Every minute, nearly 20 people are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. This equates to more than 10 million people every year.
Domestic violence is a pervasive issue that spans across all ethnic and economic lines. Both men and women are victims of domestic violence, but 85 percent of the victims of reported cases of non-lethal domestic violence are women.
“There are women in our parishes, without question, who are being verbally, physically and sexually abused by their spouses,” said Msgr. John Enzler, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Washington. “That is why we need to begin to deal with this issue."
In 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published a statement titled, When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women, which defined domestic violence as, "any kind of behavior that a person uses to control an intimate partner through fear and intimidation. It includes physical, sexual, psychological, verbal, and economic abuse.” The document goes on to offer 16 suggestions of what parishes can do to help.
“Many abused women seek help first from the Church because they see it as a safe place,” said the USCCB in When I Call for Help. “Even if their abusers isolate them from other social contacts, they may still allow them to go to church.”
In the Archdiocese of Washington, priests and lay people are working together to minister to the victims of domestic violence. About two years ago, a group of priests drafted a plan to make domestic violence ministry a priority in the archdiocese and presented it to Cardinal Wuerl. He approved the plan, and since then, Catholic Charities and several parishes have been figuring out how to best execute it.
“Not all Catholics realize that the Catholic Church is against domestic abuse,” said Sharon O’Brien, the director of Catholics for Family Peace, a national organization founded in 2010 as a result of a six-month national work group run by the USCCB Office of Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth.
O’Brien said people sometimes think leaving their abusive spouse would violate their marriage vow of being with them “for better or for worse.” And in the past, there were cases where priests advised women to stay with their spouse because of these vows, said Msgr. Enzler. But in When I Call For Help, the USCCB said, “We emphasize that no person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage.” Rather, they encourage abused people to seek an annulment, which determines that the marriage bond is invalid.
While Karen Simon, a volunteer with the domestic violence ministry at St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, was attending Washington Theological Union, a graduate school of theology and seminary in Washington that is now closed, she observed that the men who were in formation to become priests were not required to take pastoral care courses that dealt with difficult family issues like domestic violence, divorce, and addiction.
“If we as Church and this archdiocese say that this is an important issue that needs to be addressed, in my opinion, then courses educating those who are in formation to be ordained as priests and deacons (about the issue) should be required,” she said. “Domestic violence is a very real issue in the lives of many families and, for too long, it has not been addressed adequately in our parishes."
On Oct. 18, Catholic Charities held a workshop aimed at educating priests about the issue of domestic violence and how to minister to victims, which 31 priests from the archdiocese attended.
“It was a great turn out of interest and concern from my fellow pastors and priests who face the reality that some in their pews are not treated in an appropriate way by their spouses and partners,” said Msgr. Enzler.
As a part of the new effort to educate priests and minister to victims of domestic violence, Msgr. Enzler said he hopes they will be able to find priests to be regional representatives who are knowledgeable about the issue of domestic violence.
Catholic Charities runs Angel’s Watch Shelter in Charles County, which houses 40 women who have been victims of domestic abuse. They are in the process of building a new shelter, which will be able to house about 60 women, but Msgr. Enzler said that will still only touch about 10 percent of the problem, because about 600 women per year come seeking help.
About two years ago, Franciscan Father Mike Johnson began to raise awareness about the issue of domestic violence at St. Camillus in Silver Spring, where he was the pastor at the time. He gave one homily to educate about the issue, and a second to invite parishioners to get involved with the ministry. Simon recalls that at the meeting that occurred a few days after his second homily, most people who attended had been personally affected by domestic violence, either experiencing it in their own relationship or in the relationship of a family member.
The parish then began inviting people from outside agencies into the parish to provide education and training about the issue. Parishioners learned about domestic violence as a pattern of behavior and gained greater understanding of why people who are abused may stay in or leave a relationship.
Now, there are a few people in the ministry who meet with people who are experiencing domestic violence. Two people will meet with the person experiencing the violence one-on-one “to listen to them, to let them know that we believe them, to give them support and to give them referrals to outside agencies that are focused on this issue,” Simon said. “It is being a welcoming supportive presence, but not counseling.”
One woman had a criminal case with her abuser, and a few people from the ministry went to court to support her. They also occasionally put information in the bulletin to educate about domestic violence and let parishioners know there are people in the parish ready to listen and help. And, as an educational and preventative measure, they have begun teaching about healthy relationships in faith formation classes in the parish and the school. They hope to expand that to incorporate it into marriage prep, baptismal classes, and the youth group as well.
“Parishes are great because even if the couple dealing with abuse isn’t in the pew, people who love them are,” O’Brien said.
Father Bill Byrne is beginning a similar initiative at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Potomac, where he is the pastor. On Oct. 4, the parish had its first meeting for people who were interested in the ministry, and those who attended had the opportunity to hear Laura Yeomans – the manager of Catholic Charities’ Parish Partner Program – present information about domestic violence.
Father Byrne said he expects non-parishioners to make use of the ministry, because it allows them to have greater anonymity. As a result, he wants to “make sure the ministry is from the outset one that… understand[s] we are being called to serve the broader community.”
Since he gave a homily introducing the initiative on Oct. 2, Father Byrne said he started hearing stories from people “that never in a million years” would he have expected to be victims of domestic violence.
“Domestic abuse has no place in a Catholic marriage,” O’Brien said. “If it is happening, there is hope, help and healing available."