How the church can help (or hurt) women in abusive marriages
“Have you called Tom?”
These simple words from a priest changed Jessica's life. Through the course of her marriage, her husband, Hal, had gone from irritable to hostile to explosive, until the night he roamed their house with a loaded gun, threatening suicide and worse. Jessica was able to get him out of the house, and, not knowing where else to turn, she went to her “curmudgeonly” pastor for guidance, half expecting to be chided for not making her marriage work.
Her pastor insisted that her first obligation was to protect herself and her kids. Be safe, he told her. You are not safe with your husband, and God wants you to be safe. And call Tom.
Tom was the diocesan director of Catholic Family Services, and he was the go-to resource in that parish, the one to call if you need help getting your life back on track.
“He had no hesitation, and I didn’t get St. Monica’d,” Jessica said. (Her name and the names of others who have shared accounts with America by phone interview or email have been changed to protect them.)
“Getting St. Monica’d” or “St. Rita’d” is shorthand for a common, blithely pious response to abuse from many Catholics: Be more like these holy women! They patiently endured abuse from their husbands, and they were saints!
While St. Rita is the patron is saint of the abused, it is worth noting that in the 14th century she had no real option to leave her marriage. She was canonized for her life of holiness, not for being beaten.
“He made sure that I understood that I would not be committing a sin if I left.”
Like Jessica, Louise got immediate, straightforward help from her pastor when she revealed that her husband was threatening to kill her. She called the priest when her husband was at work, and he showed up with a truck and 15 seminarians, who packed up and loaded her possessions and brought her and her young son to safety. Louise was a stay-at-home mom who at the time was going through the church’s initiation process to become a Catholic. She had no money, and nowhere else to turn. Her priest saved her life.
“That was my first introduction to Catholic social justice,” she said. Her priest also paid for a deposit and first month’s rent on an apartment. He made made it possible for her to leave.
Not all parishes have a family services office to call, or 15 seminarians and a truck to spare. In some smaller, poorer or more rural regions, the diocese can barely keep the lights on, much less pay for a full-time social services coordinator. But the simple words of a priest can make all the difference.
“There are still priests who don’t get it,” said Sharon O’Brien, co-founder of Catholics for Family Peace. The organization’s mission, in cooperation with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is to educate priests and parishes to recognize abuse, to respond to it and to know where to refer people who are experiencing and initiating it.
Angela received differing advice from priests. She was a new Catholic, married to a man who emotionally abused her, threatening a murder-suicide if she left him. When she went looking for help from the church, she was still susceptible to the idea that everything was her fault. One priest said it was a shame she was suffering, but all she could do was offer it up. Another told her she had a demon in her.
But a third priest listened to her story, asked questions and prayed with her. Then he asked her if she loved her husband. She fearfully said that she did not, not at all.
“He took my hands in his and looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Then whatever you do, don’t go back,’” Angela said. She did not go back. Angela will always be grateful to that priest for his basic act of charity and compassion.
When Theresa began to realize how damaged her marriage was, she contacted a well-known priest by email, asking for prayers. During their correspondence, he gently and repeatedly reminded her that Jesus wanted her family safe. He checked in with her often, offered prayers for clarity and recommended that she keep an escape bag packed.
“One of the best pieces of advice I got in a spiritual direction workshop was: Know your limitations.”
“He also made sure to say that he couldn’t tell me that I needed to leave, but that I would know where God was leading me, because under the fear would be a sense of peace,” Theresa said. “He made sure that I understood that I would not be committing a sin if I left.”
She eventually did leave, and her family is now “safe and free,” thanks to that priest’s gentle and compassionate support. By the same token, a basic failure of compassion and support from a priest can consign an abused spouse to even more misery.
Maria told her priest that her husband was abusive. “I was hoping he’d tell me that I didn’t have to live like this,” Maria said. The priest told her she had to stay in the abusive relationship.
“He said that God has permitted this, and we only find true peace in God’s will,” she said.
Maria, a lifelong Catholic, is still in that marriage. She wishes she had not gone to that priest, because now she feels even more guilty for her situation. The burden is all on her to endure the abuse, and nothing is expected from her husband, she said.
“In a perfect world, the priest would’ve assured me that God loves women as much as he loves men, and that he values the individuals in a marriage as much as he values the institution of marriage,” Maria said.
Discerning God’s Will
Many Catholic survivors who endure domestic abuse repeat the same agonizing mantra: This marriage must be God’s will. I made a vow, and it is my duty to stay and suffer.
But the Rev. Denis Lemieux of Madonna House, an author of several books who works full time as a spiritual director, calls this notion a disastrous misunderstanding of marriage and of love itself. A spouse who leaves an abusive marriage is truly being faithful to their vows, Father Lemieux said.
“How is it loving that person to allow them to continue to degrade you?” he said. “To love is to will the good for the other person. These are very serious decisions to work through, but I just can’t see how tolerating abuse is serving the good of conjugal love and unity. Love them by holding them accountable for bad behavior.”
