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.