About 20 people are physically abused by an intimate partner every minute in the United States. This comes out to more than 10 million women and men a year, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
The group Catholics for Family Peace Education and Research on Domestic Abuse organized a Mass Oct. 7 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington to mark Domestic Violence Awareness Month, observed every October.
During the Mass, it was emphasized that efforts within the Catholic Church can play a crucial role in raising awareness among community members in need about the resources accessible to them through local and national organizations.
Msgr. Charles Antonicelli, pastor at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in the Washington suburb of Potomac, Maryland, and judicial vicar of the Archdiocese of Washington, celebrated the Mass.
In his homily, he addressed abuse, which he said can come in the form of "physical, sexual, mental, emotional, verbal or spiritual abuse between spouses or siblings or parent and child."
"In the face of this evil that touches individuals and families in all sectors of society, we come together to raise awareness and to pray for and help those who are affected by it to find peace and security, healing and hope. We want to break the silence, break the cycle, begin the healing," the priest said.
Msgr. Antonicelli was among the priests delivering homilies and hosting information resource tables at their parishes during the awareness month. Catholics for Family Peace offers a "pastor packet" on its website that includes tips on how to address domestic violence in their homilies, along with bulletin notices, prayers and social media posts.
"Jesus encountered the socially marginalized Samaritan woman at the well whose own experience with marriage and family was a most unhappy one. At this solemn Mass dedicated to domestic violence awareness, we are similarly confronted with the tragic reality of what should be 'very good' in the words of God being replaced with something very wrong," Msgr. Antonicelli said.
Abusive partners may minimize or blame their victims by "making light of the abuse and not taking (his/her) concerns about it seriously," the priest said, emphasizing that victims are not at fault for what they endure.
"Those who are subjected to abuse may even blame themselves while perpetrators may seem to justify it. But let us be clear on this: Neither case is true. Domestic violence can never be justified, and its victims never deserve it," Msgr. Antonicelli said.
Sharon O'Brien, the director and co-founder of Catholics for Family Peace, has been researching and focusing her work on issues surrounding domestic violence. She served as co-founder and then president of the Interfaith Community Against Domestic Violence of Montgomery County, Maryland, from 2004 until 2013.
"I'm a cradle Catholic, and had never heard anyone address domestic violence, but I knew that all these other major religions did," O'Brien said after the Mass.
O'Brien stated how isolating domestic violence can be for victims, and it is important to understand that communities and support are available.
"For the victim survivor, I think it's absolutely imperative to realize you are not alone," she told the Catholic Standard, Washington's archdiocesan newspaper. "Everyone thinks, 'I'm the only Catholic that's experiencing this. The fact of the matter is that's not true. The stats are that one out of three women and one out of 10 men experience severe physical violence from someone who says they love them.
"That number holds regardless of religion, which is unfortunate. We would love to think that faith was a protective factor, but faith is a resource."
Domestic violence is often a result of a cycle of emotional, psychological and physical abuse. However, O'Brien said there is hope for those affected to break from the pattern.
"Women, in particular, are good at not continuing the cycle. It's more of a challenge for men who grew up in a violent home to take learning opportunities to realize, oh no, there's another way to treat people, particularly a wife, a partner and the mother of my children. Yes, it absolutely can be broken. We have lots of good stories about people breaking the cycle. Which is what we're all about: hope, help, and healing," O'Brien said.
Like O'Brien, Father Chuck Dahm, the director of the Domestic Violence Outreach program for the Archdiocese of Chicago, works on getting domestic violence training to members of the clergy to identify abuse in their communities.
"Clergy are generally not trained, unfortunately. Seminaries do not talk about this. We got it into the seminary in Chicago," the priest said in a phone interview. "It was never talked about until I brought it into the seminary and insisted that they talk about it."
Father Dahm added that it is important to incorporate the discussion of abuse when preaching "because when you stand up in the pulpit, you get the women who are abused and the men who are abused, you get the perpetrators, and you get the children, and you get the relatives, you get everybody, and you talk about it. You cast a huge net."
When they are trained, Father Dahm said, some advice includes how to handle sensitive conversations and how to intervene and ask questions.
"If somebody says in the confessional, 'My husband and I were fighting, or we had a huge argument,' and so forth. If you do not ask questions about what that consisted of and why it existed, you won't discover domestic violence," Father Dahm said. The priest also recommended asking couples that want to baptize their child, "How are you doing as a couple? How are things going in your marriage?"
Father Dahm said it is important to ask those questions to the individuals separately and that "if you ask those questions, you will discover that it (domestic violence) is very prevalent in your parish."
He added physical attributes that may be signs of potential abuse within the home to look out for.
"One of the ways in which priests can identify possible victims is by noting certain things. One is they might wear sunglasses when they shouldn't, or they have long sleeve shirts on when they shouldn't, they're covering up bruises or that they've withdrawn from things, or they don't want to talk about their relationship with their family," Father Dahm said.
Other attributes include signs of depression, which include oversleeping or sleeping too little, and a drop-off in personal hygiene and appearance.
"If you see that in somebody, you have to say, 'I would like to talk to you separately and say, I've noticed this about you, and I'm concerned. What's happening?" Father Dahm said.
In the Catholic Church's Code of Canon Law, Canon 1153 states that "if either of the spouses causes grave mental or physical danger to the other spouse or to the offspring or otherwise renders common life too difficult, that spouse gives the other a legitimate cause for leaving, either by decree of the local ordinary or even on his or her own authority if there is danger in delay."
Father Dahm clarified that divorce itself is not considered a sin.
"The Catholic Church has a very clear position that nobody should really stay in an abusive marriage," Father Dahm said in a phone interview. "The church really wants to emphasize (that) people's safety is more important than staying in the marriage."
Father Dahm referenced the pastoral letter "When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women," issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1992 and reaffirmed in 2002 and 2018 that states, "We emphasize that no person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage."
"Some people are confused about divorce, thinking that if they can get a divorce, they can't go to Communion. That is not true. Divorce is not a sin if you have a good reason to do it, obviously. Your conscience dictates that you should protect yourself and your children," Father Dahm said.
For anyone experiencing domestic violence or if they know someone experiencing that, the National Domestic Violence Hotline provides crisis intervention and referrals to local service providers. People can call 800-799-SAFE (7233) or 800-787-3224 (TTY). For more information, go to www.thehotline.org. For parishes who want more information on domestic violence and want to help, visit catholicsforfamilypeace.org.