Truth to Power

truth

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples how to settle their disputes. Jesus explains that they are to deal with conflicts between two parties and, if that does not work, then to address it openly in the company of others. The final step is to bring it to the church.

I’ve written many times on this blog about domestic abuse and how it has impacted my life. I’ve written about how it has affected my relationship with my former Catholic parish. I’ve called out the Catholic Church’s lack of response to domestic abuse. While the Catholic Church doesn’t openly condone domestic abuse, it doesn’t openly work to end it either. Imagine if the efforts to end domestic abuse rivaled that of the efforts to end abortion. And I’ve pointed out the missed opportunities that the Church has had to be supportive of empowering women in general. For a recap, you can read Accountability, Reading the Synod, Life Reclaimed, Love In The Ashes or Morning After Reaction: Like A Girl. 

So great, we all know I have a big mouth and a small but loyal readership. Is the leadership of the Catholic Church really knocking themselves out to see what I have to say? I somehow doubt it. So I did what Jesus told me to do. I brought it to the Church directly. Speaking truth to power, I took it directly to the bishop in the form of a letter that I fully expected to go unanswered. When his secretary called me ten days later and told me he wanted to meet with me, I almost keeled over.

Between my own experiences and some of the research I had done over the last semester, I had learned precisely how unprepared the parish priests are to deal with domestic abuse situations. There is no training on domestic abuse or the cycle of violence – none at all – not in seminary and not beyond that. And yet, they’re responsible for preparing couples for marriage and counseling those whose marriages run into difficulty. There’s a USCCB document about domestic abuse that offers some thoughts on the subject but most of the priests I’ve talked to don’t even know it exists. This lack of training is precisely what I called out in my letter to the bishop.

I requested that the Church begin addressing a number of things on a parish level.

  • To recognize abuse victims when they present themselves and to assess their immediate safety. When a victim makes any sort of indication that there are abusive behaviors in the home, they have to be told they have an option to leave if they don’t feel safe. The initial response can’t be to try to salvage the marriage.

 

  • Knowing where to refer victims for the specialized counseling they need and how to help them contact the local domestic violence shelters. This type of crisis counseling is highly specialized and it can’t be up to the parish priests to handle it. But they must know where to send victims to ensure they get the help they need to recover. Also knowing how to help a victim get in touch with a shelter can be the difference between life and death.

 

  • Knowing where to refer abusers for the specialized counseling they also need, which is not simply anger management classes. Anger is an emotion. Abuse is a choice. Abusers have their own unique issues and they also need specialized long-term counseling. Their need for power and control is not all that different from a drug addict seeking their next high. And until they are ready to accept full responsibility for their actions, nothing will change.

 

  • Accountability for abusers. Far too often, abusers escape any real consequences from the civil authorities. In the Church, there are no consequences whatsoever. A known abuser should be held accountable for their actions, up to and including moving an abuser to a different parish to prevent contact with the victim.

 

  • Safe sanctuary for victims. The sacraments offer healing and grace. Victims need to be able to access the sacraments, without fear, in order to heal. The ability to be active in parish life should not be contingent upon trying to avoid contact with their abuser.

 

  • Raising awareness. The Catholic Church devotes a lot of time and energy to raising awareness of causes it cares about: abortion, religious freedom, immigration etc. Domestic abuse is a sin against the basic human dignity we all share. And it’s time the Church started talking about it openly.

 

I spent nearly an hour with the bishop going over where things fall far short of what is needed, both in general and in my specific situation. We talked about solutions, including the way the Lutheran churches handle situations where the abuser and victim are in the same parish. Ultimately, he promised me that he would address this with all the priests of the diocese at the convocation of priests and they will work to find ways to address each of the concerns that I raised, including some form of accountability for abusers.

And so now I have brought the issue to the Church. I have done what is within my power to do and it is now out of my hands. I will be watching closely to see what happens. I’ve made a conscious effort to keep my jadedness in check and to take this one bishop in this one diocese at his word. Seeing the Church, even on a local level, finally address the issue of domestic abuse would bring a great deal of healing to survivors like myself.

Essence of Water

candleThere are a lot of days, especially since the start of the Spring 17 semester, that I get to the end of my day and wonder what the hell just happened. How is it bedtime already?! I’m running like a crazy woman trying to keep up with everything going on in the family and add homework and papers to that. Yikes!! Forget bedtime, how is the week over already?! But then there are days that suddenly bring a new sense of focus on where I am and what I’m doing. I feel like I’m finding answers to questions I barely knew I had. Those are days I want to hang on to tightly – and trust me when I say this – that doesn’t work. They just slip by that much faster, like trying to hold on to water with a fist.

Taking three classes, all on campus, sounded a little ambitious back in October when I chose my Spring classes. By the third week of February, when I look at the stack of reading I have to do, it starts sounding completely batshit crazy. It’s an odd combination to read fifty pages on spousal abuse and then read eighty pages of Zen philosophy and then write a paper analyzing Cartesian and Lockean theories in the film The Matrix.  And yet, I have never felt so at home and so alive as I do in this set of classes.