“Nobody wants to admit they’re in an abusive marriage.”
This idea is echoed in the U.S. bishops’ pastoral document, “When I Call for Help,” which says, “The person being assaulted needs to know that acting to end the abuse does not violate the marriage promises.” This is true whether the separation is temporary or permanent.
In the seminary, Father Lemieux took courses on pastoral counseling and psychology but did not learn in depth about marital abuse. “It was seen as a no-brainer,” Father Lemieux said. If a couple turned up showing signs that the marriage was abusive, the priest ought to know right away that the situation is intolerable, he said.
But even if priests consider abuse intolerable, many of those who have been abused feel a complex tangle of emotions around their situation, including guilt, self-doubt and self-blame. An abuser works hard to make his victim believe the abuse is her fault, and that she is obligated, as a wife and as a Catholic, to endure it humbly. They cannot always admit, to others or to themselves, what is truly happening in their marriage.
“Denial in trauma is a powerful emotional sedative, one reason among many that abused people don’t ‘just leave.’”
“I had mentally quarantined certain memories as bad, isolated incidents,” Helene said. “Denial in trauma is a powerful emotional sedative, one reason among many that abused people don’t ‘just leave.’”
Helene endured four years of horrific spiritual, emotional, sexual and physical abuse by her Catholic husband, who used to ghoulishly joke to friends that, since they were married, she was trapped and could never leave him. This line was always greeted with laughter, Helene said.
Helene spoke of her marriage troubles in confession, but felt too ashamed to include the most damning details, saying only that her husband was not very nice when he was angry, and that he drank and gambled too much. The priest listened quietly, encouraging her when she hesitated, and he finally told her, “You cannot keep living like this.”
She was astonished. Helene had told her priest only the “most sanitized, mundane baseline of suffering,” but even that seemed intolerable to him.
Recognize, Respond, Refer
“One of the best pieces of advice I got in a spiritual direction workshop was: Know your limitations,” said the Rev. Matthew McCaughey, a parish priest in rural Louisiana. “Priests get into trouble when they try to wade into territory they’re not equipped to handle.”
According to Nora Calhoun, a registered nurse who often counsels patients in abusive relationships, “Even the most sensible and kindhearted people, especially priests, who have a natural bias towards trying to keep marriages intact, generally assess the abuse as being as serious as the worst thing that has already happened, with the hope that it won’t happen again.”
“Those who are experienced with domestic violence assess the abuse as almost inevitable to happen again, and with greater severity next time,” she said.
“This is why we say ‘recognize, respond, refer,’” Ms. O’Brien said. “We don’t want priests providing counseling. They don’t have the expertise or the time.”
When a pastor arrives at a new parish, Ms. O'Brien recommends that he introduce himself at the local domestic violence response agency and offer the church’s support, for instance with an annual collection or a diaper drive. The domestic violence hotline should be stored in the cell phones of all parish employees, and they should be able to point both victims and perpetrators toward the U.S. bishops’ document “When I Call For Help.” It is also important for the church to frequently and publicly acknowledge that abuse happens and that the church condemns it.
“We recommend pastors put a note in their bulletin every week or so, saying ‘Someone you know may be in an abusive relationship,’ and including the national domestic abuse hotline,” she said. This sends the message that the parish cares; and the third-person phrasing is nonconfrontational, which lessens the pressure on those who are suffering abuse, she said.
“Catholics think any behavior has to be tolerated, and that is not true. Canon 1153 makes that perfectly clear.”
For most people, physical assault is a bright line that must not be crossed in marriage; but they are reluctant to call emotional, psychological or sexual aggression “abuse,” even if the perpetrator refuses to acknowledge or take responsibility for his behavior.
Jennie’s husband kept her and her kids isolated, moneyless, sometimes close to starving. He sexually degraded her, kept her from going to school and constantly told her she was stupid, worthless and crazy. But he never hit her, so it never occurred to her that he was abusing her.
“Nobody wants to admit they’re in an abusive marriage,” she said.
Desperate to avoid what seemed like the failure of divorce, she persuaded her husband to go to a church-sponsored Retrouvaille weekend. Retrouvaille is a Catholic nonprofit peer ministry that helps struggling couples learn to heal, strengthen and renew their marriage through a weekend retreat and a series of follow-up talks and meetings.
Jennie was advised that Retrouvaille would not help in abusive marriages where one spouse is not invested in change, but no one helped her discern whether her marriage was abusive or not. The Retrouvaille website asks 17 questions about problems in the marriage—like “Do you often fight or disagree without ever resolving the conflict?” or “Are there anger issues in your relationship that seem out of control or has there been verbal or emotional abuse in the relationship in the past?” If an applicant checks yes for every problem suggested, the response is, “Retrouvaille may be what you need.”
For most people, physical assault is a bright line that must not be crossed; but they are reluctant to call emotional aggression “abuse.”
