Violence at Home

Article excerpt

Faith community new frontline for aiding abused women

After I obtained a restraining order, then a divorce and my ex-husband didn't pay his child support, I went to the priest, who said, "Let us pray." I then found out that the priest and my ex had become good buddies and golf partners. My ex is now a bigwig in the church and very popular with the Christian ladies. Meanwhile, he calls to threaten me, ripped the front door off my house at Christmas and pays no support whatsoever, hiding all his income. Needless to say, I do not attend Mass anymore ...

-- posted in an Internet chat room on domestic violence

When Sheila Henriquez found herself in an abusive relationship, she didn't even consider asking her priest for help. She was, after all, in a situation that mirrored her parents' marriage, and when her mother had talked to her priest decades earlier, she was told to "learn to be a better woman," Henriquez recalled.

Henriquez, who lives in San Jose, Calif., said that as a child she began to resent her mother. "I looked at it in a distorted view and never held my father accountable, but blamed my mother for not being strong enough, as if in some way she was responsible. Then as a young adult ... I chose men exactly like my dad."

When trouble surfaced early in her own relationships, it didn't occur to Henriquez to turn to the church for help. "The church's interests have been geared more toward keeping the family together instead of making sure the family was in a safe place," she said.

Not all victims are as skeptical as Henriquez -- at least not at first. When social services agencies in Santa Clara County, Calif., asked domestic violence victims where they first turned for help, their answer, overwhelmingly, was to their church. But when the victims were asked where support was most lacking, their answer was the same: the church.

That was in 1996, when public awareness of domestic violence was growing, strong laws finally were being enacted and law enforcers and courts were joining the fight. The Santa Clara County survey and others like it around the country prompted secular agencies to extend an unprecedented hand to churches, mosques and synagogues to join the fight.

"The new frontline in the fight against domestic violence is the faith community," said Henriquez, a legal secretary who eventually left her abusive relationship as well as the Catholic church. Today she devotes most of her spare time to fighting domestic violence, which is estimated to claim the lives of an average of four women a day in the United States alone.

"The church is where people go to ask forgiveness for their sins and find the strength to make the decisions they have to make," Henriquez said. "If the church is not going to back them up when they're in trouble, if the church's response is going to be, `Let's pray about it because you need to be stronger,' then we don't stand a chance of putting these laws into place. So getting the churches involved in this effort is a huge piece of the puzzle.

"There are loads of victims in there who need to hear .this and begin that communication to break down those walls of silence, because ignorance is not bliss and silence is not golden."

As many as 3.9 million women are physically abused by their husbands or live-in partners each year, according to U.S. Justice Department estimates.

One 1998 survey determined that nearly one-third of the women in this country reported being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend. Thirty percent of Americans say they know a woman who has been physically abused. Not all victims are women, but of the approximately 1,800 murders attributed to intimate partners in 1996, three out of four victims were female.

What's more, a national survey of more than 2,000 U.S. families found that about half of the men who frequently assaulted their wives also frequently abused their children. …