Pioneering research will equip churches to respond better to domestic abuse

The case of Robert Simmons, an abusive husband in the Shetland Islands awaiting sentencing for brutal abuse of his wife over a 27 year period, highlighted how abusers can misuse religion to punish and silence their families. Simmons was a churchgoer and said that his wife had taken a vow of obedience to him.

Domestic abuse is widespread: the Crime Survey in England and Wales finds that approximately 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16. In Cumbria alone the police are called to, on average, 17 incidents of domestic abuse each day. Domestic abuse includes acts of physical, emotional, financial or sexual abuse and most commonly occurs in couple relationships, or between ex-partners. It affects people of all ages and from all backgrounds.

Research from North America shows that domestic abuse is a problem for many churchgoers, just as it is in wider society. American research suggests that when victims ask for help from the church, the response is mixed: some churches offer excellent support and refer them to other professionals who can help, but others take no action or encourage them to continue living with their abusive partners, an action that can have devastating, even fatal, consequences.

What we don’t know is whether the same is true of Britain. How big is the problem, and what can churches do to help those suffering? Does going to church reduce the likelihood of experiencing domestic abuse, or does it help abusers to justify their behaviour and make it more difficult for victims to speak out?

With a presence in all communities, especially in rural counties such as Cumbria, the church has a key role to play as a ‘first responder’ when relationships go wrong.

Organisations such as Restored, an international Christian domestic abuse education charity, and Churches Together in Cumbria, who deliver domestic abuse training to churches across Cumbria, are doing a lot to raise awareness. Until we know what’s happening in churches, however, it’s hard to know the extent of the problem.

Paula, a survivor of abuse, told Restored, ‘many Christian women who are victims of domestic abuse end up having to leave their church. This happened to me and I still grieve for the fellowship that I was part of for years.’

Now, ground-breaking survey research is taking place, funded by several charitable trusts and conducted by Coventry University and the University of Leicester, with Restored and Churches Together in Cumbria. The researchers want to hear from anyone who attends a church in Cumbria, to ask them their views about whether and how their church is responding to domestic abuse.

Dr Kristin Aune, Senior Research Fellow at Coventry University and the project’s lead researcher, said: “This is the first major survey research study of churchgoers and domestic abuse in the UK, and we hope it will lead to a major national study.”

Mandy Marshall, director of Restored, said: “We need to hear from as many people who go to church in Cumbria as possible. We want all churches to be able to respond appropriately and effectively to this critical issue.”

Anyone who lives in Cumbria and goes to church (even just occasionally) can complete the survey anonymously online via: The survey is also on Restored’s website or for a paper copy and SAE, people can ring 024 7765 1182. The aim is for as many people as possible to take part and the survey is not restricted to those who have personal experience of domestic abuse.

Anyone who is experiencing domestic abuse can access confidential advice and support from Cumbria-based domestic violence service LetGo online or by telephone to either Letgo North 01228 633640, Letgo South 01229 582386 or Letgo West 01900 842991.


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