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  • Comprehensive, independent Australian data regarding domestic violence within churches are long overdue. Tweet This
  • The five studies cited in a recent ABC report on domestic violence and churches have some key limitations. Tweet This

Editor’s Note: The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) controversial report on domestic violence and Christianity continues to elicit reactions from researchers and political pundits Down Under and in the United States. Written by Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson, the report, “'Submit to your husbands': Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God,” portrayed Christianity in a largely negative light. In a response originally published in The Australian and reprinted, in part, here, Wilcox pushed back, describing the ABC article as “illogical, unfair and quite possibly inaccurate.” His response garnered the attention of Australian broadcaster Andrew Bolt of Sky News, who featured the controversy on a recent episode of The Bolt Report. Members of the Australian research community have also taken note, as illustrated by the article below, which originally appeared at The Conversation and is written by researchers Naomi Priest, Mandy Truong, and Nicholas Biddle of the Australian National University. It is reprinted here with permission.

An ABC report that Australian churches are not only “failing to sufficiently address domestic violence, it is both enabling and concealing it” has generated an outpouring of responses.

Many church and Christian leaders, as well as abuse survivors and their advocates, have praised the highlighting that Christians are not immune from domestic violence, churches are often ill-equipped to respond, and they have done so in ways that perpetuate—rather than relieve—harm.

But others have condemned the report as “selective”, “inaccurate”, and part of a broader “war on Christianity.”

So what do the data and evidence actually say?

What Research Was Used?

Much criticism of the ABC’s report has centered on a finding using US data that:

… evangelical men who sporadically attend church are more likely than men of any other religious group (and more likely than secular men) to assault their wives.

Critics claim the ABC report gave insufficient attention to another finding that:

Regular church attenders are less likely to commit acts of intimate partner violence.

These findings are drawn from a 2007 paper that cited five supporting empirical studies. The most recent of these studies, from 2004, uses data collected between 1992 and 1994.

The researcher, University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, reported that men who infrequently attended conservative protestant churches were more likely to perpetrate violence, compared to men unaffiliated with religion and those who attended frequently.

However, the analysis shows no statistically significant difference in domestic violence perpetration by men frequently attending conservative protestant churches compared to the unaffiliated population.

The five studies have some key limitations.

  • The studies are all more than 20 years old. Data this old regarding religion and gender relations clearly has limited applicability today.

  • The studies collect data only on physical violence. They do not capture other common forms of domestic violence – including sexual, emotional, psychological, social, financial and spiritual abuse. As a result, the studies are likely to underestimate domestic violence substantially.

  • Two of the studies did not include women’s reporting of experiences and relied only on men’s reports of their own violence perpetration. This is also well-recognised as leading to under-reporting.

  • All but one of the studies are cross-sectional, and only capture experiences in the past year—rather than lifetime exposure.

  • None of the studies is Australian.

Inference about any protective effects of regular conservative protestant church attendance on domestic violence perpetration in contemporary Australia is therefore highly problematic. It also runs the high risk of shifting blame and drawing attention away from listening to the experiences of those who have spoken out.

How research in Australia could be done

Comprehensive, independent Australian data regarding domestic violence within churches are long overdue. Analysis of existing administrative and ongoing longitudinal studies is a less expensive and quicker option than commissioning new data collection.

For example, the Household, Income, Labour Dynamics in Australia study collects data on religious affiliation, gender attitudes, and violence—though not specifically domestic violence.

Other longitudinal studies such as Ten to Men, the Australian Longitudinal Study of Women’s Health, and the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children also provide opportunity for analysis.

Using longitudinal data is particularly important. It allows for more detailed analysis of patterns and predictors of exposure over time, and supports exploration of causal pathways and mediating and moderating factors not possible in cross-sectional data. The downside is they are subject to sample attrition and therefore may become unrepresentative through time.

National population data sources on domestic violence such as the ABS’ Personal Safety Survey and Crime Victimisation Data do not currently collect data on religious attendance or affiliation. But they could easily do so.

The National Community Attitudes Survey on Violence Against Women is another opportunity that, with a few additional demographic questions and a targeted boosted sample, could provide essential data on these issues within faith communities—including those who have left.

The 2016 National Church Life Survey includes questions on domestic violence. However, it is collected via surveys completed during church services, when women are likely to be sitting beside their partners—and so highly open to under-reporting.

This is not to say that new data collection is not warranted. Independent, academically robust data to examine questions not answerable using existing data is also essential.

Ideally, this would include multi-level analysis of institutional factors, such as policies and practices, as well as individual level factors, related to experiences of—and responses to—domestic violence. It must include both those within, and those who have left, churches.

Critically, any research must also identify areas for action, and rigorously evaluate the effectiveness of policies and responses.

The ConversationThe National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

Naomi Priest is a Fellow with the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods at Australian National University; Mandy Truong is a Research Officer in the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods at Australian National University, and Nicholas Biddle is Associate Professor at ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences at Australian National University This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.