At a parish on Chicago’s North Side, Charles Dahm, O.P., finishes reading the Sunday Gospel, the familiar story of a woman accused of adultery who is threatened with public stoning until Jesus intervenes. Father Dahm then launches into a homily that surprises many.
“Today I would like to speak about women who are abused in their own homes, who suffer in silence and secret,” he says. “How many of you have ever heard a sermon about domestic violence? Raise your hand. See, no one.”
Father Dahm is a priest on a mission—to bring domestic violence out of the shadows and into the consciousness of parishioners throughout Chicago. He hopes to prompt pastors to make domestic violence prevention as important a ministry as Christian initiation of adults, Bible study or marriage preparation.
A Dominican priest for 50 years, Father Dahm says he thought little about domestic abuse until he became the pastor of St. Pius V Church in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. One day, the pastoral counselor told him, “Father, almost all my clients from the parish are women, and most of them are victims of domestic violence.”
Father Dahm says, “I had no idea, and I knew many of these women.”
With only a small budget and mostly volunteers, Father Dahm quickly found counselors trained to deal with domestic abuse. They helped form support groups for the women, their children and husbands who recognized they had a problem. Father Dahm placed information in the church bulletin on where to find help. Most important, he preached about the problem.
Father Dahm is now spreading his message to other Chicago parishes. Sometimes it’s an uphill battle. One pastor told him a homily on domestic violence might upset the congregation’s children. “One of the worst things you can do with your children is let them grow up in a home where there’s violence,” he says. “Your daughters are learning how to be submissive to this abuse and your sons are learning how to be abusive.”
One in four U.S. women reports having been hit or sexually assaulted by a partner, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Others suffer emotional, psychological or financial abuse. Wordwide, 35 percent of women report physical or sexual violence, according to the United Nations, but the rate is as high as 70 percent in some countries.
Church teaching on domestic violence is clear. “No person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage,” the bishops wrote in their pastoral letter, “When I Call For Help.” “Violence against women, inside or outside the home, is never justified.”
Churches can serve as significant partners in the fight against domestic violence, but they are sometimes part of the problem, says Jan Burdulis, who helps Father Dahm establish support groups. “So many women I’ve worked with over the years are practicing Catholics, and they cannot comprehend the idea that it would be acceptable if they were to leave and get divorced.”
After Father Dahm preaches, he invites parishioners interested in combatting domestic violence to meet with him. As many as 40 people have shown up at a single parish.
“I divorced my abuser, but was about to marry another abuser, so this is a cycle that continues unless you get help,” one woman told Father Dahm.
His approach also stresses helping abusers. Being in an all-male group was important to Roman Carreon. He had for years rebuffed his wife’s pleas to go into counseling with her.
Carreon says he didn’t think he had a problem because he never hit his wife, though he often called her names or didn’t speak to her for days if they argued. “To me, I was a nice man.… I thought I was doing better than most of my family,” he says. But listening to other men talk about how they treated their wives, he says he realized that was how he too behaved. He vowed to change.
“I did a lot of things I regret. But now I can live the rest of my life with my wife without violence,” he says.
“The good news about domestic violence is that it’s learned behavior,” Father Dahm says. “It’s not something we inherit in our genes; we learn it from somebody, someplace. That means it can be unlearned.” This is why Father Dahm will keep preaching and teaching about domestic violence—whether anyone is willing to listen or not.