A report showing that South Carolina is No. 2 in the country in the number of women killed by men sent domestic violence activists searching for answers.
Why did the state jump from No. 7 to No. 2, second only to Nevada? Why is it perpetually in the top 10? And more importantly, what can be done to reverse the longstanding, dismal record of violence against women?
The answer boils down to two components: compassion and education.
Dominican Father Charles W. Dahm, director of domestic violence outreach for the Archdiocese of Chicago, has been fighting to bring the issue into the light for almost 20 years.
He said church leaders must respond on an emotional level the way Jesus would, and on a practical level by knowing what to do next.
What is abuse?
The first step is understanding what constitutes abuse.
Louisa Storen, diocesan victim assistance coordinator, said it is repeated abuse or degradation on any level — physical, sexual, emotional or verbal.
She said people should never believe it doesn’t happen in their community, or their church, because abuse is everywhere. It happens to all races, ages, religions, cultures, and social and economic groups.
Storen noted that shame and embarrassment lead to increased isolation and keeps victims from telling someone what is happening.
“It’s really hard to make someone come forward until they’re ready,” the psychologist said.
Generally, abusers follow a pattern of loving sweetness followed by a descent into abuse and then apologies and solicitude again, she said.
“Most battered women say their husband has a dual personality … If they were always mean it would be easier to break away from that,” Storen said.
Women should learn to look for the warning signs of an abusive personality before they become involved, she said.
Factors to watch out for:
Jealousy; possessiveness; a need to control; high temper; violence against objects, such as hitting walls or throwing things; alcohol or drug abuse; a family background of abuse.
The church’s role
Father Dahm said the church must not be complicit by ignoring the issue. For example, he noted that the sanctity of marriage does not extend to cover abuse, and said priests’ homilies on marriage should include what to do if something is wrong.
“Clergy must understand the primary concern is the safety and health of the victim and not saving the marriage,” he said. “We would love to save the marriage, but that is secondary.”
He also said forgiveness is not the answer in the face of repeated abuse.
The solution, he said, is for churches to take an active role and provide parishioners with two things:
Direct service. Most parishes don’t have the funds to run their own outreach program, but should have a listing of resources and know where to send someone in need.
Education. Priests should talk about the fact that no one is expected to stay in an abusive relationship, put signs up directing women where to go and who to call, employ techniques promoted by the Faith Institute such as silhouettes of victims or the clothesline project. And of course, pray.
“If the 4 percent of Catholics in South Carolina can just pray, it’ll make a difference,” said Sharon O’Brien, co-organizer of Catholics for Family Peace Resource Center (www.catholicsforfamilypeace.org).
She said it is no coincidence that Respect Life and Domestic Violence campaigns both occur in October, noting that they are irrevocably tied to the first tenet of Catholic social teaching — the dignity of the human person.
“All Catholics should know how to respond to family violence the same way they’d respond to a crisis pregnancy,” she said.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops addresses the sanctity of marriage and forgiveness in their pastoral “When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women.”
It states: “As pastors of the Catholic Church in the United States, we state as clearly and strongly as we can that violence against women, inside or outside the home, is never justified.”
The bishops write that men who abuse often try to justify their behavior, saying wives should be submissive. But the passage (Ephesians 5:22 v. 21-33) refers to the mutual submission of husband and wife out of love for Christ.
“We emphasize that no person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage,” the bishops said, adding that the permanence of marriage does not apply to abusive relationships.
“Violence and abuse, not divorce, break up a marriage,” they state, offering encouragement for victims of abuse to seek an annulment.
The USCCB also notes that men who batter may cite Scripture to insist their victims forgive them.
“Forgiveness, however, does not mean forgetting the abuse or pretending that it did not happen. Neither is possible,” the pastoral states. Forgiveness means letting go of the experience and moving on with the conviction to never again tolerate abuse.
O’Brien said the church can’t do it all themselves, adding that the more resources and education a community has the less prevalent abuse seems to be.
The rankings listing South Carolina as No. 2 in homicides against women were released by the Washington D.C.-based Violence Policy Council, based on crime data submitted to the FBI. Of the 46 women killed, 44 of those were at the hands of someone they knew, usually a husband or boyfriend.
Concrete steps must be taken to lower these numbers, she said.
Every police department should use the Lethality Assessment, an 11-point questionnaire that takes only minutes to complete when answering domestic calls and is coordinated with a local crisis center.
Schools and other organizations can offer healthy masculinity programs as part of health class, or provide relationship quizzes from Loveisrespect.org.
On an individual level:
Listen to victims and believe what they say.
Tell them it is not their fault and they deserve to be safe.
Keep it positive. Don’t say: “How can you put up with that?” or “I’d be gone in a minute!” This can be seen as critical and can further demean the victim.
Have them call the national abuse hotline for help: 1-800-799-SAFE(7233).
Experts agree that women are most at risk when they make the decision to leave an abusive relationship. Sharon O’Brien said it is an action that must be undertaken carefully and with guidance from a domestic violence specialist.
For more information, visit www.sccadvasa.org.