Shattering the silence: James’s Story of growing up with an abusive father
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.
“James” is not his real name; we want to thank him for allowing us to repost his story here.
After ABC News recently published a series of articles on domestic violence and the Church, hundreds of Australians, including James, emailed ABC News to tell them about their own experiences of abuse. The other stories can be found at Shattering the silence: Australians tell their stories of surviving domestic violence in the church.
See our male survivors tag for other stories from male survivors of domestic abuse.