Catholic clergy responses to domestic and family violence

Domestic and Family Violence (DFV) is a serious and widespread problem in Australia.  It occurs in all communities, including communities of faith.  Victims are predominantly women and children. 

Churches can provide trusted relationships and various forms of support – pastoral, material, spiritual – to those who are experiencing violence, or who have previously experienced it.  Clergy, leaders and friends at church may be called on by attenders for help.

Most Catholic clergy have experience with domestic and family violence situations.  Results from the 2016 National Church Life Survey show how they have responded. 


Most Catholic clergy have dealt with DFV situations


Some 48% of Catholic clergy aged under 40 had dealt with DFV situations, compared with 64% of those aged 40 and over, but the difference was not statistically significant because of low statistical power (small numbers of young Catholic clergy). 


Catholic clergy have mainly responded to victims of abuse, rather than to perpetrators


Some 91% of clergy dealt with victims of abuse – by referring them to specialist services (77%), counselling them (68%), and/or much less commonly conducting a safety risk assessment (15%).  A large minority of clergy (41%) either referred perpetrators or counselled perpetrators or did both (32% referred, 25% counselled).

Around a half (47%) provided marriage or couples counselling in relation to DFV situations.  Couples counselling is problematic.  Victims of domestic violence, and services that support them, maintain that couples counselling is ineffective and unsafe as it fails to address the unequal power in an abusive relationship and can place the victim at increased risk. 

Referring the victim to a service agency was the response that was most often reported in isolation; 61% of Catholic clergy who reported only one type of response had done so.  Clergy who reported one or two types of responses most commonly referred victims (71%), followed by counselling victims (39%).  Almost all of those who reported three or more types of response had counselled victims (97%), while 84% referred victims to service agencies.

Responses that were focused on the perpetrator – namely counselling the perpetrator and referring the perpetrator to a service agency – tended not to be reported in isolation, but rather as part of a set of responses.  Very small numbers of clergy who reported one or two responses focused on perpetrators.  In contrast, among those who reported three or more types of responses 49% had counselled perpetrators while 54% had referred perpetrators to a service agency. 



Some 22% of Catholic clergy considered themselves to be very familiar with DFV support services



Forming bridges between churches and specialist DFV support services is an important way to equip clergy to better respond to DFV.  While two-thirds of clergy considered themselves to be familiar with local DFV support services at least to some degree (somewhat or very familiar), just 22% considered themselves to be very familiar. 


Note: Results are based on n=138 Catholic clergy who participated in the 2016 NCLS.  Data are unweighted. 
Mean age = 57 years, 59% Australian-born, 45% with a postgraduate degree.  Staff role:
The minister/pastor/priest of the congregation/parish: 69%

  • The senior minister/pastor/priest of ministry team: 9%
  • Minister, pastor or priest in a ministry team (not the senior minister): 16%
  • Minister/pastor/priest of equal standing in ministry team: 6%
  • Interim minister/pastor/priest: 1%

See full paper:

Pepper, Miriam, and Ruth Powell. 2022. "Domestic and Family Violence: Responses and Approaches across the Australian Churches" Religions 13, no. 3: 270.


Other Denominational Results

Miriam Pepper
Data Sources:

Leader Surveys, 2016 National Church Life Survey, NCLS Research.

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