The day before it adopted revised guidelines for dealing with priests who molest children, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops this week addressed a form of abuse that has taken a lower profile but is more pervasive: domestic violence against women.
On Tuesday, the bishops overwhelmingly approved a pastoral statement intended to help priests, deacons and laity assist parishioners who are caught in abusive relationships.
The bishops wanted to affirm that any form of abuse -- physical, sexual, psychological, verbal -- is a sin and that the church's teaching on the permanence of marriage does not apply to abusive relationships, said Bishop Edward P. Cullen of Allentown, Pa., chairman of the conference's Committee on Women in Society and in the Church.
"Marriage is not a glue to keep you in the state of being a victim," said Cullen, whose committee was directed a year ago to revise and expand a 1992 document on spousal abuse.
The new document, titled "When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women," tells Catholic women -- and men, if they have been victimized -- that they are not "expected to stay in an abusive marriage." Parishioners who have divorced because of abuse should "consider the possibility of seeking an annulment" so they can remarry in the church, the 11-page statement says.
"As pastors of the Catholic Church in the United States, we state as clearly and strongly as we can that violence against women, inside or outside the home, is never justified," the bishops wrote. "Violence in any form . . . is sinful."
Domestic violence is a wide-ranging problem that crosses religious, denominational, ethnic and socioeconomic lines, pastoral counselors and social workers say. It involves a range of verbal and physical abuse intended to control and intimidate that isn't always recognized for what it is by a spouse or girlfriend.
Women are victims in 85 percent of reported cases of domestic violence, according to government statistics. One in four women has been assaulted or raped by an intimate partner.
About half the people in the 63 million-member Roman Catholic Church in the United States are female. That means nearly 8 million Catholic girls and women have been or will be victims of physical abuse, said Sheila Garcia, a member of the conference's committee on women and assistant director of the bishops' Washington-based office on family, laity, women and youth.
The Rev. Marie Fortune, a United Church of Christ minister in Seattle who in 1977 founded the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, said the religious community at large has been slow to address the issue.
Lack of awareness of the problem's scope, the virtual absence of training on the subject in seminaries and fear of dealing with such a volatile topic have contributed to the way pastors and rabbis have dealt with the issue, she said.
"We have a lot of educating to do," Fortune said.
At the same time, an increasing number of denominations have established offices to address the issue of domestic violence. The Web site for Fortune's center provides links to several dozen Christian, Jewish and Muslim offices.
Counselors say a serious issue facing churches is the frequent practice of abusive men quoting the Bible to legitimize their actions, especially Ephesians 5:22: "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord."
"In their minds they have to justify it some way," said Connie Walsh, a community outreach counselor at the United Family Practice Center in St. Paul, Minn., and chair of the domestic task force for the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
It's the church's job to correct this distortion of religion, she and others said.
Abusers will also prey on their victims' feelings of guilt, promising not to repeat the abuse and saying the Bible calls for forgiveness, Fortune said. But batterers cannot stop abusing unless they get help, she said. A spouse, wanting the marriage to survive, gets caught in a cycle of abuse and pleas for forgiveness.
The Catholic bishops' document condemns the use of the Bible "to support abusive behavior in any form." It cites passages referring to the "mutual submission of husband and wife" and says forgiveness "is not permission to repeat the abuse."
The revised edition of "When I Call for Help," approved by a vote of 249 to 2, incorporates new statistics on domestic violence and its overall impact on family life, especially the "serious repercussions for children."
More than half the men who beat their wives also beat their children, and children who grow up in violent homes are more likely to become abusers themselves, the statement says, adding that "the Church can help break this cycle."
It is now known that women ages 16 to 24 are at greatest risk of physical abuse, and more than half of the cases in that age group involve attacks by current or former boyfriends. Women ages 35 to 49 are the most likely to be killed by their abusers -- usually after leaving the abuser or seeking legal help.
Some groups face special obstacles, the report says. Women of color are often hesitant to come forward because they distrust the criminal justice system, and undocumented immigrant women are sometimes threatened with deportation by their abusers.
The major thrust of the document is to encourage priests, deacons, pastoral staffs and lay leaders to create an environment in which victims feel safe enough to seek help, Garcia said.
Many couples caught in domestic violence do attend church, she said. It's a place where the abuser wants to maintain an image of respectability, perhaps even teaching Sunday school or leading the Boy Scout troop. And although abusers often try to limit a spouse's access to family and friends, they allow church attendance to keep suspicions down.
Church leaders and members need to learn how to recognize signs of abuse, Fortune said. "If someone comes to church with heavy makeup and wearing sunglasses, someone needs to ask, 'Is there something you need to chat about?' "
The role of the religious community should be to educate its members about abuse and familiarize them with agencies in the denomination or community that specialize in such issues.
"You don't have to be an expert on domestic violence. Just listen and believe her," Garcia said.
Pastors should preach more about the issue, explaining what constitutes abuse and encouraging abusers and their victims to speak individually to their minister or someone else, Garcia said. She said they should not attempt couples counseling, which can be dangerous for the woman.
Fortune agreed. This method has both people talk to a counselor about what is going on in their relationship, she said. A victim almost never discloses the full extent of her abuse, and when she gets home, the abuser beats her for what little she did say.
What a victim needs most is to hear that she is not responsible for the abuse she has suffered, said Walsh, of St. Paul. So often, she said, an abused woman will say about her batterer: "He said I deserve it."
"I knew one woman who was beaten within an inch of her life [by her husband] because she didn't serve lima beans to her father-in-law," Walsh said. The woman felt she was at fault but "didn't even know he liked lima beans."