Shelter me, O God

Faith can mean the difference between life and death for victims of domestic violence.

Geri had been married for several years to a solid, hard-working man when things started to get “weird.” She discovered hundreds of dollars worth of *69 charges on their phone bill from him checking whom she had been calling. He berated her for spending time with family and friends, went through her mail, and scrutinized her cell phone records. Then one day she found him hiding under their bed, where he had been spying on her for hours.

“I had stuck it out because, being Catholic, I wanted to make my marriage work,” says Geri, a 54-year-old waitress from New Orleans, who asked that her full name not be used. “But after I caught him under the bed, I left for awhile.”

While they were separated, her husband stalked her, showing up at her workplace and calling her every few hours. But he also apologized profusely and promised things would be different. So she went back.

It wasn’t long, though, until a family emergency with Geri’s nephew caused her husband’s controlling and violent behavior to return. When all 265 pounds of him came after her with fists clenched, she begged him not to hit her, grabbed her purse, and ran.

When the first violent act occurs, the woman is likely to be incredulous. She believes her abuser when he apologizes and promises that it will not happen again. When it does—repeatedly—many women believe if they just act differently they can stop the abuse. They may be ashamed to admit that the man they love is terrorizing them. (“When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women” by the U.S. Catholic bishops, 1992, reissued in 2002)

Geri sought help at Crescent House, a domestic violence shelter operated by Catholic Charities in New Orleans, where she learned that her husband’s behavior was definitely abusive and most likely would not change. The staff helped her get shelter in a safe house until she could get a restraining order, have the locks changed, and file for divorce.

“This kind of psychological entrapment doesn’t happen overnight,” explains Mary Claire Landry, director of domestic violence and sexual assault services for Catholic Charities of New Orleans. “It happens when a woman is emotionally invested in a relationship that becomes controlling, verbally abusive, and threatening. Any relationship that is controlling to the extent that you don’t feel free is abusive.”

Geri faced other life stresses during the abuse: She had been displaced from her home because of Hurricane Katrina, her brother recently had died of AIDS, and she has her own health problems. Catholic Charities assisted her in getting help for her depression, and the peer support groups at Crescent House have helped her stay strong while leaving her abusive marriage.

“Even now I have 54 messages on my answering machine from him,” she says. “I try to be civil because I don’t like to mistreat anybody. But I’m not entertaining the thought of taking him back. One thing I’ve learned: Abuse doesn’t stop. It only gets worse.”

As pastors of the Catholic Church in the United States, we state as clearly and strongly as we can 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. We have called for a moral revolution to replace a culture of violence. (U.S. bishops)

Although at least half of domestic violence incidents go unreported, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate at least 8 million incidents of intimate partner violence toward U.S. women and men each year, resulting in 1,300 deaths and millions of injuries.

Yet this is one social problem for which money is no protection. Michele Weldon was a successful journalist married to a high-powered attorney, a good Catholic man who had once considered becoming a priest and who taught Sunday school at his parish.

“On paper he appeared to be the perfect mate. That’s the mythology I went with—that his violent actions were aberrant and not really connected to him,” says Weldon, who chronicled her journey out of an abusive marriage in her memoir, I Closed My Eyes: Revelations of a Battered Woman (Hazelden).

But behind closed doors, the “perfect husband” was calling his wife a “psycho,” belittling her and her accomplishments. When they fought his rage would erupt into violence, and he would shove and hit her. Still, she couldn’t believe her husband was a batterer. “Why would the person closest to me be so cruel?” she asked herself.

Domestic violence is often shrouded in silence. People outside the family hesitate to interfere, even when they suspect abuse is occurring. Many times even extended family denies that abuse exists, out of loyalty to the abuser and in order to protect the image of the family. Some people still argue—mistakenly—that intervention by outside sources endangers the sanctity of the home. (U.S. bishops)

Weldon and her husband sought help from three counselors over nine years, including a Catholic priest who advised her husband to just relax before coming home from work by driving around the block a few times. But seeking help did give Weldon the courage to leave without guilt, she says. “I tried. I upheld my vows. I did my best.”

