e-mail us

Cover story

Violence at home

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Sacramento, Calif.

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.

Statistics like those make it likely that domestic violence touches every American church in some way. Yet domestic violence counselors find some Catholics misread the church’s intolerance of divorce as a mandate to remain in an abusive home.

Holding on to the faith

“A lot of victims hold onto their faith to be able to live another day, and in doing so they turn to the Bible,” said Luz Elia Meraz, formerly of WEAVE, Women Escaping a Violent Environment, in Sacramento, Calif. “They think, ‘I’m carrying my cross’ or ‘I got pregnant when I was 16 so I deserve this,’ ” said Meraz, herself a Catholic.

“There is a conflict,” acknowledges Jayne Ann Kita, executive director of the Pastoral Project on Domestic Violence, a collaborative of Catholic Charities, Catholic Health Initiative and the Omaha archdiocese. “It can be very confusing for many [victims] because they feel like they’ve made the vows and it’s their job to make this relationship work.”

But the safety of women and children takes top priority, Kita emphasizes. “No one wants them to be injured, hurt or killed. Although the Catholic church does take very seriously the family unit, when the batterer batters he has broken the covenant, so the victim is not breaking the covenant by leaving to protect herself. No one is promoting divorce, but we are promoting whatever needs to happen to make the victim safe.”

Interviews with activists, parishioners, priests and nuns around the country point to a growing willingness among Catholics to get involved. That doesn’t hold true in every Catholic church in every part of America, but those close to the issue say many Catholic churches are working on the issue alongside secular organizations. For some of the most traditional religious organizations, it’s taken a leap of faith to set aside long-held stereotypes of secular activists as, as one activist put it, “a bunch of liberal, bra-burning feminists trying to seduce young women and turn them into lesbians.”

Religious orders like the Sister of Mercy and the Sisters of Social Service have long and often quietly held important roles in supporting women and children victims of abuse. From urban Houston to rural Michigan to the barrios of Los Angeles, sisters have long been involved in the gruesome, often frustrating work of trying to extricate frightened, debilitated women and children from the grip of their batterers and help them build new lives. Catholic hospitals, too, have taken a leading role. “You can’t go to the bathroom at a Mercy hospital without seeing a message about domestic violence,” commented one activist.

But more and more, rank and file Catholics are hearing about domestic violence in the context of a Mass or homily, through outside speakers invited into the church, in blurbs in their Sunday bulletins, even in pre-marital and baptismal counseling. Pastors, lay leaders and parishioners, many of them women, are keeping shelter phone numbers in their pockets and by the phone, learning to reach out to someone they suspect is being abused, and even conducting them to safe houses. One priest tells of twice ferrying endangered women and children to a safe-house contact in the parking lot of a supermarket in the middle of the night, both times by covering them with blankets in the back seat of his car to hide them from enraged abusers.

A bishop speaks

Bishop James A. Griffin of Columbus, Ohio, in January told a forum on domestic violence attended by 250 leaders from across Ohio that people of faith “are called to be advocates for the needs of domestic violence survivors.” He said he has asked his pastors to educate their congregations about the issue.

“The religious community must work to eliminate structural barriers and build institutional supports that empower women who are victims and survivors of family violence to make choices that provide safety for themselves and their children,” the bishop said.

The McAuley Institute, a branch of the Sisters of Mercy with shared headquarters in Maryland, works with faith-based communities to develop low-income housing. Housing is a key to empowering and organizing women, many of whom are driven to homelessness as a result of domestic violence.

Rebecca Mathis is McAuley’s regional program associate in the greater Houston area, where an estimated 900 women and children are turned away from domestic violence shelters each night after the 300 available beds are filled. Before joining McAuley, Mathis helped establish a program for victims of domestic violence through Northwest Assistance Ministries, an umbrella social service agency with the support and leadership of more than 40 local churches

“We would hear from women after they’d been to the elders of their church repeatedly for help and had been told ‘We’re going to pray for you so you will be able to cope and be a better wife and mother,’ ” Mathis said.

“That was usually the first round of help. Eventually, if she continued to go back and particularly if there was any threat of government or social services or police intervention, they would step up their response,” Mathis said, because outside intervention was seen as eroding the family. “If she goes outside the family and tells family secrets then she has betrayed the trust of the family unit.”

