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Domestic harm calls for major cultural shift

Woman in abuse

Help: “Catholic services such as Centacare have been at the forefront of supporting people who have experienced or are experiencing domestic abuse.”

ADDRESSING deficits within Catholic culture has been a consistent message from Church leaders following the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Church leaders have said cultural change was needed so neglect in pastoral care when responding to vulnerable victims was not repeated.

While domestic violence is outside the commission’s remit, I would posit a similar story could be said about a portion of the Church’s response towards victims of domestic violence as society in general grapples with the need for a cultural change in that area.

The Church is not alone in needing to address cultural attitudes but it does espouse to respond to people seeking pastoral care – healing.

If the pastoral response to victims of domestic violence is, “It does not sound that bad”, or victim-blaming – that needs to be addressed.

Last year I heard the story of a professional married lady who, not wanting to bring “shame” upon her family, confided in a priest she was being physically, emotionally and financially abused by her husband.

Unfortunately, the priest’s response was, “This is not my business”; there was no referral to any agencies or pastoral advice given.

Catholic services such as Centacare have been at the forefront of supporting people who have experienced or are experiencing domestic abuse.

These services in themselves are good but how well integrated are they into parishes so that people know where to seek help in their time of need?

There are some beautiful stories of priests, nuns and other ministers embodying the role of Christ supporting people who are suffering – sadly this may not be the case across the board.

In another scenario a young person in Confession shared that a parent had been shaking them violently, screaming at them while forbidding they cry.

Here the priest’s advice was to love their family more, be at peace and to know their situation is not as bad as others’.

While there may be truth in the advice, pastorally the approach is wholly inadequate.

A common definition of organisational culture is what happens when nobody is looking – what is the accepted “norm”.

Perhaps in the past it was a silently accepted norm within some parishes, and broader society, that a bit of domestic violence is okay; just let it be.

If a person went to Confession disclosing they were not coping well because they were being abused by a family member, and did not want to tell authorities hopefully the response would be holistically pastoral.

In no way am I advocating priests break the seal of Confession, nor am I implying every priest, sister, brother or other minister trusted with people’s confidences needs a degree in clinical psychology.

What I am advocating for is a norm response to domestic violence disclosure that could include any of the following:

gentle inquiry as to whether the victim’s current living conditions are safe – reinforcing safety is a key priority

ascertaining if the victim is aware of Church services such as Centacare? Practically, have contact details of these services in their phone or written down in a convenient place so it is accessible and discrete to the victim

Ask if they have someone to talk to about their situation: a trusted friend, counsellor, or spiritual director –  if none of these services are convenient then at least offer the Lifeline number 13 11 14 or domestic violence hotline 1800 811 811, which can recommend other referral services.

There are many other things caring, compassionate people ministering in a parish can offer: opportunities for healing, be it a retreat, sacraments, visits from a pastoral associate, advice to see a qualified clinician, or contact with another caring, trusted parishioner.

The Pope, our Archbishop, not to mention the words of Jesus, “Love one another as I have loved you”, have already given us a mission to address our culture and to not stop until the flock is cared for, no matter how broken.

Now, that the Church is looking at culture, is the opportune time to put response to domestic violence on the table.

And in this time of creating new cultural norms let us draw strength from Christ, who suffered so much abuse himself and yet kept on responding in love.

If you, or a loved one is affected by domestic violence and want to talk to someone immediately contact Lifeline 13 11 14 or the domestic violence hotline 1800 811 811.

For more information on Centacare call 1300 236 822, or see

By Clare Burns

Clare Burns is a Brisbane Catholic businesswoman.

Written by: Guest Contributor
Catholic Church Insurance

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