Far in the back row, against the wall, was a hand hesitantly lifted for a question. I invited her to respond. “Doesn’t forgiving someone over and over again,” asked the woman in a subdued voice, “invite them to keep hurting us?” She had been a regular attendee during a parish program on forgiveness I had been leading, but had never spoken until then. Tonight, however, we had been discussing Jesus’ teaching that we should forgive those who offend us seventy times seven times, and she had raised an obvious and necessary question. I was glad she had asked it and sensed that, for her, the matter was not just theoretical; it was personal, and perhaps painfully so. She had a burdened look about her, as if she were carrying a great weight on her back. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was a victim of domestic abuse. In my answer, I wanted to assure her that we can seek to forgive someone while acting to protect ourselves from additional harm. “We can forgive from a distance,” I insisted, “the people we should keep at a distance.” Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.
Whether or not my questioner was a victim of domestic abuse, I’ll probably never know. However, it’s quite possible that she was, as are an estimated 100 million Catholic women around the world. And men can be victims too. Sometimes the abuse takes the form of domestic violence. At other times, as the U.S. bishops stress in their excellent 1992 document, “When I Call for Help,” the abuse is psychological, economic, or spiritual. But regardless of the form it takes, domestic abuse is painful—excruciatingly so—and under no circumstances can it ever be justified.
That’s one clear message that needs to be communicated during October, Domestic Abuse Awareness Month, which is observed both in the U.S. Catholic Church and the nation at large. “When I Call for Help” is essential reading for any Catholic seeking to grasp the realities and dynamics of domestic abuse, and is available to download for free at www.usccb.org. Among other things, “When I Call for Help” does an outstanding job of addressing some of the spiritual struggles faced by domestic abuse victims.
One such struggle likely faced by the woman in my Lenten gathering can be put this way: “If someone repeatedly hurts me but keeps saying they’re sorry, do I need to remain with them, even if they’ll probably hurt me again?” The answer, according to the bishops, is a resounding “No.” This is an important point to stress, as some victims may fear that, if they’re in a sacramental relationship, they are permanently stuck with their abuser and have no other choice but to stay, if they are to remain faithful to their religious commitment and marriage vows. To help guide and reassure abuse victims who may feel this way, the bishops stress this: “(W)e emphasize that no person is expected to stay in an abusive relationship.”
At the same time, while no abuse victim should be expected to stay in a hurtful relationship, no one should insist that they leave either. The choice to leave or stay is the victim’s, and no one else’s. It’s tempting, and even understandable, for those who aren’t victims to think: “I would never let myself be treated that way” or “If that were me, I’d get out as fast as I could.”
But an abuse victim’s options may be more limited, and complicated by a number of factors. Their abuser may have isolated them from family and friends, taken control of their finances, and threatened them with additional harm-even death- should they ever attempt to leave. They may fear for the well-being of any children involved. And they may be clinging to the hope that their abuser can change, and the relationship improve. This hope may be misplaced. With large doses of grace and effective therapy, sometimes abusers can change. But this is more often the exception, not the rule.
An abuse victim who chooses to leave should do so only when a safety plan is in place. But regardless of their decision, abuse victim need our understanding, prayers, and practical help. They also need the pastoral care of the Church. They need to be supported, not judged, and free of any pressure to remain in a hurtful relationship. They need to hear that God loves them and that their abuse is neither deserved, nor a punishment. And they should receive the assurance, and the hope, they when they do call for help they will be heard, and on their way to a safer future, filled with peace.
R. Scott Hurd is a Catholic speaker and award-winning author who has more than twenty years’ experience in professional ministry. He serves as senior director for leadership formation with Catholic Charities USA and is the author of Forgiveness: A Catholic Approach.
Did you know?
- October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
- On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men.
- One in three women and one in four men have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.
- On a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide.