Shelter Me, O God: Faith Can Mean the Difference between Life and Death for Victims of Domestic Violence

Article excerpt

Geri had been married for several years to a solid, hard-working man when things started to get "weird." She discovered hundreds of dollars worth of *69 charges on their phone bill from him checking whom she had been calling. He berated her for spending time with family and friends, went through her mail, and scrutinized her cell phone records. Then one day she found him hiding under their bed, where he had been spying on her for hours.

"I had stuck it out because, being Catholic, I wanted to make my marriage work," says Geri, a 54-year-old waitress from New Orleans, who asked that her full name not be used. "But after I caught him under the bed, I left for awhile."

While they were separated, her husband stalked her, showing up at her workplace and calling her every few hours. But he also apologized profusely and promised things would be different. So she went back.

It wasn't long, though, until a family emergency with Geri's nephew caused her husband's controlling and violent behavior to return. When all 265 pounds of him came after her with fists clenched, she begged him not to hit her, grabbed her purse, and ran.

   When the first violent act occurs, the woman is likely to be
   incredulous. She believes her abuser when he apologizes and
   promises that it will not happen again. When it
   does--repeatedly--many women believe if they just act differently
   they can stop the abuse. They may be ashamed to admit that the man
   they love is terrorizing them. ("When I Call for Help: A Pastoral
   Response to Domestic Violence Against Women" by the U.S. Catholic
   bishops, 1992, reissued in 2002)

Geri sought help at Crescent House, a domestic violence shelter operated by Catholic Charities in New Orleans, where she learned that her husband's behavior was definitely abusive and most likely would not change. The staff helped her get shelter in a safe house until she could get a restraining order, have the locks changed, and file for divorce.

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"This kind of psychological entrapment doesn't happen overnight," explains Mary Claire Landry, director of domestic violence and sexual assault services for Catholic Charities of New Orleans. "It happens when a woman is emotionally invested in a relationship that becomes controlling, verbally abusive, and threatening. Any relationship that is controlling to the extent that you don't feel free is abusive."

Geri faced other life stresses during the abuse: She had been displaced from her home because of Hurricane Katrina, her brother recently had died of AIDS, and she has her own health problems. Catholic Charities assisted her in getting help for her depression, and the peer support groups at Crescent House have helped her stay strong while leaving her abusive marriage.

"Even now I have 54 messages on my answering machine from him," she says. "I try to be civil because I don't like to mistreat anybody. But I'm not entertaining the thought of taking him back. One thing I've learned: Abuse doesn't stop. It only gets worse."

   As pastors of the Catholic Church in the United States,
   we state as clearly and strongly as we can 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. We have called for a moral
   revolution to replace a culture of violence.
   (U.S. bishops)

Although at least half of domestic violence incidents go unreported, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate at least 8 million incidents of intimate partner violence toward U.S. women and men each year, resulting in 1,300 deaths and millions of injuries.

Yet this is one social problem for which money is no protection. Michele Weldon was a successful journalist married to a high-powered attorney, a good Catholic man who had once considered becoming a priest and who taught Sunday school at his parish. …