Although awareness about domestic violence has increased in the past decades, too many victims—and some clergy—still don’t label behavior as abusive until there are bruises and broken bones. Even then, some still counsel women to stay in abusive marriages for religious reasons, adding to their guilt and shame.

“I can tell you for sure that women are still being told by ministers and Catholic clergy that once you’re married, it’s your bed and you lie in it, because marriage is sacred,” says Landry of Catholic Charities. “They don’t understand how serious this is. The last thing a victim needs to hear when she’s scared for her life is to be told she should go back to her abuser.”

Because a parish or church may be the only outside relationship an abuser hasn’t successfully thwarted, it’s especially important for clergy and church leaders to be attentive to the issue of domestic violence. Seminaries now offer training in how to identify domestic violence and instruct clergy to refer victims to the appropriate services and shelters. Still, sometimes abusers attack their spouses’ faith.

“Part of the battering syndrome is that the abuser will use anything that’s important to the victim to control her,” says Landry. “So if a woman’s spirituality is important to her, he’s going to use that as a weapon. He may try to isolate her from her church.”

Weldon was never counseled by a priest to stay in her abusive marriage, but she definitely felt misunderstood at her parish. Sermons about the disadvantages of broken homes only added to her feelings of grief and failure for being divorced. “I felt it was considered a selfish act to get divorced,” she says. “I don’t think people understood the seriousness and gravity of the decision not to be married anymore.”

Religion can be either a resource or a roadblock for battered women. As a resource, it encourages women to resist mistreatment. As a roadblock, its misinterpretation can contribute to the victim’s self-blame and suffering and to the abuser’s rationalizations. (U.S. bishops)

The abuse of power in intimate relationships is at the heart of domestic violence, so prevention must focus on the need for equality in healthy relationships. And prevention must start even before marriage or engagement. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 20 percent of teenage girls have experienced dating violence.

It’s an uphill battle in a culture in which violence against women is glorified in music videos and the belittling of women is fodder for jokes in television shows. What’s needed, experts agree, is exposure to healthy relationships and positive role models.

“We need to take strong stands against this as a church and as a community,” says Landry. “But I’m not sure the church has been at the forefront of confronting power and control issues.”

In 1992 the U.S. bishops spoke out against domestic violence in their pastoral statement “When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women,” which stated in no uncertain terms that any violence against women was unacceptable. (The letter was updated and reissued 10 years later.) It also made it clear that the woman’s safety was paramount to preserving the marriage and warned priests, deacons, and lay ministers as “first responders” to listen and believe women’s stories of abuse.

Parishes were urged to offer referrals and resources to victims, to train staff members on the issue, and include discussions of it in marriage and baptismal preparation. In liturgies parishes could reference domestic violence in homilies, reconciliation services, and intercessionary prayers.

That letter, combined with more exposure to the problem in their parishes, has increased the church’s visibility on the issue. Today many seminaries include information about domestic violence in formation programs, and Catholic social service groups and parishes sponsor safe houses and counseling for victims. In the Latino Catholic community, several programs focus on healing for both women victims and men perpetrators.

Many abusive men hold a view of women as inferior. Their conversation and language reveal their attitude towards a woman’s place in society. Many believe that men are meant to dominate and control women. (U.S. bishops)

“Domestic violence is a problem in every culture,” says Valentin Araya, associate director of Chicago’s archdiocesan Family Ministries Office, which coordinates a Spanish-speaking marriage enrichment program that often deals with domestic violence. “In the Hispanic community, the cultural shock of leaving everything to immigrate to this country contributes to the problem. These couples don’t typically have access to sources of help.”

Immigrant women who don’t speak English and may have several children have even fewer options when faced with abuse, according to those who work in the Latino community.