Mathis worked with Houston area churches for nine years and said Catholics were among the program’s strongest supporters, not only financially but also by following up with offers of support after a woman had been referred to the agency.

Further west, in the sprawling Sacramento diocese that spans 26 Northern California counties, family life director John Rieschick, a former Maryknoll missionary in Africa, hauls out a massive three-ring binder that his department distributes to all parishes and missions in the diocese. The hefty training and resource manual includes bilingual fliers that parishes can photocopy, and an extensive referral directory -- including outside agencies and professionals where a victim can go for help.

A priest needs not only good counseling skills, Rieschick maintains, “but also a good Rolodex.”

Rieschick says he’s encouraged by the response to his outreach. Activists and abuse victims throughout the country say the old stories still persist -- when one San Francisco Bay Area victim turned to her minister for help, she was advised to buy a new cookbook -- but such stories are becoming less common.

In the Sacramento diocese, only one priest out of more than 100 has told Rieschick “we don’t have that problem here.”

Rieschick’s work garners praise from WEAVE, where he sits on a multi-faith advisory panel. Meraz, who worked as WEAVE’s community outreach program assistant, said Rieschick’s educational efforts in his sprawling diocese “help priests become more susceptible to this information.” Consequently, she said, victims are starting to understand, ‘God wants his children to be safe. We all have value.’ ”

Diane Falash of rural Weiser, Idaho, recalls a 1995 National Council of Catholic Women conference in San Francisco that featured the Clothesline Project, a series of shirts made by and for victims of domestic violence. After the project was presented, the audience was invited to participate. “The women poured in there to make shirts. So to say we don’t have a problem is hiding your head in the sand.”

Falash said that experience “just overwhelmed me, the tremendous horribleness of this thing.” When she returned home she got involved in her community’s domestic violence resources, but Falash also wanted to see her church do something. “I felt the clergy kind of shut their eyes to the problem. Women in these situations would come in and it was ‘go home and pray about it’ instead of realizing the danger and lack of safety.”

Falash became even more active in her National Council of Catholic Women’s unit and later was named the group’s national Community Concerns chairman, overseeing a doll project to promote awareness of child abuse.

In the five years since her focus shifted to domestic violence, Falash believes the church’s response to the issue has improved, in part because the whole country has moved forward. Congress last year reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act.

“It’s been a cumulative effect: the prominence of the domestic violence question, the actions of Congress and the Supreme Court, states toughening up laws. It’s been a whole combination that has helped women finally get the legal rights they deserve, and I think the church is following that,” she said. “It took a push by all of us to make the church sit up and listen.”

On the national level, the National Council of Catholic Women was targeting domestic violence even before a U.S. bishops letter turned a spotlight on the problem in 1992, according to the council’s program director, Sheila McCarron in Washington. Her organization continues to make domestic violence a high priority, providing its members with resource material and support to address the problem on a local level, she said.

U.S. bishops in 1992 issued what many consider a landmark pastoral letter on domestic violence. “When I Call for Help: Toward a Church Response to Domestic Violence,” exhorts Catholics to stop using biblical text to support abusive behavior: “Abused women say, ‘I can’t leave this relationship. The Bible says it would be wrong.’ Abusive men say, ‘The Bible says my wife should be submissive to me.’ They take the biblical text and distort it to support their right to batter.”

The letter continues, “Even where the Bible uses traditional language to support the social order common in the day, the image presented is never one that condones the use of abuse to control another person. In Ephesians 5:21-23, for instance, which discusses relationships within the family, the general principle laid down is one of mutual submission between husband and wife. That passage holds out the image to husbands that they are to love their wives as they love their own body, as Christ loves the church. Can you imagine Jesus battering his church?”

The letter urges pastors to make their parishes places where both abuser and batterer can seek help, and to develop links with outside agencies and community resources. Clergy are advised to learn as much as they can about domestic violence and address the issue in homilies, to ask direct questions if abuse is suspected and to hold the abuser, not the victim, accountable.

But the document also concludes: “Ultimately, abused women must make their own decisions about staying or leaving. It is important to be honest with women about the risks involved. Remember: Women are at a most dangerous point when they attempt to leave their abusers. Research indicates that women who leave their batterers are at a 75 percent greater risk of being killed by the batterer than those who stay.”

