Quick escape (ESC)

How abusers can hide out in churches

Perpetrators of abuse know how to manipulate church communities to cover up their abuse. It is vital to be alert to these techniques.

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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.

Perpetrators of domestic violence will go where they can hide their abuse. They may be well versed in church language and use Christian talk very effectively. A perpetrator may even move from church to church in order to avoid scrutiny.

Perpetrators also know how to groom the leaders of their church in order to get them on side. They use charm and niceness to form bonds with key leaders. Most clergy have had to consider what it might be like for them to be accused of some significant wrongdoing in the course of their ministry. This might predispose some church leaders to empathise more with abusers than with victims.

The abuser may be a friend, a valued Bible study leader, a student minister or colleague. Perpetrators then take advantage of the fact that church members may not want to believe a victim because of their love for the abuser, or the ministry or contribution the abuser makes to the church community. Very few people are prepared to wrestle with the complicated aftermath of discovering their friends might not be who they thought they were.

This is a large part of why it is so difficult for survivors to be believed (particularly when their abuser is part of the same church as them) – because to do so requires the other people in those circles to hold two seemingly competing ideas:

This person is my friend (This person is an abuser)

This person has made me laugh (This person has violated someone)

The longer a church congregation have 'known' an abuser, the harder it is for them to accept that they were wrong about the abuser's real personality and character. This can then lead to an insidious and highly secretive cycle of behaviour, in which the victim is shamed, undermined and isolated, while the perpetrator portrays themselves as the model Christian or blameless victim.

Pay attention to deeds not words

When you suspect abuse is happening, pay much less attention to what people say and more attention to their actions and their track record. When you do listen, look out for the subtle cues that character issues might be present as opposed to just listening to the words they use.

Be alert to any subtle indications that a person is trying to curry favour without really earning it (through consistent, reliable actions) or trying to promote a positive image of themselves without demonstrating a legitimate basis for it.

Words themselves cannot be trusted. Habitual behaviour patterns alone – whether for good or for bad – are the only reliable indicators of character and respectful behaviour.

Red flags for churches

Are they unwilling to take ‘no’ for an answer? Do they take offence every time others disagree with their opinion? Do they put themselves above the teaching of the leaders in the church? Be cautious when you see any signs of entitlement creeping though.

Do they have deep relationships with anyone in the church? They may have a 'very close friend' or two, yet these people are often not seen and they won't be sharing life with them. Perpetrators are able to act out what empathy and caring looks like but if you look closely enough, the care will be shallow.

Sometimes their partner's reaction to them can be telling. A wife may be hesitant to speak without first looking at her husband, or she might stand either a little behind or immediately in front of him. She may be hyper-vigilant and thus seem nervous around her partner. Or the abusive partner may interrupt and contradict their spouse in group conversations, or speak for her without consulting her.

Avoiding responsibility for the abuse

Many men who use violence believe they are entitled to. And, while they might admit to themselves that their behaviour isn't ideal, they will never take responsibility for it.

Denying its occurrence “I wasn’t being abusive”
Re-characterising the abuse “I was only offering correction”
“I was being playful”
Minimising its impact “I only pushed her, she wasn’t hurt”
“She didn’t have to call the police, it wasn’t that serious.”

Justifying their actions

“I’d had a hard day at work and was already pissed off”

Blaming others

"If she stopped annoying me, I wouldn’t have had to do it”
“I’m under a lot of pressure at the moment”

Deflecting responsibility “I was just really stressed.”
“I had a few drinks and lost control, it’s not my fault”
Avoiding the issue “I don’t know why I hit her”
“I didn’t know what I was doing”

It can be hard for perpetrators to face up to how their behaviour has affected others, but statements like these hide the fact that using violence or control is a conscious choice.

Some say they ‘lost control’ or ‘just exploded’ when they have used violence against a partner or family member. But these same people usually don’t use violent or controlling behaviour in their workplace, at their friends’ houses or when the police are around, even when they are feeling angry or frustrated.

Less obvious ways to blame the victim

These are all barriers to taking responsibility for abusive behaviour:

  • Constantly shifting the focus onto the survivor’s behaviours
  • Taking on the role of victim
  • Talking about all the things done for the survivor
  • Insisting that interpersonal conflict has a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ to it.
  • Feigning their huge capacity to forgive the survivor for “their part in the conflict.”
  • Labelling the other person’s point of view ‘crazy’ or irrational.
  • Talking endlessly about their ‘good’ reasons, but avoiding talking about actions.

Recognising the truth that abusive behaviour is always a choice, opens up the possibility that someone who uses violence can make the better choice to treat those they care about with respect.

It takes strength and courage to admit to using violence or control, which is the first step someone who uses violence must take if they are to change.

Why some men abuse

Domestic violence is a complex problem and a perpetrator’s behaviour is often caused by a complex interaction of attitudes, motives and situational factors.

When discussing why some men abuse, there is a risk that anything offered as a theoretical cause may function as an excuse in practice. We must never lose sight of the fact that domestic violence is a series of voluntary behaviours. Using power over a partner is always a choice.

For example, research identifies that despite violent family histories, men who develop strong attachments to partners, as well as to family and friends, are less likely to be violent to their partners.

However, there may be a number of factors that contribute to someone’s decision to use violence, and some of these can be tackled by church communities seeking to increase safety for victims. Here are some possible ones:

  • They witnessed violence in childhood
  • They believe controlling someone is a way of getting needs met
  • They have a bias toward high-arousal, conflict and frustration
  • They think they must maintain control of situations and other people to protect themselves
  • They lack the key elements of emotional intelligence: the ability to persist against frustration, to delay gratification, to regulate moods, and to empathise
  • Society allows it
  • Pornography glamourises it
  • Society reinforces a gendered imbalance of power
  • They are socialised to think that a person’s “no” does not need to be respected
  • They are conditioned to overlook the impact of violence and harassment of women in general
  • They’ve been socialised to believe they have limited options for emotional expression
  • They have very little experience or modelling of self-examination
  • They prefer to blame others
  • They don’t see it as their duty to monitor their behaviour or to be accountable for it.

What about alcohol?

Abusing alcohol is a contributor to violence against women and is a feature in a large number of more severe incidents of violence against women. However, alcohol itself does not cause violence against women. Not all people who drink are violent, and many people who do not drink are violent. While alcohol can increase the frequency or severity of violence, in isolation it does not explain the gendered dynamics of violence against women.

Instead, we need to be aware of the gendered nature of alcohol abuse and how it supports notions of masculinity and male peer group behaviour that condone violence against women.