Crikey! Top Aussie journalists insert obvious errors into serious spousal abuse story

I've never been to Australia, but I've had a large enough circle of antipodean friends to know that "Crikey!" is an exasperation often used in conversation. What does the term mean? Click here.

It fits, in some respects, to the remarkable story the Australian Broadcasting Corp., known as "ABC," has put together -- on its website and on air -- about the links between spousal abuse and religion, specifically, in this case, Christianity.

Let me assert, up front and in the strongest possible terms, that anyone who abuses a spouse or domestic partner or boyfriend/girlfriend -- anyone -- deserves to be fully investigated and if circumstances warrant, prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. There is no excuse, whatsoever, for any violence in the home. For reporting on faith-based connections to domestic violence, ABC deserves to be praised.

Praise isn't all the web version of story deserves, however. It also merits some scrutiny, especially when paired with a video interview with reporter Julia Baird (see clip above).

The web story, with the click-attracting headline "'Submit to your husbands': Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God," begins with a suitably dramatic (and long) retelling of a harrowing incident:

The culprits were obvious: it was the menopause or the devil.
Who else could be blamed, Peter screamed at his wife in nightly tirades, for her alleged insubordination, for her stupidity, her lack of sexual pliability, her refusal to join him on the 'Tornado' ride at a Queensland waterpark, her annoying friendship with a woman he called "Ratface"? For her sheer, complete failure as a woman?
The abuse went on, day and night, as Sally bore a child, worked morning shifts at the local hospital and stayed up late pumping breast milk for her baby. ...
The night before Sally finally left her husband and the townhouse they lived in on Sydney's northern beaches he told her she was also failing her spiritual duties.
"Your problem is you won't obey me. The Bible says you must obey me and you refuse," he yelled. "You are a failure as a wife, as a Christian, as a mother. You are an insubordinate piece of s**t." ...
She knew what had "flicked his switch": the simple act of coming down to say goodnight, which he interpreted as a lack of willingness to have sex.

You don't have to be a clinician to know that Peter has serious emotional problems, as well as a gross misinterpretation of what marriage, Christian or secular, is supposed to be like. The story goes on to quote Ephesians 5:22-23 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 as having been read by the husband to make Sally aware of her shortcomings.

But while there are doubtless many tragic cases of domestic abuse among Australian churches (and, according to the ABC reporting team, within Australia's Islamic community, as well), the story elides past some key issues, and adds some easily avoided errors.

The paragraph below the headline is telling:

Research shows that the men most likely to abuse their wives are evangelical Christians who attend church sporadically. Church leaders in Australia say they abhor abuse of any kind. But advocates say the church is not just failing to sufficiently address domestic violence, it is both enabling and concealing it. [Emphasis added.]

Apart from an enlarged section of text in the body of the story known as a "pull quote," there is nothing else to explain what "sporadic" church attendance looks like -- is it once a month, once every six months? We're never told.

We are informed of a 2010 book which reports "22 per cent [sic] of perpetrators of domestic violence and abuse go to church regularly," while the piece also cites "American research" saying "men who attend church less often are most likely to abuse their wives. (Regular church attenders are less likely to commit acts of intimate partner violence.)"

So this invites a key journalistic question: If someone is a sporadic church attendee, how closely are they connected to a given congregation? How many congregants know the individual and their family life? How well does/should a pastor know a situation?

The ABC web story explores all sorts of examples where a priest or pastor has allegedly been told of an incident only to either turn a blind eye or counsel the victim to "submit" in some fashion to their partner.

How likely are such victims to go to a pastor they may barely know? And what level of insight are clergy who are not well acquainted with an occasional parishioner supposed to have?

I raise these questions not -- I repeat, not -- because I disbelieve the victims' stories as reported by the ABC. But if the legal industry in Australia is anything like that of the United States, I can imagine a clergyperson being very cautious about situations with which they are not overly familiar. Lawsuits are easy things to file, I'd imagine.

You can't really sue over simple errors, but sometimes I wish one could. The ABC article repeats a mistake more-than-occasionally made by American journalists, i.e., the "ordination" of a well-known Christian psychologist:

Another influential pastor James Dobson has in the past advised women to bait their abusive husbands to goad them into behaving badly, which he believed would shock them into realising they had a problem and agree to counselling.

Repeat after me: James Dobson is not now, nor has he ever been, an ordained minister. He is the former associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine and has a doctorate in child development.

Dobson has never led a Christian congregation. He is not, therefore, a pastor. (If only there was some place on the internet where you could look these sorts of things up. If only ... )

The Australian Broadcasting Corp., which I believe is a rather secular outfit, also saw fit to "ordain" a former American child TV star:

In 2016, American evangelist Kirk Cameron told the Christian Post: "Wives are to honour and respect and follow their husband's lead, not to tell their husband how he ought to be a better husband. ..."

While the 47-year-old Cameron has made a bunch of Christian-themed movies, and while he's been associated with street evangelist Ray Comfort, he's an actor, not a preacher, according to IMDB.com.

Again, and to quote the pre-internet sage Casey Stengel, "You could look it up."

That the ABC's reporters and editors didn't look it up, didn't verify details and didn't put things in their proper context hurts the credibility of an otherwise vital report. Here's hoping they'll do better going forward.

Initial image: Non-evangelist actor Kirk Cameron addressing the 2010 CPAC conference. (Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.)

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