good.

After a lifetime of abuse, I am now in a state of recovery and am thriving in God's purpose for my life.

I now attend a church that views woman as equal: women there hold leadership positions and preach on a regular basis.

This story was originally published at Fixing Her Eyes.

*The names of survivors have been changed for security and legal reasons.

This is part of a ABC News investigative series into religion and domestic violence. We are seeking to understand and report on any cultural issues in faith communities that might impact the behaviours of perpetrators of intimate partner violence and the responses of victims.
First, we looked at Islam. Then we focused on mainstream Protestant denominations. Next we are examining Catholicism, and after that, Judaism. It should be noted that the term "evangelical" means believing in the authority of the scriptures and centrality of Jesus Christ, and crosses all Protestant denominations, including but not limited to Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran and Presbyterian.

Other articles in this series

'Submit to your husbands': Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God

Raped and controlled by my husband, a priest: One woman's story of domestic violence

Australian church leaders call for urgent response to domestic violence

How to navigate the research on domestic violence and Christian churches

Asking Christians to do better by domestic violence victims is not an attack on Christianity