How to help women suffering domestic violence

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All Catholics should be informed, aware and ready to help anyone suffering physical, psychological or emotional abuse

Michael was so charming when he courted Jessica during their whirlwind romance. After they were married, though, he started using anger and violence to control her. At first, he smashed furniture. Later, he was hitting Jessica and their little daughter, Ashley. He apologized and promised to change. But again and again, he continued to erupt in rage and hurt her when he didn’t like what she did, where she went, who she talked to, or how she spent money.

Jessica was walking on eggshells trying to keep him happy. She developed anxiety symptoms, and felt trapped in her marriage. However, when his violence escalated to the point that he started strangling her, she finally told her mom. Her mom talked to a friend who was involved in ministry at her parish, and they connected Jessica with resources from a local domestic violence organization. With their help, Jessica made a safe plan to take Ashley and leave Michael. The organization opened her eyes to the “Wheel of Power and Control” and offered counseling, legal help, housing help, and career development. Later, she filed for divorce and sought an annulment. She found healing and freedom for herself and her daughter.

What does the church say?

In their 2002 document “When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Abuse Against Women,” the U.S. Catholic bishops clearly state:

No person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage. Some abused women believe that church teaching on the permanence of marriage requires them to stay in an abusive relationship. They may hesitate to seek a separation or divorce. They may fear that they cannot re-marry in the Church. Violence and abuse, not divorce, break up a marriage.

What if Michael’s harm was psychological and emotional, rather than physical? Suppose he made Jessica feel worthless and inferior? That still counts as domestic abuse or intimate partner violence, as the bishops state:

Domestic violence is any kind of behavior that a person uses to control an intimate partner through fear and intimidation. It includes physical, sexual, psychological, verbal, and economic abuse. Some examples of domestic abuse include battering, name-calling and insults, threats to kill or harm one’s partner or children, destruction of property, marital rape, and forced sterilization or abortion.

In his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis states: “The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union.”

What can I do?

What would you do if you were Jessica’s mom? What if you were her friend, her pastor, or the leader of her daughter’s baptism prep class? The bishops encourage clergy, parish volunteers and all Catholics to be informed, aware and ready to help anyone suffering domestic abuse.

Catholic women can make a difference by reaching out to and supporting each other. Abused women usually seek help first from the women they are close to — their mother or a mother figure, or close family or friends. If you are that person, your understanding and compassion can bring light and comfort. But if you reject or blame the victim of violence, she will most likely retreat into her painful solitude again.

Once you know about domestic violence, you can intervene in these simple but effective ways:

  • Go up to her and ask her what is happening.
  • Support her by listening without judging or blaming her.
  • Help her — she may be in danger.
  • Go with her to a place she can get help.
  • Respect her confidentiality at all times.

What can parishes do?

The bishops ask parishes to seek domestic violence education and to make information and resources readily available to women — in marriage prep, for example, or in women’s bathrooms. A great example is the domestic violence awareness page on the website of Mary, Queen of Peace Parish in Sammamish.

There are many strong domestic violence agencies in Western Washington, such as DAWN in Kent, New Beginnings in Seattle, and the Crystal Judson Family Justice Center in Tacoma. Catholic Community Services offers counseling and emergency women’s shelters. Other national-level Catholic organizations include Pax in Familia and Catholics for Family Peace.

Be prepared. God may lead someone like Jessica to you for help.

Northwest Catholic - March 2018

Sarah Bartel

Sarah Bartel, a member of St. Andrew Parish in Sumner, holds a doctorate in moral theology and ethics from The Catholic University of America, where she specialized in marriage, family, sexual ethics and bioethics. Her website is