Nearly 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men have been victims of sexual violence other than rape at some point in their lives.
The numbers are staggering. But amid the silent epidemic of domestic violence, Catholics are banding together to work for change.
“Now is really a privileged moment in the Church,” said Dr. Christauria Welland, founder of the group Pax in Familia, which works to prevent domestic abuse.
Dr. Welland spoke with CNA at the “Help, Hope, and Healing” symposium exploring a Catholic response to domestic abuse and violence. The conference was held this summer in Washington, D.C.
Welland recalled how the Vatican had sent out a questionnaire ahead of the synods on the family, asking about challenges for families around the world. She looked at the questions, reached out to her bishop, and talked to him about the challenges of domestic violence. It was an opportunity to bring the issue from the shadows into the spotlight, she said.
“That was the first time that I can remember that anyone asked me as a Catholic for feedback,” she said, noting that she eventually spoke on domestic violence at the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. “Maybe this will go somewhere really great.”
The symposium was hosted by the National Catholic School of Social Service at The Catholic University of America. Other organizations also helped with the conference, Catholic Charities USA, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Catholics for Family Peace.
The event was a response to the Pope’s apostolic exhortation on the family Amoris Laetitia, the university noted. In paragraph 204 of the letter, Pope Francis insisted that “good pastoral training is important ‘especially in light of particular emergency situations arising from cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse’.”
Shocking statistics, devastating consequences
Violence and abuse within families is everywhere, Dr. Welland said in her Thursday address on awareness.
An estimated 35 percent of women have been victims of physical or sexual violence some time in their lives. “Some national studies,” U.N. Women reports, “show that up to 70 percent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime.”
Globally, 30 percent of women who have been in a relationship have been abused by an intimate partner, according to the World Health Organization.
And as much as 38 percent of the murders of women worldwide were committed by an intimate partner, according to WHO. In 2010 in the U.S., 1,095 women were murdered by intimate partner, according to the CDC.
Women aren’t the only victims: 28 percent of men in the U.S. have been raped, stalked, or physically assaulted by an intimate partner at some point, the CDC says. However, women reportedly suffer from the physical and emotional consequences of abuse at a rate of three times that of men.
Domestic abuse takes several forms – most notably physical, sexual, or emotional. Pope Francis, noted this in his recent apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia:
“I think particularly of the shameful ill-treatment to which women are sometimes subjected, domestic violence and various forms of enslavement which, rather than a show of masculine power, are craven acts of cowardice. The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union.”
The impacts of abuse also take multiple forms, as Dr. Welland noted at the conference.
There are the immediate physical injuries stemming from physical abuse, but also severe disabilities, as in one case when a woman’s husband ran her over with his car and gave her a lifelong physical disability, she said.
Women can also contract sexually-transmitted infections from sexual abuse.
Stress-related injuries, like gastrointestinal problems, heart issues, chronic pain, and migraine headaches, can result from domestic violence.
The hidden problems – like mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder – are no less real. Anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, low self-esteem, trust issues, sleep disturbances, and ineffective parenting can all be consequences for victims of spousal abuse and child abuse.
And the children suffer greatly, both from being abused themselves and from witnessing spousal abuse, noted Dr. Mindy Thiel, a social worker in Maryland who spoke at the conference.
“Those who grow up with domestic violence are 6 times more likely to commit suicide and 50 times more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol,” the Childhood Domestic Violence Association says. Such children are also “74 times more likely to commit a violent crime against someone else.”
Children can also develop anxiety disorders, eating and sleeping disorders, or fears of leaving an abuse victim at home with the aggressor. They can exhibit depression by either withdrawing or “acting out” at school.
Stress can take its toll on children’s health. In one case where an angry father punched a hole in the wall above a baby in a crib, the child’s body essentially shut down for several days from the stress of witnessing the incident, Thiel noted.
Anger can be a “huge emotion” for children, she added, noting that they might grow up taking out their anger on others and even become abusers themselves.
For the Church, an issue ‘very much on the radar’
Recent popes – and the U.S. bishops – have spoken out forcefully against domestic violence, and the issue is “very much on the radar” of Pope Francis, Dr. John Grabowski, an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, said at the conference.
In his 1995 letter to women, Pope St. John Paul II wrote that “the time has come to condemn vigorously the types of sexual violence which frequently have women for their object and to pass laws which effectively defend them from such violence.”
Pope Francis, in Amoris Laetitia, cited the bishops of Mexico in saying that “violence within families breeds new forms of social aggression.” He added that “surely it is legitimate and right to reject older forms of the traditional family marked by authoritarianism and even violence.”
The U.S. bishops had released a statement on domestic violence, “When I Call for Help,” in 1992, condemning violence against women as “never justified” and offering resources for parishes and priests to combat the problem.
What recourse is out there for women who are abused or who see their children abused? Oftentimes they are not met with the sympathy and support that they need.