Church’s message still mixed

Marie Giblin, assistant professor of Christian ethics and theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, believes the church’s message is still mixed. “Multiple papal statements of the 20th century have attempted to ‘defend’ women and ‘advance’ their cause and yet at the same time express profound resistance to change in women’s role and place in society,” Giblin writes in the winter 1999 edition of “Listening: Journal of Religion and Culture.”

Although Rome opposes violence against women, it has been vague on the issue of domestic violence, she notes in the article. “The way the issue is addressed emphasizes violence in war conditions and in sexual exploitation of women for profit (whether in prostitution or pornography). There is no room for the harsh reality of domestic violence in their idealized view of marriage and family.”

Giblin points out that the Vatican made no reference to domestic violence in three major documents that address marriage: John Paul II’s “Letter to Families” for the U.N. International Year of the Family in 1994; the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education’s Directives for forming seminarians for ministry to marriage and family; and the Pontifical Council for Family’s guidelines for marriage preparation. “Silence in these documents means a missed opportunity for the church to take a pro-active stance against domestic violence by educating not only couples, but those who minister to them,” she asserts.

In Giblin’s view, the U.S. bishops have been reluctant to confront Rome or address “the possibility that church teaching may contribute to a climate that supports domestic violence.”

Yet many others have interpreted the bishops’ letter as a green light for the church not only to confront the issue of domestic violence, but to do it shoulder to shoulder with other faith and secular organizations.

As churches work more closely with community resources and vice versa, a formidable stereotype is falling by the wayside, says David Lee, recently the director of community education at the Support Network for Battered Women in Mountain View, Calif.

“We’ve had to break down the barrier of faith communities not trusting the domestic violence community -- that domestic violence agencies are about breaking up families,” Lee said. “And the faith communities have been seen as doctrinaire and not providing support.

“By creating opportunities to work together we can make a tremendous difference. They can provide the spiritual leadership that we cannot, and we can provide knowledge and resources they’re not aware of.”

Lee, who now works for Stand Against Domestic Violence in Concord, Calif., co-chaired the 1998 faith-focused Power to Change Conference in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was attended by 280 people including lay leaders, directors of social action and women’s committees as well as clergy. Last summer, Lee went back to the people and organizations that attended in an effort to gauge tangible reaction to the event. “We wanted to test the effectiveness not by whether people enjoyed the day but whether people took action.”

He found out they did. “It ranged from simply putting a domestic violence bumper sticker in the church bulletin to as complicated as organizing community-wide conferences, Bible studies, Day of the Dead exhibits, poetry, developing protocols for how a congregation responds to domestic violence.”

The bottom line, Lee said, was that the conference did “serve as inspiration for clergy and faith communities to realize they can do something.”

A spiritual crisis

Lee has used the conference as a springboard to develop a Web site (www.interfaithfamilyviolence.org) that includes perspectives from Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu faiths. It features sermons, adult education curricula, prayers, interfaith dialogues, community organizing ideas, art displays and education materials as well as links to a wealth of other resources on the Internet. Lee calls the site a living document and continues to build on it, welcoming input wherever he can find it.

Further north in Seattle, the goal of the nationally recognized Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence (www.cpsdv.org) is to serve as a bridge between religious and secular communities in the education and prevention of domestic violence.

“When a victim or a survivor or a family is affected by domestic violence, we believe it’s also a spiritual crisis,” says Thelma Burgonio-Watson, the center’s director for training and education, “so we try to enlighten everybody around the role of religion toward healing, because religion can be a resource or it can be a block. We’re trying to maximize religion as a resource toward healing and prevention.”

She admits it’s not always easy to convince religious leaders to come to training sessions. “They give us many reasons: They have too many things to do; domestic violence is not a priority. But slowly and surely we’re getting them to come.”

In an address last summer, the center’s founder, Marie Fortune, noted that a century ago wife abuse was common. “Thirty years ago there were no public services for victims. Twenty years ago there was no accountability for offenders. Ten years ago it was still legal to rape your wife in some states … All of this has changed due to a lot of hard work.”

In concluding, Fortune invoked a passage from Ecclesiastes. She said, “So Isaiah urges us: ‘Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing: Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?’ ”

National Catholic Reporter, June 29, 2001