Catholic women to create national network against domestic violence

Every day, three women in the U.S. are killed in an incident involving domestic violence. This was just one of the facts shared with the women who gathered for an informal breakout session during the National Council of Catholic Women's convention in Chicago Nov. 9-12 to hear about a new coordinated national Catholic response to domestic violence.

Family violence researcher Sharon O'Brien, Catholic Charities-DC lawyer Jeanne Atkinson, and NCCW staffer Catherine Jarboe were on hand to explain the efforts of their national working group (which includes staffers on the US bishops conference and several others). Many denominations in the US already have national offices and initiatives on domestic violence, but to date the Catholic Church has not been one. This group has been working for months to create an online presence (see the recently launched Catholic Network on Family Peace on Facebook) and a national clearinghouse on the Catholic response to domestic violence issues. The purpose of the effort, says O'Brien, is to make awareness of the extent of domestic violence more common among clergy, lay ministers, and parishioners, and to make the Catholic position on and response to domestic violence more widely known.

The group plans to accomplish this in five ways:

1) Invite the U.S. bishops to continue their moral leadership on the issue. Their pastoral letter, "When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women," first written in 1992 and updated in 2002, should be used to educate clergy, school administrators, religious communities, and diocesan and parish leadership. Its strong message against domestic violence should be integrated into all marriage preparation, youth ministry programs, and family programs in dioceses and parishes.

 2) Lobbying for large Catholic institutions to begin teaching about domestic violence: Seminaries, for example, should include domestic violence as part of their curriculum. Catholic health care agencies ought to provide educational programming on the issue. Catholic colleges and universities should make students aware of dating violence, and Catholic centers at secular colleges can offer a safe place for students as well as resources and referrals on the issue.

3) Identify and share materials to make Catholic teaching on domestic violence more clear and accessible. These materials could then be used in lesson plans, homily guides, etc.

4) Encourage research on domestic violence as it relates to religion, and publicize the results of this research to authorities in church institutions. Research will help church leaders and members to better understand the root causes of domestic violence and appropriate responses to it.

5) Provide a clearinghouse for best practices on preventing domestic violence and dealing with its aftermath.

The group's website-to-be will provide an overview of the issue, research, and Catholic responses on the diocesan and local levels.

A 2008 survey on diocesan domestic violence resources, conducted by the US Bishops Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, drew responses from 35 of 196 U.S. dioceses. Results showed that many of those dioceses worked with agencies in the community to offer help and resources, including referrals to violence shelters and counseling. More than half also offered clergy education and advocacy for victims and their children.

The members of the working group at the NCCW meeting said that nationally, the response to domestic violence in parishes across the US is inconsistent. Some dioceses have excellent resources (see Father Charles Dahm's recent U.S. Catholic article about the domestic violence program in his Chicago parish), but other women who come to their parish priest after becoming the victim of violence are told, "This is your cross to bear" and "Marriage is forever." 

"Priests need to see the teaching in front of them," said Sharon O'Brien, referring to the bishops' pastoral letter, which states forthrightly, "We emphasize that no person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage."

Many parishes offer excellent resources relating to domestic violence, but pastors and lay leaders in other areas of the country know nothing about them, meaning that often they are starting from scratch rather than benefitting from another parish's experience.

Three NCCW members in attendance from the Green Bay diocese described the project they began in order to raise awareness of domestic violence: a yearly parish sale of suckers with the attached message "Let's lick family violence," which has spread to the whole diocese. The effort has raised over $140,000 since 2001, all of which has been donated to domestic abuse shelters in the area. One of the women mentioned that in her town of only 3000, two women have been killed this year in domestic violence incidents. The women also mentioned their practice of taping up a flyer about domestic violence in the parish bathroom, with phone numbers to tear off.

"Be sure you always tear out the middle phone number before you tape it up," said O'Brien, "so a woman won't think she's the first one to ever need help."

O'Brien also mentioned the connection of domestic violence to addictions, and the vital importance of Catholic parishes serving as meeting sites for Al-Anon (for families and friends of alcoholics) and Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings.

Jeanne Atkinson, a lawyer who directs Immigration Legal Services for Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C., spoke of domestic violence in the immigrant community she serves.

Atkinson also lauded the growing number of Family Justice Centers nationwide since 2002, a kind of one-stop resource for victims of domestic violence. "The core concept," says the FJC website, "is to provide one place where victims can go to talk to an advocate, plan for their safety, interview with a police officer, meet with a prosecutor, receive medical assistance, receive information on shelter, and get help with transportation."

Centers also can offer videoconferencing direct to a judge, said Atkinson, for requesting restraining orders. She stressed how important this last is, pointing to the number of women each year who are killed by their abusers on the steps of the courthouse going to or returning from a court appearance. Videconferencing with a judge prevents the need for the woman's court appearance in person and the risk she faces in appearing.

Some battered women's risk of being killed rises when they seek help from the legal system or try to leave their abuser, indicating that those working with the victim must be familiar with resources and, in short, know what they are doing when they advise her on how to handle her situation. The Catholic Network on Family Peace seeks to help Catholic parishes as a whole to improve their response to those facing domestic violence.

For more information or to let the Catholic Network on Family Peace know about a Catholic domestic violence initiative in your area, visit the group on Facebook or email

About the author

Catherine O'Connell-Cahill

Catherine O’Connell-Cahill is a former senior editor at U.S. Catholic.