If you can’t remember when domestic violence was addressed at your parish, you might call your parish priest’s attention to When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women(www.usccb.org/laity/help.htm), approved by the U.S. bishops in November 2002. The document’s title recognizes that most incidents involve abuse by men against women and children.
Historically, abused women were powerless victims who lost legal control of all property when they married. They stayed because they had no resources and believed many fallacies: They did something to cause the abuse; it was their cross to bear; staying married was best for the children. As we celebrate Women’s History Month in March, we recognize that many people still share those erroneous beliefs.
“Christian women often feel compelled to stay in abusive relationships by Scripture mandating them to ‘submit to their husbands,’” says the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence (www.cpsdv.org).
The bishops’ pastoral says, “As bishops, we condemn the use of the Bible to support abusive behavior in any form.” In addition, “no person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage.”
The bishops emphasize that “violence against women, inside or outside the home, is never justified. Violence in any form—physical, sexual, psychological or verbal—is sinful; often, it is a crime as well.”
Domestic violence transcends all ethnic, racial, gender, socioeconomic and religious boundaries, says the National Domestic Violence Hotline (www. ndvh.org). It is a common occurrence in civilian life as well as in law enforcement and the military.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (www.ncadv.org) defines battering as “behavior used to establish power and control over another person through fear and intimidation, often including the threat or use of violence.” Psychological battering includes “constant verbal abuse, harassment, excessive possessiveness, isolating the woman from friends and family, deprivation of physical and economic resources and destruction of personal property.”
Domestic violence is passed from one generation to the next. The bishops say, “Over 50 percent of men who abuse their wives also beat their children. Children who grow up in violent homes are more likely to develop alcohol and drug addictions and to become abusers themselves.”
U.S. Department of Justice statistics from 1993 to 1999 (www.ojp.usdoj. gov/bjs/abstract/ipva99.htm) show that young, unmarried women are at greatest risk.
Safety Plan Needed
Women whose spouses are outstanding members of the parish or community might feel helpless. Men who are victims might be too embarrassed to seek assistance.
“If a woman decides to leave, she needs to have a safety plan,” stresses the pastoral, recognizing that “Some women run a high risk of being killed when they leave their abuser or seek help from the legal system.”
When the pastoral was introduced at the bishops’ meeting, Bishop Edward P. Cullen of Allentown, Pennsylvania, said, “Religion can be either a resource or a roadblock for battered women.”
Thus, the pastoral urges parishes to have a plan that focuses on safety for the victim and children, accountability for the abuser, and restoration of the relationship (if possible) or mourning over the loss. “If you suspect abuse, ask direct questions,” stress the bishops.
Church ministers are advised to listen to and believe the victim, help her assess the danger to herself and her children, and refer her to services. Abusers also deserve support, but they need to admit that the problem is theirs, believe that they can change and have the courage to seek help. “Couple counseling is not appropriate and can endanger the victim’s safety,” explain the bishops.
Other suggestions include training all parish ministers, keeping an updated list of resources and placing information in parish publications.
“When I Call for Help Resource Cards,” which list 11 indicators of abuse and information about local services, should be discussed and distributed at marriage and Baptism preparation programs. Such information should also be posted at various locations on parish property, including women’s restrooms.
Parish ministers are advised to focus on domestic violence in homilies when appropriate and identify it as a sin at reconciliation services: “Just a mention of domestic violence lets abused women know that someone cares,” say the bishops. Describing symptoms can enable women “to recognize and name what is happening to them.”
If our parishes address domestic violence as often as other topics, we can begin to break the cycle of abuse. Then future generations will have an additional reason to celebrate Women’s History Month. —M.J.D.
When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women (#5-509) and “When I Call for Help Resource Cards” (English #5-541, Spanish #5-889) can be ordered from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (phone: 800-235-8722). These cards include contact information about the National Domestic Violence Hotline (phone: 800-799-SAFE ).