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Unholy denial: As Hannah Clarke inquest begins, study finds churches failing on domestic violence

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Domestic violence remains a taboo topic in Australia’s religious communities, with all faiths opting for denial and defensiveness in dealing with claims of family and domestic abuse.

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A new study based on interviews and focus group across Christianity (Catholic, Evangelical and Anglican), Islam, Buddhism and Judaism found agreement that the faiths did not condone violence.

But it also found cultural structures related to each of the faiths that enabled and ignored abuse against women.

The study, published in the Australian Journal of Social Issues, comes as an inquest begins today into the horrific domestic violence murder of 31-year-old Hannah Clarke and her three children in Brisbane’s Camp Hill.

Clarke’s death, along with her children Aaliyah, aged six, Laianah, four, and Trey, three, was one of Australia’s most shocking domestic violence killings.

Clarke’s estranged husband Rowan Baxter doused Clarke and her three children in petrol and burned them alive on February 19, 2020.

Baxter, 42, then killed himself by driving a knife through his own heart.

The inquest begins in the Coroners Court in Brisbane to determine if any warning signs in Baxter’s earlier behaviour could have helped Clarke and her children. It is expected to last two weeks.

In the study into the way religious communities in Australia respond to claims of family and domestic violence (FDV), the researchers from The Australian National University, The University of New South Wales, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and Monash University found defensiveness and denial in attitudes to women and family and domestic violence were still rife.

They found all faiths and cultural groups felt family and marriage relationships were private issues that should not be discussed outside of the home.

While none of the faiths or religions condoned violence, and awareness was increasing about family and domestic violence, it still remained poorly understood, was considered taboo, and forgiveness was prioritised over safety within the religious communities, the study said.

“Despite the increased awareness of the issue of FDV, participants commonly described FDV as a taboo topic within faith communities. This taboo was commonly attributed to views that family relationships were private, personal issues and shameful or inappropriate to discuss publicly,” the researchers said.

They said an emphasis on forgiveness contributed to “the shaming of those speaking out against FDV either personally or as community advocates.”

“Some participants also identified a persistence of victim-blaming attitudes that placed responsibility for FDV on victims rather than perpetrators.”

It found beliefs persisted that men and women were “equal but different,” with different roles and expectations for their behaviour.

As a result, victim blaming, minimising and failing to believe claims of family and domestic violence from women were more of an issue when the perpetrator had a high status within the community, the study found.

 

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