When the bishops gather in Washington, D.C., for their annual November meeting, their agenda will include voting on a revised version of their 1992 pastoral letter, “When I Called for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women.” Although the updated version makes use of new statistics, the message remains the same: “Violence against women...is never justified.”
Because of its hidden nature—domestic violence almost always takes place behind closed doors—reliable numbers are elusive, but it is estimated that well over four million women are subjected to some form of battering every year. The number is probably much higher, because fear prevents many from reporting incidents of abuse to the authorities. There are other disincentives as well. For example, a woman may be reluctant to flee from her batterer because it could mean separation from her children. Economic disincentives also exist. Particularly among those with little education or work-related skills, the fear of being unable to support herself may prevent a woman from seeking help.
Although domestic violence cuts across all ethnic, racial, religious and socioeconomic lines, women who are undocumented face special risks because of their immigration status. If the batterer is in the United States legally, he may try to hold the woman in a position of powerlessness (domestic violence is about power, after all) by threatening to call the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Language barriers also enter the picture. Even if a woman wants to report the abuse, an inadequate command of English may prevent her from taking that step. Such situations are common in parts of the country like the Southwest, where Spanish may be spoken as much as English.
Madeline Gillette, a staff member at the Las Cruces Victim Assistance Center in Las Cruces, N.M., told America that women in rural areas are at an especial disadvantage because they frequently lack transportation or even a telephone with which to call for help. In the Southwest, moreover, where the Border Patrol acts as a backup to local police, undocumented women may be doubly afraid to contact the authorities because of the close working relationship between the two agencies.
This connection between local police and the I.N.S. has been growing across the country. Speaking from another agency that assists abused women, Michelle Exline—an attorney with Ayuda (Spanish for “help”) in Washington, D.C.—said that since the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11, 2001, such an alliance has been part of the agenda of Attorney General John Ashcroft. Although the approach varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, advocates for immigrants point out that abused undocumented women could become still more reluctant to call the police for help, because the responding officer might ask to see their nonexistent papers. That request could in turn lead to notifying the I.N.S., which—particularly in light of the present anti-immigrant mood—might initiate deportation proceedings.
Children in homes in which domestic violence takes place are also frequently victims. The American Psychological Association reports that a child’s witnessing the abuse inflicted by one parent upon the other, even if the child is not physically abused, can be among the strongest risk factors for transmitting violent behavior from one generation to another. It must be kept in mind that domestic violence is a form of learned behavior.
Legislation has proven helpful. The Violence against Women Act funds a variety of programs aimed at addressing the problem. The act makes it possible, for example, for undocumented victims to petition for work permits and citizenship. If the victim can prove that she was in a good-faith marriage to a legal resident, she does not need to depend on an abusing legal resident to petition on her behalf. But as Ms. Gillette observed, many women who might be eligible to take advantage of this aspect of the law are unaware of its existence. Outreach is consequently a significant part of the agency’s work.
Churches can play an important role in helping abused women. The bishops note, in fact, that the “first responders”—those to whom a battered woman might turn for support—are often church ministers. They are urged to familiarize themselves with local resources that reach out to victims, helping them with appropriate referrals in addition to assisting the abused person to assess her situation. Gone are the days of advising a return to the abuser on the basis of biblical passages like Eph. 5:22. When appropriate, homilies too can include reference to domestic violence and thereby increase public awareness, while marriage preparation sessions could incorporate discussions of the issue. The pastoral notes that domestic violence tends to be “shrouded in silence.”
The more that silence is broken, whether by church or secular groups, the greater the chance of altering this deadly form of learned behavior in future generations.