by Therese Horvat
Special to The Leaven
The statistics are staggering. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) reports that:
• On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States.
• Almost 1 in 4 women (24.3%) and 1 in 7 men (13.8%) aged 18 and older in the U.S. have been the victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.
• Intimate partner violence accounts for 15% of all violent crime.
Nor does domestic violence discriminate. Victims and abusers come from all ethnic, economic and educational backgrounds, all religions, occupations, ages and nationalities.
Finally — despite the fact that the U.S. bishops emphasized in a 1992 pastoral letter that “no person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage” — some people, including priests, advise battered partners to return to their relationships, pray about their situations and work things out.
Father Chuck Dahm, OP, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago Domestic Violence Outreach office, has worked for several years to help serve victims of domestic violence, raise awareness of this societal scourge, educate priests and Catholics about the Catholic Church’s position on the matter and encourage parish outreach. He describes domestic violence as rampant throughout the United States, saying, “It’s an epidemic that’s not going away.”
Domestic violence starts small, escalates
At its root, domestic violence involves one intimate partner exercising power and control over another. It often starts with name-calling, threats or distrust. The abuser may go through a phase of apologizing and seeking forgiveness. However, domestic violence tends to escalate and intensify over time into extreme control and abuse.
Domestic violence takes many forms. Physical violence ranges from punching and slapping to kicking and use of a weapon. Jeanny Sharp, communications coordinator for the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence (KCDSV), says that a lethality assessment used by law enforcement and first responders identifies what types of behaviors serve as a high-risk warning of more extreme and life-threatening violence.
While emotional and verbal abuse can be more difficult to detect, Father Dahm describes these forms as very harmful in that they diminish the spirit of victims. Put-downs, demeaning language, intimidation and insults assail their human dignity.
Sexual abuse involves forced intimacy or denial of intimacy. Economic abuse makes the victim completely dependent on the perpetrator. The abuser may forbid work outside the home or deprive the victim of information about the family’s finances.
Other controlling behaviors isolate the victim by not allowing contact with family or friends. In her book, “How Can We Help to End Violence in Catholic Families?” clinical psychologist Dr. Christauria Welland equates this to a form of imprisonment — keeping the spouse in the house against her will. Another way to hurt an intimate partner is by threatening to injure or abduct children.
The impact of COVID-19 on domestic violence is still being assessed. Preliminary indicators are that the pandemic has exacerbated risk factors (isolation, financial stress, etc.) likely to result in an increase in domestic violence. Concurrently, the pandemic has challenged agencies’ abilities to provide services due to temporary closures and/or lack of resources.
Why men batter women
Abuse is a learned behavior. In “When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) writes: “Men learn to abuse through observation, experience and reinforcement.”
Characteristically, an abuser is extremely jealous, possessive, easily angered, blaming and controlling. Men may believe women are inferior and that males are meant to dominate and be unchallenged. Some cite Scripture (specifically, St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians) to justify this — a practice the U.S. bishops denounce in their pastoral document.
Abusers objectify their victims and consider them as property or sexual objects. They externalize causes of their behavior by blaming their partner, stress or other reasons. Several sources emphasize that while alcohol and drugs often figure into domestic violence, abuse and addiction are two separate and distinct problems.
The National Coalition notes that the majority of abusers are only violent with current or past intimate partners. Additionally, 90% of abusers have no criminal records and are law-abiding outside their homes.
Who’s at risk for being a victim?
The U.S. bishops state that younger, unmarried women are at greater risk of domestic violence. Citing U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the bishops note that over half of victims are abused by their current or former girlfriend or boyfriend; one-third by their spouse; and 14% by an ex-spouse.
Welland says that studies in the U.S. indicate there is no difference in the rate of domestic violence among people in different religions and the general public. This leads to the conclusion that “domestic violence among Catholics worldwide is likely to be the same 30% lifetime prevalence as the rest of the population.”
The most dangerous risks associated with domestic violence occur when the victim is threatening to seek help or leave the relationship. Often, abuse intensifies at this time.
Why women stay in abusive relationships
In his homily during the October 2020 observance of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Bishop Mark Brennan, of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, discussed a “code of silence” surrounding this societal issue that — like a virus — allows it to go unchallenged and keep doing harm.
Therapist Judy Kotecki-Martin, LCP, of the Wyandot Center in Kansas City, Kansas, and a member of Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee, says shame may be involved. Women think they have done something to provoke the abuse. They experience guilt and embarrassment. They believe their children need their father and that as wives they should keep the family together at all costs — even at the risk of their own physical and emotional well-being. They are fearful they won’t be able to make it financially on their own.
Because of their cultural upbringing, some women feel the need to keep their problems confined to the home environment. In addition to being isolated, women in rural settings often lack access to helpful resources.
Catholics may feel bound to the abusive relationship by the church’s teaching on the permanence of marriage.
“Some women believe,” explained Father Dahm, “they made a promise to God to stay in the relationship or else sin.”
The U.S. Catholic Church’s stance on domestic violence
In 1992, the U.S. bishops issued their “Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women.” They updated the statement in 2002, and again in 2016. They focus on women due to the fact that 85% of victims of reported cases of nonlethal domestic violence are women.
The bishops emphasize that “violence against women, inside or outside the home, is never justified.” They state that any form of violence — physical, sexual, psychological or verbal — is sinful and often a crime. They affirm that “the person being assaulted needs to know acting to end the abuse does not violate the marriage promises.”
The bishops condemn use of the Bible to support abusive behavior in any form. They write: “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.”
They encourage abused persons who have divorced to investigate seeking an annulment. Through this process, the Catholic Church determines if the marriage bond is not valid.
“We need to get the bishops’ statement regarding domestic violence out to everyone,” believes Father Dahm.
“Saying, ‘It is your cross and you must bear it’ is not only hurtful and possibly places the victim at risk,” writes Welland, “[but] it also contradicts Catholic social teaching. For 2,000 years, the church has reached out to the sick, the injured and those who are oppressed, not fearing to stand up for the poorest and the most neglected. Victims of domestic violence are some of these people.”
Welland’s book was printed for participants in the 2015 Synod on the Family in Rome. Bishops across the world have received copies of the book.
In the Chicago archdiocese, Father Dahm directs many of his efforts toward helping parishes establish domestic violence outreach ministries. At the invitation of pastors, he addresses the topic during weekend Masses followed by a Monday evening session to discuss outreach opportunities.
He wants victims of domestic violence to find the compassion of Jesus and healing in and through their parishes. The Chicago archdiocesan website features resources to help establish parish-based programs and to heighten awareness of domestic violence, services and prevention. The Dominican priest is available to conduct workshops for priests in dioceses across the country.
Father Dahm believes that shining the light on domestic violence is what will end it. Raising awareness and promoting prevention are critical. Training young people about healthy relationships is an important part of the solution.
Welland says that programs to build nonviolent skills are widely available for both young men and young women. She suggests they be added to current catechesis, youth groups, and marriage preparation in parishes and Catholic schools.
Classes and counseling exist to help abusers unlearn harmful behaviors and manage anger. However, Father Dahm has found that people don’t change easily. Kotecki-Martin cautions that batterers often avoid these programs because they don’t think they have a problem.
The National Coalition writes: “Preventing violence means changing our society and its institutions; eliminating those attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, environments and policies that contribute to violence and promoting those that stop violence.”
This involves education and awareness across multiple sectors, including faith communities. From the perspective of prevention, Topeka-based advocate Sharp concludes, “Everybody can make a difference.”