On Sunday 28 November, the bell from St Peter’s Eastern Hill in East Melbourne tolled 39 times. Each toll marked the ‘known death’ of a woman at the hands of domestic and other forms of gender violence in Australia since 1 January. Inside the church, a gathering of fifty people sat in silence, praying for the victims and survivors; 150 tuned in online.

Holding the Light is an ecumenical service of lament held each year to remember victims and survivors of domestic and other forms of gender violence. In welcoming those gathered in person and online, vicar of the Anglican church, Rev. Hugh Kempster said, ‘this is a time for us to remember, a time for us to be still, to bring our prayers and thoughts together in this way.’ The service is one of several awareness-raising events held during the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign, held from 25 November to 10 December.

Nicole Rotaru rsm, who is on Catholic Social Services Victoria’s (CSSV) Council and Domestic Violence Working Group officiated the service with Rev. Denise Liersch, Moderator of the Uniting Church in Australia, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania.

‘Today we gather for a service of naming,’ said Nicole. ‘We will name the dimensions and dynamics of the serious problem of violence in our society. We will name survivors and victims of family domestic violence who are known to us.

‘We will name God present in and through all our efforts to create lives free from violence. We will seek to hold the light for those who are in dark places and for those whose lives are emerging from darkness.’ Rev. Denise added, ‘We cannot hide from the truth; in fact, knowing the truth, however painful, can set us free to respond with vigour and work for justice in the world that God so loves.’

Sr Denise Mulcahy fcj, a volunteer at ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans) which provides a range of resources for the ‘16 days’ campaign, read out the names* of each woman who has died this year due to domestic violence.

Many go unnamed, unknown as victims of abuse,’ she said, ‘Yet we can name some. May God bless our naming of these women, and all those grieving the death of these women.’

Naomi Johnson is a social worker, chorister, writer, and survivor of domestic abuse. In a powerful and moving reflection [link to pdf], she asked several times ‘where was God?’ during the abuse and torment. ‘Where was God when I was lying bleeding on the kitchen floor, when I was cowering beneath words and fists, when I was being threatened and controlled, when I was being raped?

‘Take a moment and look at the figure on the cross,’ she said. ‘There’s your answer. God is in the experience of every one of these women whose names are read in today’s service, in every victim and survivor whose name we will never know. God is on the gallows. God is in our suffering. God is still on the cross.’

But the story doesn’t end there, Naomi reminded those gathered.

We are a resurrection people. … We know that the story of our faith doesn’t end with a tortured body and sealed tomb. … The resurrected and transformed Jesus shows us: the transformation God brings about is a transformation of life, a transformation of love.’

Working together for societal change

Executive director of CSSV, Joshua Lourensz, attended the service and is a member of the organising committee. ‘It’s important that we, as a part of the Christian and broader community, denounce violence in all its forms, particularly standing with those who are victim-survivors,’ he said.

‘Catholic social services in Victoria are on the front line in responding to the needs of individuals and families living in violent situations or trying to escape them. They offer counseling, support, emergency relief, crisis, and long-term accommodation. It makes sense for us to gather with others to work for prevention of violence and societal change. To do this well, takes prayer, lament, collaboration, and action.

‘How can we not be impacted by such powerful testimonies as given by Naomi? It’s important that we commit ourselves to change – our own hearts, and the systems and drivers that cause gendered violence. This service was a chance to stand together in prayerful solidarity, but also acted as a powerful reminder that the work of CSSV’s Domestic Violence Working Group (which includes members of clergy and individuals working across Catholic health, education and social services) is really needed. We need a concerted whole of Church response and action on this issue – to change ourselves and culture internally, and society more generally.’

During the service, Rev. Tracy Lauersen, Convenor of the Anglican Church’s Family Violence Working Group shared the findings of a three-year research project – the National Anglican Family Violence Project, which outlines how intimate partner violence affects people in Anglican church communities.

