Let's Stop Ignoring Domestic Violence: It's Time for Parishes to Help Battered Spouses and Their Children Step out of the Shadows and Get the Assistance They Need

By Dahm, Charles W. | U.S. Catholic, October 2011 | Go to article overview
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Let's Stop Ignoring Domestic Violence: It's Time for Parishes to Help Battered Spouses and Their Children Step out of the Shadows and Get the Assistance They Need


Dahm, Charles W., U.S. Catholic


NOT LONG AGO JUAN AND CARMEN CAME TO SEE me to register for the baptism of their third child. I had officiated at their wedding 10 years before. When I asked them how they were getting along, Carmen (whose name, like the other examples in this article, has been changed to protect her privacy) responded, "Well, OK. We have our problems like any other couple."

That was a red flag and, as it turned out, a disguised call for help. I requested to talk to her alone. Amidst a flood of tears she recounted her pain. I asked her if she was suffering physical, emotional, economic, or verbal abuse and asked her to be specific. I learned that she had been hit a number of times and that her husband's verbal and emotional abuse and his control of her life had destroyed her self-confidence and self-esteem. She was a depressed woman without hope.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

With her permission I interviewed Juan alone. I confronted him about his abuse, which, to my surprise, he admitted, albeit partially. I invited him to join our men's group to deal with his violent behavior, and I invited Carmen to enter our counseling program and join one of our women's support groups to learn about the dynamics of domestic violence and to grow stronger in dealing with Juan.

Juan failed to follow through with my offer of counseling-only about one in 20 male abusers changes his behavior--but Carmen did. In time she gathered the understanding and strength to confront her husband's abuse, and when he was unwilling to change, Carmen eventually freed herself from her abusive relationship. Now she inspires hope in other women trapped in domestic violence.

Research shows that in the United States every 15 seconds a woman is battered. One of every three women is hit or abused sexually by her partner sometime in her lifetime. During the Vietnam War 58,000 U.S. soldiers died. During that same period 54,000 women were murdered by their partners in the United States. Even worse, women are far more at risk of being beaten when they are pregnant.

Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults. Half the men who abuse their female partners also abuse their children. Forty percent of teenage girls ages 14 to 17 report knowing someone their age who has been hit by a boyfriend. Men are also battered, but they account for fewer than 8 percent of all victims.

Domestic violence happens in every parish, community, and economic class, and in every ethnic group. It makes no difference if you are African American, Hispanic, Asian, or Caucasian, rich or poor. And in times of economic or family crisis, the incidence of domestic violence increases.

MANY ABUSED WOMEN ARE unaware they are victims because they are in denial or minimize the abuse, excuse their husbands, or don't recognize verbal abuse as violent behavior. When Sheila's brother referred her to me, she was the principal of a large high school and finishing her Ph.D. in education. Although her husband used the foulest of language toward her and had threatened to kill her if she left him (and he had a gun in the house), she still did not perceive herself as a victim of domestic violence.

In their pastoral letter on domestic violence, "When I Call for Help," The U.S. Catholic bishops "state as dearly and strongly as we can that violence against women, inside or outside the home, is never justified." And they draw an important conclusion: "We emphasize that no person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage."

ALTHOUGH THE BISHOPS HAVE urged all clergy and lay ministers to reach out to victims of domestic violence, Catholic parishes and institutions have largely ignored that call. Rarely is domestic violence mentioned in a homily, let alone addressed as the main topic.

Although studies show that women victims would prefer to see their pastor or minister for consolation and direction, they generally do not because they perceive disinterest or lack of understanding of their abuse.

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