At St. Pius V Parish in Chicago, the Hope Latina program offers counseling for women, teens, and children, as well as a special program for men. “Most of the women don’t want to separate from their husbands; they want their husbands to change,” says Carlos Lopez, who coordinates the men’s group.

Although recidivism rates among abusers are notoriously high (some estimates say only 10 to 20 percent never abuse again), admitting they have a problem is a first step. Father Chuck Dahm of St. Pius estimates that probably only one in 15 or 20 men voluntarily seek help, but for those who do—especially when the program includes a faith angle—transformation is possible, if relatively rare.

“My experience is that it’s very difficult for men who abuse to make a change, but the men who are here want to make a change,” says Lopez. “We emphasize that they are responsible. They make the choice. And they can choose to do something different.”

Araya agrees that the church must seek to help abusers as well as victims. “Otherwise he is going to go and form another relationship and bring that same problem to another woman,” he says. “Men have learned that aggressiveness and violence is how to be a man. We need to show them other ways to be a man.”

Men who batter also cite scripture to insist that their wives forgive them. A victim then feels guilty if she cannot do so. Forgiveness, however, does not mean forgetting the abuse or pretending that it did not happen.?.?.?. Rather, forgiveness means that the victim decides to let go of the experience and move on with greater insight and conviction not to tolerate abuse of any kind again. (U.S. bishops)

Violence against women often goes hand-in-hand with violence against children. An estimated half of the men who abuse their wives also beat their children. And children who grow up in violent homes are more likely to become batterers themselves. When women consider whether to leave an abusive home, often the welfare of their children is the deciding factor.

“Many women victims are dealing with guilt and shame because of what has happened to their children,” says Sister Dorothy Renckens, R.G.S., administrator of the House of the Good Shepherd in Chicago, a longer-term residential program for women leaving abusive relationships.

In private apartments, women can work on putting a life back together for them and their children. In addition to counseling and support groups, job skills training, and child development courses, the House of the Good Shepherd offers optional spiritual counseling and Sunday services.

One major spiritual issue is forgiveness. While forgiving definitely does not mean forgetting the abuse or in any way justifying it, without forgiveness women can stay stuck in bitterness and resentment. Victims of domestic violence also need to forgive themselves, especially if they feel guilty about choosing an abusive partner or for exposing their children to violence.

“They have a reason to be angry, so I think many of them struggle with what it means to forgive,” says Renckens. “But we try to explain that the forgiveness that God is wanting from them is so that they can be free.”

The Catholic Church teaches that violence against another person in any form fails to treat that person as someone worthy of love.... As bishops, we condemn the use of the Bible to support abusive behavior in any form. A correct reading of scripture leads people to an understanding of the equal dignity of men and women and to relationships based on mutuality and love. (U.S. bishops)

While the bishops’ document on domestic violence and the many social service outreaches put the church at the forefront of confronting abuse, others see traditional Christian and Catholic teachings as unhelpful (see sidebar on page 23). Still, faith in God often makes the difference between surviving abuse and not.

Those who work with victims and the women themselves say that their faith helps them reconnect with their self-worth and dignity. Because they believe God loves them for who they are, they come to see that they deserve better than an unhealthy, violent relationship.

Yet other victims may question why God has allowed this to happen to them, says Lisa O’Dell-Davis, director of programming at Harbor House, a domestic violence shelter operated by Catholic Charities in Wichita, Kansas that offers a special spiritual support group for victims.

They study scripture passages that focus on hope, share their stories, and pray for one another. “The goal of the group is to introduce the concept of a loving God, who loves them unconditionally,” says O’Dell-Davis. “Then they can see that God can be a positive supportive role in their lives.”

A similar group in New Orleans helped Geri see abuse as a form of adultery, which she found helpful. She continues to pray for God’s help every night. “In spite of all this suffering, that keeps me strong,” she says.

Michele Weldon has also drawn on her faith in a loving God to help her rebuild her life. “I always had faith that my children and I were going to be OK,” she says. “And I still do.”

Heidi Schlumpf is managing editor of U.S. Catholic.

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