If a victim’s mother was herself an abuse victim, noted Kathy Bonner of the National Council of Catholic Women, she might advise her daughter that the abuse was simply part of marriage and part of her cross she has to carry.
While ignorant of the abuse, the woman’s pastor might know the abusive husband as a leader in the parish. He might suggest couples’ counseling for their predicament. The husband may then twist the counseling sessions to strengthen his own position of authority in the marriage.
This is a common problem, Dr. Eileen Dombo told CNA. Dr. Dombo is the Assistant Dean and Chair of Masters of Social Work Program at The Catholic University of America’s National Catholic School of Social Service.
The abuser needs personal therapy to overcome his own problems, she said. With couples counseling, however, it often becomes an opportunity for the abuser to justify him or herself and “attack the victim through the lens of therapy.”
Other members of a parish or family members might be ignorant of the extent of domestic violence in their locality, and might even normalize it as just a part of marriage. Simply telling an abuse victim “it is your Cross and you must bear it” can be harmful and contradict Catholic Social Teaching, Dr. Welland emphasized.
More can be done on the parish and diocesan level to help embattled women and children, leaders insisted at the conference. The purpose of the July event – the first national Catholic symposium on domestic violence in recent memory, one organizer said – was to connect leaders from across the country on the issue.
Resources should be available to support and empower abuse victims to make the best decision they can for their well-being and the good of their family, experts agreed.
Fr. Chuck Dahm, O.P., who directs the Archdiocese of Chicago’s domestic violence outreach, was blunt about “one of the major challenges” to fighting domestic violence at the parish level – “our priests.”
Priests may be overworked or feel like they are not an expert on the issue, he acknowledged, and therefore may be reticent to speak out from the pulpit. Some fear they might appear to be “promoting divorce” if they speak out against domestic violence, he added.
Yet Fr. Dahm works hard to pitch his ministry any way he can on the parish level. If he succeeds at convincing his way into the parish, he might preach at Mass.
“After I preach, then the priests get it,” he said. Once he speaks at a parish, he calls a meeting afterward where anyone can show up – he usually gets 12 to 45 people – and the issue is discussed in the open.
The goals of his ministry, he said, are first, to create awareness through preaching and parish meetings, and then to connect the parish to domestic violence agencies close-by.
Laura Yeomans is another Catholic working to fight domestic violence. She is the Parish Partners Program Manager for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Washington, and explained how domestic violence ministry must be “survivor-focused.”
That “means that we listen to the survivor. We listen to her needs,” she said of her ministry. “We don’t know the safety consequences of any recommendations that we might have.”
A victim knows her situation and her family better than anyone, Yeomans continued, so simply leaving the house could prove to be a fatal mistake for a victim who lives with an angry abuser.
Rather than simply tell a victim what to do, “we develop a fierce respect for the survivor,” she said, and look to “empower them” and “offer choices,” including “information about what women might have found.”
Such information can include local domestic violence agencies, but also national centers like the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the National Domestic Violence Resource Center, and LoveIsRespect.org.
Dr. Dombo at the National Catholic School of Social Service recommended those national resources as part of a compassionate response by a parish worker to an abuse victim.
Parish workers should be trained to recognize signs of a healthy relationship versus signs of an abusive relationship, she stressed. “A lot of times people will talk about what’s going on in their relationship, and they won’t necessarily identify what’s going on as abuse.”
So a worker can “think through the lens of power and control” to help someone understand abusive behavior directed at them.
In a healthy relationship, there’s equality, she said. “Your opinion is valued, your desires are validated, there are decision-making processes that are shared.”
In an abusive relationship, it’s dictatorial, she continued. “One person wants to centralize all that power” over the couple’s living situation, the social life, and other areas.
Abuse victims generally don’t “want the relationship to end,” she maintained, but just “want the abuse to end.” They should be helped to understand that they “can’t fix” their abuser.
Resources – like domestic violence hotlines and signs of an abusive relationship – can also be posted in “safe spaces” like women’s restrooms, she said.
There is progress being made at the parish and diocesan level in fighting domestic violence, Fr. Dahm maintained. Local parishes have met and shared information on successes and challenges. And there will be a Mass said for domestic violence at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral, which Fr. Dahm called a “major victory.”
He would like the issue to be discussed in greater depth in more seminaries, and to be incorporated into marriage preparation programs. He noted the efforts of dioceses which are planning or wanting to train clergy on domestic violence, including Kansas City, Portland, Kalamazoo, Laredo, Oklahoma City, and Washington, D.C.
Ultimately, helping victims of domestic violence is about empowerment, and being honest about the problem is an important step in fighting it, Dombo said.
“I just think that the more you’re able to validate for people that nobody deserves to be treated that way, and…that behavior is not part of a healthy relationship, that’s emotional abuse or psychological abuse….to name that, the more that empowers somebody who is feeling powerless, feeling victimized, to come forward,” she stated.
This article was originally published on CNA July 12, 2016.