Catholic school employee fired…for being a victim of domestic abuse?

We’ve heard recently of Catholic school employees being fired from their positions for various reasons (being in a same-sex relationship, or getting pregnant through IVF), which are usually accompanied by explanations about how behaviors are in conflict with official church teaching. That doesn’t seem to be the case for San Diego second-grade teacher Carie Charlesworth, who was told she would not receive a teaching agreement for next year.

After an incident in which Charlesworth’s abusive ex-husband appeared at the school where she taught and where their four children attend, the school decided that in the interest of safety, it could not allow her to continue teaching there, or any other diocesan school.

Said the letter of termination (which points out to Charlesworth that “whether or not [she] is aware,” her husband had a long history of violent behavior): “We feel deeply for you and about the situation in which you and your children find yourselves in through no fault of your own….In the interest of the safety of the students, faculty and parents at Holy Trinity School, we simply cannot allow you to return to work there, or, unfortunately, at any other school in the Diocese.”

Where’s the concern for the safety of Charlesworth—the one who has actually been the victim of violence? Where’s the concern for her children? Pulling them out of their school will certainly add fear and instability in an already turbulent time in their lives. The termination letter mentions that the school is keeping all of them in its prayers, but this action seems quite cold when the school and the church should be a source of assistance and comfort in a time of violence. Where’s the compassion?

As Father Charles Dahm noted in our October 2011 Sounding Board on domestic violence, women victims would often prefer to see their pastor or minister for guidance, but are worried that their abuse will be misunderstood or not worthy of attention. Says Dahm: “Although the bishops have urged all clergy and lay ministers to reach out to victims of domestic violence, Catholic parishes and institutions have largely ignored that call.”

And Charlesworth expresses a frustration likely shared by others who have faced repercussions from being open about abusive situations. “I mean, that’s why women of domestic violence don’t come forward, because they’re afraid of the way people are going to see them, view them, perceive them, treat them,” said Charlesworth. Several parents anonymously noted concern, noting that they would pull their own children out of school if Charlesworth returned to teach.

As Dahm says, “Domestic violence happens in every parish, community, and economic class, and in every ethnic group.” It’s naïve to think that with Charlesworth gone a similar situation will never materialize with someone else’s family struggling with the same issue. Rather than removing Charlesworth and her children, the school—and the church as a whole—should prioritize ministering to families suffering from domestic abuse.

About the author

Elizabeth Lefebvre

Elizabeth Lefebvre is a writer living in Chicago.