The Church's response
Congregations are made up of people from across the social spectrum. Research shows that there is no social profile for either victims or perpetrators of domestic abuse. It is therefore statistically probable that domestic abuse is happening or has happened in every congregation, parish and community in Scotland. Recognising the signs of domestic abuse is therefore crucial if churches wish to provide appropriate support.
This involves providing resources for individuals and Church communities so that they can respond appropriately and helpfully to allegations of domestic abuse, recognising that abused women and men find it difficult to tell their story and may approach a friend in the congregation, a minister or pastoral worker.
Research tells us that victims of abuse may approach a number of individuals before finding belief, affirmation and reassurance. It is likely that a victim will sound out a friend or relative before approaching anyone in authority.
Professional expertise is required for more specialist work, but it is essential that tackling domestic abuse is not side-lined. It is the responsibility of the whole church community to take this seriously.
Training in how to respond is also essential – if someone is not believed, or is not listened to appropriately, or if good information and support is not given, their progress can be put back for years and they may never disclose again.
The role of the Church
In these circumstances, the role of churches is to walk alongside the victim/survivor on the journey. This should always be done in partnership with specialist help from other agencies. Churches can offer real friendship and solidarity at times of isolation and low self-esteem, offering encouragement and hope so that the individual can start to feel safe.
The culture of the local Church is important. Church life has an openness, where processes are transparent and people feel they can be honest with each other, and where confidentiality is respected. This will help enable an abused person or an abuser to talk about what is happening.
This is where the basic principles for pastoral workers and listeners are helpful:
Listening to the person without judging what is being said must be the starting point when someone makes a disclosure of domestic abuse, as with child abuse.
What kind of support is the person looking for or needing? This will depend on many factors, not least the emotional state of the victim and the nearness of the perpetrator.
Trust and confidentiality are vital for the safety and well-being of the victim and those who are supporting them.
Once a supportive relationship has been established between victim and listener, other agencies can be contacted for more specific advice and help.
It is important to realise that from the moment of disclosure the victim can usually only cope with taking one step at a time.
Click on the headings below for more information.
Confidentiality needs to be emphasised.
It is vital that those offering support keep confidences over addresses, information about children and schools etc., and about where and when it is safe to contact the person who is being abused.
However, there are limits to confidentiality and child and adult protection concerns are the paramount consideration when deciding whether the adult’s right to confidentiality should be overridden.
If in doubt, please contact the Safeguarding Service for advice.
One church or one pastoral carer should not try to support both partners. Separate support for each would be best.
Trying to support both partners makes the church unsafe for the victim and may be seen to condone the behaviour of the abuser.
It should never be the victim who has to leave the Church unless this is the only safe option.
Referring to and/or working with other agencies
It is essential that the Church members, ministers or pastoral workers do not take on a role outside their competence.
In the case of allegations or disclosures, including those made against ministers or staff members, an initial referral to the Safeguarding Service is an appropriate course of action as there may be child protection implications as well.
The Safeguarding Service will advise on whether the Church’s complaints procedure is an appropriate course of action.
Domestic abuse is first and foremost a safeguarding matter and should be responded to as such.
Children and adults at risk
Children are also at risk in situations of abuse. They know much more than parents suspect.
Children who see a parent being abused may be physically injured trying to intervene, and in any event are experiencing emotional and psychological harm.
As discussed above, there is also increasing evidence of crossover between domestic abuse and other forms of direct child abuse (see our section on domestic abuse and the law).
Similarly, adults at risk of harm can be victims of domestic abuse.
It is necessary to be aware of safeguarding policy, and of always knowing and respecting the limits on confidentiality when a child or adult at risk of harm is in danger.
For more information, see our chapter on protecting children and adults at risk.
Offering support and referring on
It may be appropriate to refer to another agency for support. Permission from the person must be sought before doing this unless there are child or adult protection issues. Ask if the person would like another opportunity to talk with you or clarify what is hoped for from the church and what it is realistic to offer.
If the person does not wish you to refer to another agency, you should provide key contact details so that they can make contact in their own time if they so wish.
If there are any child or adult protection issues, you should follow the Church’s Safeguarding procedures for responding to child and adult protection concerns.
Leaders and workers must be aware that the greatest risk for the victims of domestic abuse is at separation or immediately after separation. They should also be aware of the risk to themselves and other pastoral care providers.
NOTE: it is not the role of the Church - and may cause further risk or harm for its minister or members - to intervene, mediate or offer counselling to partners where there is abuse.