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How churches can 'support' perpetrators

Churches and ministry leaders have a vital part to play in dealing with perpetrators of abuse. They can boldly challenge men who use violence to choose a different life path.

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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.

If you are a church leader and you attempt to care for and counsel both the perpetrator and the victim, you are unlikely to succeed on both fronts.

Often ministers, church leaders and congregations find it hard to know what to do with a person that they felt they had known for years but who turns out is actually an abuser. It is natural to want to help them find their way back and reconcile with their partner. However, the truth is that this just may not be the best outcome.

Should ministers 'support' perpetrators?

People in pastoral ministry are often driven by the desire to provide effective care to hurting people within the church and wider community, guiding people through the process of spiritual, emotional and behavioural change. That is why men who abuse are often skilled in manipulating a minister's desire to help them change, and why this lack of personal integrity makes pastoral work with abusers extremely challenging and problematic.

However, churches do have a role to play in communicating to abusers that violence-supporting masculinities (which values aggression, hardness, physical power and emotional reticence) hurts not only women and children, but also hurts men themselves. The life trajectory for men who do not truly repent and continue to choose abuse - is to face what they most fear - to end up angry, isolated and rejected.

SAFER recommends that Christian leaders who choose to 'support' and meet with abusers must have this as their primary goal: to challenge them to stop using power and control, and encourage them to choose a different life path. Leaders should then refer perpetrators to appropriate services where perpetrators express a willingness to address their use of violence.

However, challenging men who use power and control cannot be the responsibility of ministry workers or specialist practitioners alone. It must be embedded in all communities and within all parts of society.

Do’s and don'ts when meeting with perpetrators of abuse

Do Don't
Resist any invitation to re-frame the abuse as a relationship issue.

Offer or recommend couples’ counselling if you are aware that there is abuse in the relationship.

Act as a conduit between victim and abuser – they might use your involvement to continue their attempts at controlling the victim.

Set clear boundaries of self-care and avoid setting up a dynamic in which the victim feels you are colluding with the abuser. Offer or promise absolute confidentiality or secrecy (as secrecy is the soil in which abuse flourishes).
Acknowledge your limitations in helping them change their behaviour Minimise or excuse their behaviour.
Refer them to a men’s behaviour change program or some other recognised perpetrator intervention program. Refer them to anger management therapy.
Use silence to avoid agreeing with violence-supportive attitudes and beliefs. Laugh at inappropriate jokes which demean women or make light of violence.
Help the abuser understand that their abusive behaviour is both sinful and criminal. Align yourself with their experience and perspectives of their own trauma (which lets them off the hook of the intentionality of their abusive behaviour).
Help the abuser understand their behaviour as a violation of the covenant with his partner, church community and God. Allow the abuser to justify abusive behaviour with scripture.
Help the abuser understand that their desire or need for everyone to forgive, forget and move on is controlling and a misuse of spiritual teachings. Allow the abuser to victim-blame their spouse (by saying “she’s acting crazy” or “she’s just as much to blame as me”).

Help the abuser understand that forgiveness and restoration is a long process that belongs completely to the victim.

Help the abuser to understand that repentance is his responsibility, and must entail confession and real behaviour and attitude change.

Declare the abuser forgiven.

Remember, 'supporting' perpetrators must always:

  • Increase the safety of victims
  • Hold them accountable for their behaviour.

Colluding with an abuser

Grooming and collusion are common with men who use violence and abuse as they involve a set of strategies to manipulate and control the ways in which others view the abusive behaviours. Successful grooming leads others, particularly those who set out to ‘help’, to collude with the perpetrator’s way of thinking that validates violence-supporting values and beliefs.

Grooming is a set of strategies that can powerfully influence what others believe about the violence and abuse. It can involve comments and actions that are used to manipulate counsellors, the victim, and the victim’s family or community over time. This can be a slow process and sometimes it is hard to see when grooming is occurring until after the issues have been highlighted.

Examples of grooming by a perpetrator:

  • Distancing themselves from accountability
  • Making statements that position the abuse as a ‘loss of control’ and/or the fault of others (usually the victim or the ‘system’)
  • Justifying and excuse making
  • Befriending leaders within the church in order to influence their understanding of the abuser’s relationship with the victim.
  • Subtly or overtly planting doubt about the victim’s sanity or character, in order to undermine their testimony of abuse.
  • Blame shifting (victim, system, police, others)
  • Getting into he said/she said
  • Overinflating how much a church leader has “changed my life” (overinflated perception of change rather than evidence-based change)
  • Use of threats, force or use of authority.

Examples of collusion by a church leader:

  • Minimising or mutualising the abuse, e.g. “they have an angry communication style”
  • Using couples' therapy where abuse continues to be present
  • Positioning the violence and abuse as caused by reasons other than power and control, e.g. "he has a diagnosis of depression, anxiety or anti-social personality,” or “he has an alcohol problem”
  • Becoming involved in dialogues that blame the victim for the abuse, e.g “she took out an AVO just so he couldn’t see his kids,” or “she had an affair”
  • Engaging in dialogues that agree with the view that men who use violence are also victims in some way.
  • Acting as a messenger for the abuser
  • Reinforcing the spiritual guilt placed on the victim by the abuser, e.g. "all Christians are called to forgive".

When you listen to the excuses made by an abuser, what you are hearing are attitudes and beliefs that stand in stark contrast to the values of Jesus.

Invitations to collude are common and need to be addressed for successful change to occur. Church leaders providing support to abusers need to be mindful that grooming is common between perpetrators and church leaders. To avoid vulnerability to grooming and collusion:

  • Do not try to ‘find out more’ for your own interest
  • Remain silent during explanations of the abuser’s behaviour
  • Do not ‘let them off the hook’
  • Remain focused on the abuser’s pattern of coercive control rather than the way they may describe their behaviour as isolated incidents
  • Set up systems of debriefing, peer support and supervision.

Confronting an abuser

Do not approach an abuser or let an abuser know that you know about their abuse unless you have the victim’s permission, the victim is aware of your plan to talk to the abuser, and they have a safety plan.

Confronting an abuser is rarely an effective method in dealing with domestic violence. They will probably deny any wrongdoing and if they feel threatened by you, they may take that out on their spouse in private later on.

If asked to testify in family law or criminal proceedings on behalf of the abuser, leaders may decide to accompany and give the perpetrator pastoral support. But they should not give supportive testimony or a character reference as this is supporting abusive, criminal behaviour.