Pope Francis, in Amoris Laetitia, cited the bishops of Mexico in saying that "violence within families breeds new forms of social aggression." He added that "surely it is legitimate and right to reject older forms of the traditional family marked by authoritarianism and even violence."
The U.S. bishops had released a statement on domestic violence, "When I Call for Help," in 1992, condemning violence against women as "never justified" and offering resources for parishes and priests to combat the problem.
What recourse is out there for women who are abused or who see their children abused? Oftentimes they are not met with the sympathy and support that they need.
If a victim's mother was herself an abuse victim, noted Kathy Bonner of the National Council of Catholic Women, she might advise her daughter that the abuse was simply part of marriage and part of her cross she has to carry.
While ignorant of the abuse, the woman's pastor might know the abusive husband as a leader in the parish. He might suggest couples' counseling for their predicament. The husband may then twist the counseling sessions to strengthen his own position of authority in the marriage.
This is a common problem, Dr. Eileen Dombo told CNA. Dr. Dombo is the Assistant Dean and Chair of Masters of Social Work Program at The Catholic University of America's National Catholic School of Social Service.
The abuser needs personal therapy to overcome his own problems, she said. With couples counseling, however, it often becomes an opportunity for the abuser to justify him or herself and "attack the victim through the lens of therapy."
Other members of a parish or family members might be ignorant of the extent of domestic violence in their locality, and might even normalize it as just a part of marriage. Simply telling an abuse victim "it is your Cross and you must bear it" can be harmful and contradict Catholic Social Teaching, Dr. Welland emphasized.
More can be done on the parish and diocesan level to help embattled women and children, leaders insisted at the conference. The purpose of the July event – the first national Catholic symposium on domestic violence in recent memory, one organizer said – was to connect leaders from across the country on the issue.
Resources should be available to support and empower abuse victims to make the best decision they can for their well-being and the good of their family, experts agreed.
Fr. Chuck Dahm, O.P., who directs the Archdiocese of Chicago's domestic violence outreach, was blunt about "one of the major challenges" to fighting domestic violence at the parish level – "our priests."
Priests may be overworked or feel like they are not an expert on the issue, he acknowledged, and therefore may be reticent to speak out from the pulpit. Some fear they might appear to be "promoting divorce" if they speak out against domestic violence, he added.
Yet Fr. Dahm works hard to pitch his ministry any way he can on the parish level. If he succeeds at convincing his way into the parish, he might preach at Mass.
"After I preach, then the priests get it," he said. Once he speaks at a parish, he calls a meeting afterward where anyone can show up – he usually gets 12 to 45 people – and the issue is discussed in the open.
The goals of his ministry, he said, are first, to create awareness through preaching and parish meetings, and then to connect the parish to domestic violence agencies close-by.
Laura Yeomans is another Catholic working to fight domestic violence. She is the Parish Partners Program Manager for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Washington, and explained how domestic violence ministry must be "survivor-focused."
That "means that we listen to the survivor. We listen to her needs," she said of her ministry. "We don't know the safety consequences of any recommendations that we might have."
A victim knows her situation and her family better than anyone, Yeomans continued, so simply leaving the house could prove to be a fatal mistake for a victim who lives with an angry abuser.
Rather than simply tell a victim what to do, "we develop a fierce respect for the survivor," she said, and look to "empower them" and "offer choices," including "information about what women might have found."
Such information can include local domestic violence agencies, but also national centers like the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the National Domestic Violence Resource Center, and LoveIsRespect.org.
Dr. Dombo at the National Catholic School of Social Service recommended those national resources as part of a compassionate response by a parish worker to an abuse victim.
Parish workers should be trained to recognize signs of a healthy relationship versus signs of an abusive relationship, she stressed. "A lot of times people will talk about what's going on in their relationship, and they won't necessarily identify what's going on as abuse."
So a worker can "think through the lens of power and control" to help someone understand abusive behavior directed at them.
In a healthy relationship, there's equality, she said. "Your opinion is valued, your desires are validated, there are decision-making processes that are shared."
In an abusive relationship, it's dictatorial, she continued. "One person wants to centralize all that power" over the couple's living situation, the social life, and other areas.
Abuse victims generally don't "want the relationship to end," she maintained, but just "want the abuse to end." They should be helped to understand that they "can't fix" their abuser.
Resources – like domestic violence hotlines and signs of an abusive relationship – can also be posted in "safe spaces" like women's restrooms, she said.
There is progress being made at the parish and diocesan level in fighting domestic violence, Fr. Dahm maintained. Local parishes have met and shared information on successes and challenges. And there will be a Mass said for domestic violence at Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral, which Fr. Dahm called a "major victory."
He would like the issue to be discussed in greater depth in more seminaries, and to be incorporated into marriage preparation programs. He noted the efforts of dioceses which are planning or wanting to train clergy on domestic violence, including Kansas City, Portland, Kalamazoo, Laredo, Oklahoma City, and Washington, D.C.
Ultimately, helping victims of domestic violence is about empowerment, and being honest about the problem is an important step in fighting it, Dombo said.
"I just think that the more you're able to validate for people that nobody deserves to be treated that way, and…that behavior is not part of a healthy relationship, that's emotional abuse or psychological abuse….to name that, the more that empowers somebody who is feeling powerless, feeling victimized, to come forward," she stated.
This article was originally published on CNA July 12, 2016.