I was bullied at high school by three older boys, whose surnames were Hardman, Smith and Childs. It was fairly mild and never, that I can recall, went beyond verbal bullying. They were just sad, insecure boys who apparently needed to feel superior to a younger child for some unknown reason. Because it was apparently only me they picked on and usually when I was alone, I was effectively powerless to do anything about it. It made school just that little bit more difficult than it needed to be, but I doubt that it had any significant long-term effect on me, except to make me implacably opposed to any form of bullying, no matter how minor it may appear to a disinterested observer. However, it perhaps does say something about the effect on me that I remember their surnames. Because it was so mild, I didn’t tell my parents about it, nor did I tell anyone in authority in the school. So, nobody can be blamed for covering it up, or in any way facilitating it, except perhaps me.
At about the same time I was being bullied in the late 1960s, there was a joke going around the Newcastle area, which went like this: “Q. What do you get if you are a priest and you are caught abusing children? A. Another parish.” This has now come back to bite some of the perpetrators and some of their facilitators, with much of it being laid bare by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse1. It is a disgrace that some of the perpetrators are only now being brought to justice for crimes against children, only after several decades. The unfortunate thing about this is that some of these perpetrators were aided and abetted in their appalling crimes by those in the hierarchy of their respective churches and other organisations. These men (and it is almost always men) who either refused to believe it, believed it was only a momentary aberration or, if believing it, were more concerned about the ‘image’ of the church and its wealth. They were almost completely lacking in concern for the victims, many of whom have had their lives ruined by the crimes committed against them. What tended to happen was, as stated in the joke, the perpetrators were simply posted to another parish, or to another far away job within the church. That was a way for the churches and other organisations to bully those whose childhoods and later lives had already been ruined by sexual assault.
Now, in two articles by Julia Baird and Haley Gleeson2,3, we find that Islam and Christianity have similar ineffective responses to domestic violence. While both profess to abhor violence, including domestic abuse, they seem to do little about it. In both cases they seem to generally believe that if the woman behaves appropriately she may be able to minimise the abuse. Indeed, women of both religions in abusive marriages have been urged to stay within the marriage by their imam or priest. Both religions are struggling to come to grips with the fact that we are in the 21st century and that bullying of any sort, to any degree, is completely unacceptable. The fact that a woman could go to a priest or imam and be told effectively just to grin and bear it, makes the imam or priest an ‘accessory after the fact’ which is a criminal offence under the Crimes Act 1914, Section 6: “Any person who receives or assists another person, who has, to his or her knowledge, committed any offence against a law of the Commonwealth, in order to enable him or her to escape punishment or to dispose of the proceeds of the offence commits an offence”4.
In their article on Islam, Gleeson and Baird related an opinion by the president of the Australian Muslim Women’s Association that it is only “Men who are less educated about the complexities of [Koran section 4:34’s] application and depth of meaning can use it to justify their superiority, that their wife should behave”. Similarly, in their article on Christianity, Baird and Gleeson related an opinion that “it is well recognised that males (usually) seeking to justify abuse will be drawn to misinterpretations [of the Bible] to attempt to legitimise abhorrent attitudes”. What is striking is the similarity and insipid nature of responses of church or mosque office-holders to this problem. They rightly blame the perpetrators, and sometimes the victims, but accept little or no responsibility themselves.
One of the startling revelations in these articles, is that it has been validated by numerous studies “that [Christian] evangelical men who sporadically attend church are more likely than men of any other religious group (and more likely than secular men) to assault their wives”5. Some attribute this to the conservative nature of evangelical churches that preach inviolate male control and authority, and have male-only priesthoods. The same can be said of Islam; the priesthood is male and they also preach inviolate male authority.
Perhaps the most obvious expression of this propensity for inviolate male authority is in Julia Baird’s interview with the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Glenn Davies, where she asked him why, if men and women are equal, that it is only men who can be priests, while women can not. His reply was simply ludicrous and perhaps says much about the ultraconservative nature of the Sydney Anglican diocese. He said: “Well, how do you explain that men and women are equal, but only women can have babies”. She replied “That’s a biological difference”. He agreed, but stated that such a difference affects everything they do. She then asked if it was because women have babies, that they shouldn’t be priests. He avoided that by saying the biological difference, like that of not being a priest, does not affect equality2. It is worth taking this sort of attitude further. There was a time when women were not allowed to be police officers. Did this affect equality? There was a time when women were not allowed to be doctors. Did this affect equality? There was a time when women were not allowed to serve on a jury. Did this affect equality? Of course it does. It is all about equality. The religious never let logic get in the way of their bigotry.
Steven Weinberg, the Nobel laureate is often quoted as saying “Good people can do good and bad people can do evil. But for good people to do evil – that takes religion”. This may be the case in the wide sweep of history, but in local communities, bullies will always be bullies, and male-dominated religious organisations will continue to provide them with a convenient justification for the most horrific type of bullying, and that is domestic violence.