After that weekend, Jennie’s husband escalated his assaults. “It became just another tool he used to continue the abuse,” Jennie said. Retrouvaille and all the Catholic couples counseling they received focused heavily on shared responsibility by both partners, which her husband used as evidence that his behavior was her fault, she said.
One priest gave her Jacques Phillipe's spiritual classic, Interior Freedom, encouraging her to cultivate internal calm. A Catholic therapist taught her to dissociate, so that she could endure abuse patiently. Another priest told her that even though her husband was raping her, threatening to kill her, drinking heavily and trying to coerce her into a threesome, she should not leave him because he had not hit her.
Jennie did not see her marriage clearly until she checked into a secular rehabilitation program, where she landed after memories of her first marital rape made her shut down physically. At the facility, she took a standard danger assessment questionnaire, and was shocked to see that her risk of danger was extreme. When she returned home, she filed a restraining order and initiated a divorce.
The Obligation to Seek Safety
When Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Washington does an intake, Ms. O’Brien said, they routinely leave a checklist of abusive behaviors with the client and will very often find that 90 to 100 percent of the items have been checked. “It’s an eye-opening experience,” she said.
People of faith tend to be slower to recognize abuse in relationships, Ms. O’Brien said. Many women say that in retrospect, their abusive spouses showed red flags even before the wedding, but they rationalized them or simply did not realize that some behaviors are abnormal.
If she could make one change to marriage preparation nationwide, she said, it would be to always include the FOCCUS Pre-Marriage Inventory—or perhaps a checklist of the 11 signs of abuse included on the back of the U.S.C.C.B.’s domestic violence resource cards.
“Forget the idea that things will get better if you get married,” Ms. O’Brien said. Many divorced Catholics do not realize “there’s a reason their marriage didn’t last,” she said. They were fighting “an uphill battle” with a marriage that was never sacramental in the first place.
“We’re so uncatechized. The marriage vow is pretty simple, but ‘for better or for worse’ is not a license to kill or rape. It’s taught that way, though,” Ms. O’Brien said.
Helene’s abusive husband banked on the notion that a faithful Catholic woman would never consider divorce, joking that she was “trapped.” To many abused spouses, this is no joke, but a grim fact they have profoundly internalized. The church needs to work hard to counteract this poisonous idea, which is not truly Catholic, Ms. O’Brien said.
“Catholics think any behavior has to be tolerated, and that is not true. Canon 1153 makes that perfectly clear,” Ms. O’Brien said.
Rebecca experienced this ostracism from her Catholic community after she escaped from her violent husband.
Canon 1153 states: “A spouse who occasions grave danger of soul or body to the other or to the children, or otherwise makes the common life unduly difficult, provides the other spouse with a reason to leave, either by a decree of the local Ordinary or, if there is danger in delay, even on his or her own authority.”
Most bishops have delegated the power of decree to local pastors; and in any case, the first priority is the moral obligation to seek safety, Ms. O’Brien said.
Ms. O’Brien would also like to end the myth that divorced Catholics are no longer in communion with the church even if they never remarry. Divorced spouses are often shunned rather than welcomed or supported in their time of need, she said.
Rebecca experienced this ostracism from her Catholic community after she escaped from her violent husband. For years, she had pushed herself to forgive her husband again and again, even as he beat her while she was pregnant. It was not until she found out the baby she was carrying was a girl that she came to a shocking epiphany.
“I’m going to be her standard of what is normal,” she said.
Rebecca told their priest that her husband was battering her. He counseled praying together, taking a time out if they get angry, and perhaps having a code word. The battering continued. Rebecca’s husband punched her in the face and dislocated her shoulder.
On Easter morning, after yet another violent explosion, he accused her of ruining their marriage, and Rebecca told him to leave. He did—and a deacon from their church helped him move his belongings. The priest who knew about the abuse gave him money. Because Rebecca was the one who initiated the divorce, her husband became a figure of pity.
“They rallied around him. The community that I thought I could turn to, all these moms I had built relationships with, just gone.”
“I lost so many friends,” Rebecca said. “I got pushed to the fringe.” The other mothers in her homeschooling group had told her that marriage is a two-way street, and you should not upset your husband.
“They rallied around him,” she said. “The community that I thought I could turn to, all these moms I had built relationships with, just gone.”Her soon-to-be-ex continued his work as youth minister in their parish and was paying no child support, and his new girlfriend was staying in his home; but the priest told Rebecca she must pray for him as her husband, since their annulment had not yet come through.
“If you’re feeling judgment and condemnation [from Catholics] but getting healing outside the church, why would you stay?” Rebecca said. She left the church, but eventually returned thanks to her family’s gentle support. Rebecca shared her story because she wants to inspire a change in the way abuse is addressed by the church.
Jessica, like Rebecca, left the church for a time. When she came back as a single mom in the midst of a divorce, she felt “super judged.” But she and her children eventually found a new parish, one that did not condemn her for being divorced.
"The Holy Spirit was there. We sat in the first row,” she said. “We felt like we were home, and we’re never leaving.”