Every October for the last 44 years, we here in the United States have observed Respect Life Month. It is a reminder of the value and dignity of every human life. Life comes from God and has been redeemed by Jesus, and we are called to protect it in every stage and circumstance.
What do you think of when it comes to protecting life? For many of us, it is the unborn child in the womb and the tragedy of abortion. We also think about assisted suicide, which is becoming legal in more states around our nation, or perhaps capital punishment. There are many issues to consider.
One that we too often overlook may also be the most pervasive: domestic abuse. We hear about it in the news with professional athletes and celebrities, but this is a problem that exists right in our own neighborhoods, parishes and families. It is far more prevalent than any of us might imagine.
Nearly one in four women and nearly one in seven men have been victims of violence at the hands of their partners. Younger, unmarried women are at greatest risk. According to a U.S. government survey, 53 percent of victims were abused by a current or former girlfriend or boyfriend. One-third of all victims were abused by a spouse, while 14 percent said that the offender was an ex-spouse. Women ages 16 to 24 are nearly three times as vulnerable to attacks by intimate partners as those in other age groups; abuse victims between the ages 35 and 49 run the highest risk of being killed.
Domestic violence is too often shrouded in silence, and we need to change that. Those who experience it directly are often too afraid or too ashamed to talk about it. If we don’t experience it directly, we would rather not think about such violence in families that live so close to us. It’s uncomfortable to consider that sitting around us in the pews every Sunday are victims of abuse – psychological, physical, sexual, verbal or economic – and that in those same pews may be people who are perpetrating the violence.
People outside of the family hesitate to interfere, even when they suspect abuse is occurring. Many times the extended family denies that abuse exists, out of loyalty to the abuser and in order to protect the family’s image. Some people still argue – mistakenly –that intervention by outside sources endangers the sanctity of the home. Yet abuse and assault are no less serious when they occur within a family.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has asked that we shine a light on the problem of domestic abuse the weekend of Oct. 15-16, so you may hear about it at your own parish. In addition, 40 priests from the Washington archdiocese will attend a workshop at Catholic University to learn how they might become leaders in such a serious, widespread and silent problem that even we priests don’t talk about or reflect upon enough. The workshop is to encourage priests to become stronger advocates on this issue with the hope that there will be at least one priest in every deanery of the archdiocese with additional training and experience to help victims, perpetrators and other priests manage these difficult situations and point them toward appropriate resources.
Catholic Charities is committed to taking a leading role in raising awareness of domestic abuse and assisting victims. Our Angels Watch Shelter in Charles County is a place where women and children who are fleeing domestic violence can come for help, and we are building a new facility in the Waldorf area to further serve the people of St. Mary’s, Charles and Calvert counties.
As we celebrate Respect Life Month, please pray for all who are vulnerable, especially the poor, the sick, the elderly, the unborn and all victims of abuse. We need to be thinking as a Church and as a diocese about how we can help root out any violence, harassment or abuse that takes place in the home. May we be living examples of the saying: “Home, where each lives for the other and all live for God.”
If you or someone you know needs help dealing with domestic violence or if you would like to learn more about how you can help, please talk with your parish priest. In emergency situations, the national hotline for Domestic Abuse is 800-799-SAFE.