‘Our research was a study of intimate partner violence, a subset of family violence; it’s multi-faceted,’ said Rev. Lauersen. ‘We looked at violence that could be described as physical, sexual, psychological, social, emotional, financial, or spiritual. The scope of the research included both men and women aged 18 and over who have a current or historical link with the Anglican Church. Of course, we studied people in the Anglican Church because these are the people that we could reach to do the research, but we hope that other denominations and other faiths will also do their own research.’

The prevalence rate of intimate-partner violence was ‘absolutely devastating’ stated Rev. Lauersen. ‘Forty-four per cent of the Anglicans in our study indicated that they had experienced one or more of 15 violent behaviours. The research also found that intimate partner violence is gendered, affecting significantly more women than men and men were reported as more violent on every scale: physical, sexual, using harassing behaviours and in spiritual abuse.

‘That statistic is born out in the list of names that were read out to us. This is a gendered form of violence … and it affects or has affected a significant number of people in our church communities.’

The confidence to help people

The research also found that Anglican clergy, although well informed and aware of victims of abuse in their own churches, ‘lacked confidence to help people’. The most common action of theirs was to offer pastoral support and spiritual care, however, most of those who are affected by violence said they didn’t even approach their church for help.

‘This is disappointing, though not altogether surprising,’ said Rev. Lauersen. ‘Many victims of violence don’t approach anyone. They suffer in silence.

‘Today’s service remembers victims and survivors, and I would like to say to any here today who are affected by violence in their homes, that because of this research, not only does God see, not only is God there, but many in the church now see and care … this study has shone a light on the violence that goes on behind closed doors. So, this research is bad news, but we believe that it will lead to good news as we seek to prevent violence going forward.’

Reflecting on Rev. Lauersen’s research, Josh said, ‘The humble honesty and hope for change that Rev. Tracy Lauersen expressed today was sobering and urges us into action.

‘The recent research indicates that there is a similar, if not higher experience of domestic violence amongst their parishioners as the general public in Australia. This gives us cause to carefully reflect on the experiences of Catholic communities and how we as a church are supporting those impacted by domestic and family violence and how we can respond and prevent this.’

CSSV has recently partnered with the Diocese of Sale, with some funding from the Victorian Multicultural Commission, to run a pilot program with clergy and parishes to build capacity to respond to and tackle the issue of domestic violence in the region. ‘Sr Nicole Rotaru rms and Deacon Mark Kelly, both on the CSSV Council, have been instrumental and tireless in that work, which will continue into 2022 and beyond,’ said Josh.

‘We continue to build upon the work of the Victorian bishops, and to work in solidarity with others for a society that acknowledges, responds to and prevents domestic and family violence, and give particular thought to how faith communities can be powerful instigators of positive change.

‘Holding the Light was a prayerful time to work through the difficulty and pain of it all – the tolling of the bell 39 times for lives taken by domestic violence was a powerful tribute to lives lost and brings motivation for all to act prayerfully and practically to see real change at personal, community and systemic levels.

‘We were reminded powerfully today that Jesus suffers alongside all who experience violence and urges us to be people of peace. We all have a part to play.’

Download this poster which outlines the various numbers to call when responding to domestic violence. For further assistance, parishes are welcome to contact Joshua Lourensz or Sr Nicole Rotaru rsm directly.

*The names of the 39 women that were read out included: Stephanie Lee Robinson, R. Rubuntja, Adakruai Mitiang Ater, Michelle Norris, Ju Zhang, Doreen Lanfham, Robyn Beever, Jasmeen Kaur, Cassanday (Sandy) Brown, Min Sook Moon, Renee Latimore, Maryam Hamka, Kelly Wilkinson, Lordy Ramadan, Giustina Lwlor, Judy Bednar, Barbara Chabaud, Thanh Truong, Kayla Golding, Stacey Klimovitch, Denise Brameld, Gabbie Marshall, Mihcelle Michell, Maureen Miller, Rachel Martin, Qiong Yan, Cherry Gerente Ogar, Susan Murray, Dusty Rose, Angela Silk (Godwin), Dee Annear, Bernice Dent, Janet Dweh, Michelle Darragh, Ms Waterlook, and four unnamed women.

Source: Counting Dead Women Australia