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Abusive Church Response - Rachel's Story

10 July 2018 — Esther Sweetman — Survivors’ stories Abusive Church Response - Rachel's Story

"Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person." Pope Francis

As I write this, I have not seen one of my daughters for over six years, apart from very brief unintended encounters. She lives with a man, my ex-husband, who has treated her much as he treated me and she is just as trapped.

I believe the way "do-gooders" in the church interfered with my marriage had a direct impact on the outcome my children and I live with today.I have words now to describe what I experienced; spiritual abuse. Back when I was living with my abusive ex-husband, the spiritual abuse just added to the confusion and helplessness I felt. It was another bar on the cage that stopped me fleeing to safety.

I also did not understand that I was a domestic violence victim, at that time I did not have the words for it. My environment was carefully controlled by the church leadership; a woman should stay at home with her children, she must listen, watch, read Christian media, lest she fall into sin. They were well aware that my husband beat me, but never once spoke to me about it, except to let me know that it was "difficult" for a man and I should love him more. It was my Christian duty to forgive him.

I, of course, was so ashamed that I could not articulate what was happening to me until my children were threatened. When the police got involved the minister threw his weight behind my husband, supporting him. Further years of abuse followed. I was physically kicked, strangled, punched, even when pregnant with a kick to the stomach. I was demeaned, told I was mental and useless. I suffered a variation between being given the silent treatment for days on end or ordered about.

My worst memory of these years, and I thank God that it is finally healed, is not of the marital abuse but of being manipulated into a room at a Christian camp and being forced into saying that I would forgive my husband. Those involved were or are still involved in ministry, including one man who is a registered Christian counsellor. What happened in that room was neither loving or Christ like. I was bullied and scared witless. What frightens me now and makes me speak out is that I am well aware that it is not an isolated incident, it still happens in churches worldwide.

I ended up like so many victims with symptoms of PTSD, night terrors and triggers. As a result of this, my children were taken from me and placed with their father. He did not change his behaviour, so they still suffered and will live with life long consequences. I am well now, have a good deal of insight into the dynamics of what occurred and have a heart to campaign for other women and children coping with the trauma or aftermath of abusive marriages.

To me it is ironic that people do not understand that a child seeing violence, that you would not possibly let them watch on a screen, is of course going to be traumatised. So keen are church members to preserve the marriage, so that the children are not raised by a single parent, that they will ignore domestic abuse. Watching their parent being abused is a child protection matter, it is emotionally abusive and I am not sure that message has filtered through to churches yet.

When I lost the custody of my children, I was turned away from the church I attended, mainly because, once again, they supported my ex-husband and ostracised me. For a while, I would not walk into a church, but I still had my faith. I thank God that my roots were sufficiently deep at the time. I am now fully involved in my local church and am grateful that the minister understands what I had been through.Neither my ex nor my children are now churchgoers. I pray for both.

Change has to come, the culture of many churches and Christians towards abused women is not only out of step with human rights but with scripture itself. Men are to respect their wives 1 Peter 3 verse 7. Abuse is never respectful, it is arrogant, just as interfering in the free will of an abused woman. I have forgiven my ex and those who prolonged the abuse, it took time and in the end was accomplished through a Lenten fast. I am free and I pray in time many more women will be so too.