Clergy's wives tell of torture and abuse

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Wives of abusive clergymen have broken their silence to speak out about the mental, physical and sexual torture they have suffered at the hands of their husbands.

Domestic violence in the church has been unearthed by Dr Lesley Macdonald, research project co-ordinator at Edinburgh University's Department of Divinity, who has completed a two-year study into Christianity and violence.

Dr Macdonald, who is herself married to a clergyman, studied cases involving abuse within church marriages, as well as clergy abuse of women who had sought church advice in a professional counselling context.

Of the 23 abused women she interviewed, seven were formerly married to clergymen. Other clergy wives who had contacted her chose not to participate in the project because they were still living in the abusive relationship.

"The juxtaposition between the person who has a plausible, well-liked, public persona and hearing about what happens in their private life is shocking," said Dr Macdonald. "But it's just an indication that violence against women is everywhere. This is something that happens in all sectors of society - professional people and church people are not exempt."

There is "perhaps more opportunity" for clergymen to abuse their power and authority because of the church's patriarchal tradition, believes Dr Macdonald. "There are some people within the church who use scriptural texts and theological traditions to justify or legitimise the violence," she said.

"There are scriptural texts which say wives should submit to their husbands and there's a strong theological tradition that women are responsible for bringing sin into the world. Their [women's] role in life is essentially one of service or sacrifice. All of those can provide some of the conditions in which it's possible for violence and abuse to occur."

Some of Dr Macdonald's interviewees will describe their ordeal tonight on BBC 1's Here and Now programme. One Scottish woman, now divorced from her minister husband, tells the programme: "I really thought he was going to do a mastectomy one night and I got very, very deep scratches on my breast. He was his usual very professional person preaching in church Sunday after Sunday, it was almost like a Jekyll and Hyde situation." Two actresses also tell the story of a woman who was raped by her minister husband.

The programme stresses that there is little independent counselling and help available from the church for the victims of domestic violence.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church said yesterday: "People have to remember that the church is made up of human beings. While it strives for perfection, it nevertheless incorporates the faults of humans such as domestic violence. Inevitably this problem does not escape the church."

The Rev John Chalmers, of the Church of Scotland's Department of Ministry, said he was shocked by the study's findings.