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Apologising to victims of domestic violence

Recognising where the church has failed victims of domestic and family violence is the first step churches must take in addressing this national crisis. But it is not the only step.

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Content warning This page involves descriptions and discussion of the experiences and impacts of domestic and family violence. Some survivors might find its content troubling.

“Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds.”

Elie Wiesel

Following the 2017 ABC reports on domestic violence in the church, the fallout on social media demonstrated widespread reactions from Christians who, while condemning abuse, sprung to the defence of the church and sought to minimise the impact of these testimonies and the contribution of pastors and church leaders. 1

As long as such responses occur among churches, can Australian Christians really claim that their churches are safe places for victims of domestic violence to disclose abuse?

Why should church leaders apologise to victims of family violence?

We already know that there are those who have been harmed because churches have unwittingly partnered in the violence against them. 2 Too often, we have been naïve about how the dynamics of domestic and family violence play out in church communities. We have made mistakes in how we have responded when someone discloses abuse. We haven’t been safe. And sometimes we have even been co-opted by abusers to become a weapon against their victims.

A genuine apology offered and accepted is one of the most profound human transactions. It has the power to restore damaged relationships, either on a small scale, between two people, or on a grand scale, between groups of people, even nations. If done correctly and humbly, an apology can heal the damage we’ve done.

So why should the church apologise? Because an apology can salvage relationships that have been harmed by our failed responses to victims of family violence. Apologies show we deeply regret that we have - even unwittingly - caused victims to suffer, and we now want to diminish their pain. A group apology is a statement that the harmony of the whole church community is more important than the authority of the individual leader. What could be more Christian?

Anatomy of a good apology

Apologies are useful, but only if done right. The botched apology - the apology intended but not delivered, or delivered but not accepted – can have serious consequences. 3 Failed apologies can strain relationships beyond repair or, worse, create life-long pain and distress.

Thankfully, Christian scriptures and tradition provide much wisdom on the subject of forgiveness, atonement and repentance. It seems that God has always known that people would make lot of mistakes and would have a lot of apologising to do along the way.

In practice, this is not as easy as it sounds. There's a right way and a wrong way to apologise. We think there are several key elements of any apology and without each of them, the apology will probably fail.

Peacewise offers a useful guide to churches who want to make a good confession: 4

Address everybody

Ensure that we not only confess to those who are directly affected by our behaviour, but also to those who were indirectly impacted by what we did.

Avoid if, but and maybe

Don’t try to explain or excuse your behaviour.

Admit what you did specifically

Clearly say what was sinful in your heart and your actions. You must name the offence - don't gloss over it with generalities.

Acknowledge the hurt

Verbally acknowledge the painful and negative emotions that were caused by your behaviour. Show you understand the nature of your wrongdoing and the impact it had on the person. And if you don’t know, ask the person how they were affected.

Accept the consequences

Let the other person know that you are willing to accept whatever consequences come as a result of your behaviour.

Alter your behaviour

A well-executed apology may help bridge the gap, but sometimes words are just not enough. State how you will change your attitudes and actions. Reparations to the person (or people) we have failed are vital to restoring damaged relationships.

Ask for forgiveness

End your confession with the question, “Will you forgive me?” and allow the person hearing it to process your apology and take the time to respond as they need.

The biggest stumbling block to apologising is the belief that saying sorry is a sign of weakness and an admission of guilt. To apologise, we have to acknowledge that we made a mistake and that we failed to live up to our closely held values. Fear of being exposed too often causes us to ignore or deny our offences, and hope that no one notices.

The truth is, an apology by the church to hurting victims is a sign of great strength. It is an act of honesty because we admit we did wrong, and it is an act of generosity because it offers healing to the ones we hurt. It offers hope for renewed relationships and possibly even strengthened ones.

Some local examples

Take a look at Aboriginal priest Father Daryl McCullough and Anglican Primate of Australia Archbishop Philip Freier and their apologies to Australian abuse survivors. Some other apologies from local clergy are also here.

Some Australian denominations have also apologised to victims.  In October 2017, the Sydney Anglican Synod apologised to victims after the General Anglican Synod and Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania did so earlier in 2017.

Some other denominational apologies:

Common Grace has reflected on these apologies and the need for reparations and restitution here

  1. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-18/domestic-violence-church-submit-to-husbands/8652028 and http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2017/07/26/4707934.htm
  2. http://www.commongrace.org.au/we_all_unwittingly_partner_in_the_violence
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLHc8NR_v-8
  4. https://peacewise.org.au/a-good-confession/