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
“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
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
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 ).