The first day, first fifteen minutes into Comparative Theology, my professor declared me the class unicorn – yes, religion majors are that rare, even on a Catholic campus. He was rather excited that I had been closely following the dialogue between Pope Francis and the ELCA and the events surrounding the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We chatted about Luther and Bonhoeffer and their views on the Roman Catholic Church. He promises I will absolutely love the second half of the semester. Meanwhile, reading Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice has suddenly made some of the conversations in Alice In Wonderland make sense. I finally get what Absolem was rambling on about. Yeah, I know, not at all the point of Comparative Theology but hey, little things make me happy. And as it turns out all that time I spent over the last nine years reading Rohr and his explanations of non-dualism was time well spent.

Philosophy and theology are comfort zone classes for me, so even though both would be a lot of reading and paper writing, I was happy. But I was genuinely concerned about my third class. I was afraid that taking a sociology class focused entirely on family violence would dredge up a lot of old stuff. It’s been a couple years since anything has triggered a seriously bad reaction for me and as much as I’d like to keep it that way, I also don’t want to spend the rest of my life hiding from would-be triggers. That was a hard choice to make and one I am so glad I made. Unpleasant as most of the subject matter has been, it’s been like having someone walk into a dark room full of scary shadows and turn on a light.Turns out I still blamed myself for more stuff than I had realized. Also turns out some of the things I’d chalked up to my own weakness were entirely not my fault. Being able to talk about some of the reasons why women stay and were the system breaks down has been healing and empowering for me and it’s been important for the 15 soon-to-be social workers, teachers, nurses and cops to hear.

“A Zen master once said that water is of one essence, but if it is drunk by a cow, it becomes milk, while if it is drunk by a snake, it becomes poison.” – Thich Thien-An

The more I’m able to bring my painful past experiences into the light, the more I understand them. The more I understand them at their essence, the more I’m able to transform that pain into something healthy instead of into poison. So no matter how crazy this semester gets, I know I am exactly where I need to be and doing exactly what I need to be doing. Who knows, maybe by May I’ll be be able to stop trying to grab on to answers and be able to hold them lightly and even let them go.

Accountability

Some recent comments from a Catholic archbishop in Spain made a bit of a splash earlier this week on the internet when he spoke in his homily about domestic violence and how women draw a macho reaction by rejecting their partner’s demands or by asking for a separation. You can read the story here or here.

In these modern times, when more attention than ever has been focused on women and their roles in society, domestic violence has been hauled out into the light and exposed for the widespread, insidious evil that it is. We can read more than ever before about the various forms of abuse and its short- and long-term effects. Articles abound which detail the ways in which abuse is often perpetuated in other forms long after a woman exits a violent relationship. There is plentiful research, much of which has been translated into layman’s terms, that demonstrates that not all abuse is physical and psychological damage from abusive relationships can last for years.

So that brings me back to church. As one who is actively dating other churches, I spend a serious amount time reading official statements and following various synod gatherings, especially from Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, and Episcopal churches. Back in November, a document was issued from the ELCA which specifically addressed gender-based violence. It contained a confession of individual and corporate sin in which the church admits to failing in the past to address such violence and for its role in not doing enough to counter bad theology which allowed for a misinterpretation of scripture in such a way as to promote patriarchal systems based on the view that women are ‘lower’ than men in creation. It went on to address the practicality which every congregation is likely to face at some point: having a woman and her abuser both as members of the congregation. In this situation, it was stressed that the safety of the victim is to be the greatest concern. Abusers, while they must be cared for, must also be held accountable not only to the victim but also to the community of faith. Congregations are strongly encouraged to have specific guidelines and plans of action to cope with such situations.

As a domestic violence survivor, I read it with great interest when it was issued but I didn’t do much of a real comparison with Catholic statements at the time. The comments this week from the Catholic archbishop touched a very raw nerve and so I decided to dig a little deeper. As I had written on this blog previously, the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family in Rome did not have much to say about domestic violence except as it explicitly related to women’s role as mother. As I scoured the internet now, I did manage to find a relatively new document from the U.S. Catholic bishops on domestic violence that was long on scripture and short on any real practical guidance. Accountability is mentioned only once as a bullet point with no specifics whatsoever.

When a woman finds herself under attack at home and seeks the help of the Church, the clergy especially have a responsibility to not only refer her to specialized counseling services but also to ensure that she has a safe haven within the community. Abusers can, and should, also be referred to specialized counseling but they must also be held accountable for their actions.

This leads me to ask the questions of my Catholic brothers: what does real Christian accountability look like? When do we need to move beyond pastoral care to exercise the pastoral authority we claim to have been given through apostolic succession?

Perhaps it means the messy work of assisting an abuser in transitioning to a new parish away from their victim.  Perhaps it means putting safeguards in place that allow a victim new to a parish to ensure that their abuser does not follow them. But for as long as accountability remains an undefined bullet point, victims will continue to suffer needlessly and for this the Catholic Church is accountable.
ELCA Foundational Document & Related Social Message

USCCB Statement When I Call For Help