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Domestic violence ’dirty little secret’ for Catholic Church, priest says

ROMEOVILLE, Ill. (Catholic Explorer) - Testimony by throngs of women being brutally victimized - humiliated, beaten and murdered - has caught the attention of social service agencies, law enforcement and the courts along with hospital emergency rooms, but churches have been slow to join in the fight against domestic violence.

It’s one of those “dirty little secrets” that make for awkward pauses and uncomfortable glances when discussed from the pulpit, said Dominican Father Chuck Dahm, pastor of St. Pius V Parish in Chicago, Ill., and self-proclaimed advocate for victims of domestic violence. Having focused for the last 20 years on the destructive nature of aggression in the home, he insists it’s high time that his fellow clergy stood up against abusers to protect the victims. The author of Parish Ministry in a Hispanic Community, in which a portion is dedicated to discussing the violent ramifications of machismo, Father Dahm has earned a reputation in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood for putting up his intellectual dukes to protect the underdog. In an effort to raise awareness about the tragic consequences of violence - physically, emotionally and spiritually - Father Dahm was the keynote speaker in the first-ever presentation in the region specifically for clergy on domestic violence. The workshop, held Oct. 3 at St. Charles Borromeo Pastoral Center in Romeoville, was sponsored jointly by the Offices of Family Ministry and Peace and Social Justice along with the Diocesan Women’s Commission, the Catholic Council of Women and Catholic Charities. The workshop, dubbed The Domestic Violence Task Force of the Diocese of Joliet, coincides with a national campaign staged annually during the month of October to raise awareness about the issue. From Father Dahm’s perspective, the church has a responsibility to help end violence in the home. Desiree Marciani, associate director of Family Ministry, billed the workshop as a move to inspire the church “to become a more compassionate community for domestic violence victims.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published in 1992 a statement called “When A Victim Calls for Help: An Informed Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence.” Not only does it recognize the “seriousness of the problem,” it sets a precedent that demands “respect for human dignity,” she added. Despite earlier attempts to clarify an appropriate response from the church, the clergy frequently is left unprepared to deal effectively with the situation, observed Marciani. The seminary has yet to include the topic in its training for the priesthood. Ordained in 1964, Father Dahm said, “I give myself as an example.” Born and raised in a non-violent home in Elmhurst, Ill., he said, “I had no experience with it.” Despite an extensive background in social research, it wasn’t until he stepped into the fray of pastoral parish work that he discovered a gap in his comprehension of the human condition. “I was made aware of the problem by a pastoral counselor,” whose caseload was dominated by victims of domestic abuse, he said. Since then, he’s learned to identify the signs of domestic abuse. “It’s a common social problem” that comes veiled in excuses and cloaked in embarrassment, shame and fear, he said. Women come in looking for “help for their husbands. They say, ‘he drinks too much and has a problem with anger.’ ” Father Dahm, the co-founder of Chicago’s 8th Day Center for Justice and an outspoken advocate for day laborers, economic justice and the homeless, knows what lies under those concerns - “she’s a victim of abuse. “I think (the clergy) has to look it right in the eye,” he said. This means broaching the issue in the homily, perhaps in the form of an example for the purpose of making a point pertaining to violence. In his message to priests and deacons, he warned, “If you talk about it, then be prepared because the floodgates are going to open.” Gather a list of resources and have at the ready available transportation and phone numbers of women’s shelters and counselors. Experience has shown Father Dahm that “she isn’t lying,” he said, “Always believe her.” Although the priest may be the one the victim seeks for help, it doesn’t mean that he has to become a family counselor. “I’m someone who is a bridge for them, to get them through to safety. I connect them with resources, then I don’t have to worry about it.” What pushing, punching, demeaning verbal attacks and excessive jealousy have in common is an intricately woven web of power and control, said Deacon Daniel Welter of St. Josaphat Parish in Chicago, an associate judge for 20 years in Cook County Circuit Court. As the head of the Domestic Violence Court at the Bridgeview, Ill., branch, he’s learned to cut through the manipulative maneuvers exercised by abusers. He revealed his findings during the diocesan workshop. An adamant proponent of the integrity of the legal system, Deacon Welter still finds his position frustrating from time-to-time because he can’t always pull the plug on abuse in the home. However, his faith and commitment to the social teachings of the Catholic Church serve as a viable option to cast a protective net around victims before the situation reaches the point of mayhem. When a woman opens the door to the secret pain in her life, he said, “How we respond in the first 15 seconds is critical.” It may knock a priest or deacon off base for a moment, especially if the woman and her spouse are highly respected members of the parish community, but her cry for help deserves an empathic response. He advised the clergy to offer immediate support with a phrase such as, “That’s terrible. How can I help you?” Attention must be paid to the woman’s emotional state of mind, he added. “You have to give them permission to talk about the situation. You have to hold the abuser accountable.” Having witnessed the result of brutality and ruled over the murderous consequences of abuse, Deacon Welter is unwavering in his attitude toward violence. He routinely tells women, “You have a right to be safe and free from harm.” The rippling effects of these matters on the children of relationships marked by domestic violence tend to generate future abusers and place even senior family members at risk of a growing hostile situation, according to the deacon. On the national level, Sheila Garcia, associate director of the USCCB Office of Family Life, said she plies her efforts in working to dissuade the faithful that selected Scriptures support a pattern of family “headship” that gives the abuser permission to injure, threaten or intimidate their spouse. For example, the message in Ephesians 5:22, which directs wives to submit to their husbands is a largely misunderstood sentiment. It doesn’t mean that a husband should abuse his wife. Furthermore, it demands that husbands act in a way that would mirror Jesus’ loving response to the church, she said. “The model here is Christ and his church. Can you imagine Christ abusing his church?” Practically speaking, Garcia said, for women of faith, the church is oftentimes the first place she turns for advice. “Women turn to religion and their church when they need help. They ask why God allows this to happen to them.” In light of U.S. Department of Justice statistics published in 2005, which indicates that 3.5 million violent crimes were reported to have been committed within the family in the United States between 1998-2002 along with the thousands of unreported violations, Garcia said the church is compelled to defend victims. In many cases, “the priests are the first-responders,” according to Garcia, a board member for the Faith Trust Institute in Seattle, Wash., whose aim is to promote appropriate church responses to situations of violence. She suggests a proactive approach to a campaign for nonviolence in the home. “Priests need to know the basic facts on domestic violence,” she said. On the top of a list of do’s and don’ts of pastoral care in cases of abuse is a prohibition against couples counseling, she said. “It implies that it’s both of their problem, when it’s his.” Meanwhile, churches need to become “user-friendly” by keeping a supply of pamphlets on-hand to help women in violent situations. “You don’t put them out in the narthex, where he can see you taking it or everyone in church can see you; put them in the bathroom,” she said. The USCCB has available “palm-size cards” with hotline numbers for help that she can put in her purse.” At the crux of the matter is the Catholic definition of domestic violence, she said. “It’s emotional, verbal, economical, or any behavior used to control another person, to degrade another person.” Considering the overall lack of awareness about domestic violence on the part of the clergy, both Father Dahm and Deacon Welter are currently putting pressure on the church hierarchy to support a program in the seminary to train future clergy about the oppressive consequences and nature of violence in the home.


This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Catholic Explorer(, official newspaper of the Diocese of Joliet, Ill.



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