Church teaching on domestic violence too often forgotten

Bob McKeon

JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

January 26, 2015

In the last days of 2015, Edmontonians were shocked by news of mass murder in their community. Phu Lam killed his wife, Thuy Tien Truong, five other relatives by marriage and two other adults before killing himself.

Police investigators describe these murders as a case of domestic violence. Two years earlier, Lam was arrested for punching and attempting to strangle Truong. At that time, Lam threatened to kill all the members of his wife's family.

Shortly afterwards Truong withdrew her testimony about the violence and threats, and charges against Lam were dropped. Lam and Truong were reconciled for a time, and had another child together. Last month the violence escalated to murder.

While each story of domestic violence is unique, there are common elements. The Canadian Women's Foundation reports that "on average, every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner." In 2011, 85 per cent of police-reported spousal homicides were women. The story of escalating homicides following times of temporary reconciliation is a common one.

Domestic violence happens frequently in Canada. It happens in one out of three Canadian homes. Often children are witnesses and experience spousal violence with often long-term psychological effects.

While domestic violence is not a new issue in Canada, its recognition as a public issue is relatively recent. This is true in Church circles also.

In the 1980s, I was working for the old Social Justice Commission. Only in 1989, after I had spent 12 years facilitating parish workshops around the Edmonton Archdiocese, was domestic violence named as an important issue in a parish meeting.

This was the same year as the Quebec bishops issued their ground-breaking statement, A Heritage of Violence: A Pastoral Reflection on Conjugal Violence. It created much controversy at the time.

Two years later, the Canadian bishops (CCCB) issued their statement To Live Without Fear, addressing the issue of domestic violence. A few years later, bishops from the Northern Canadian dioceses issued a joint letter on The Challenge of Family Healing.

These episcopal statements had a clear message. The CCCB, addressing domestic violence, said, "Violence against women breaks the fifth commandment. It is a sin, a crime and a serious social problem."

DUTY TO PROTECT

The Northern bishops were clear that the Catholic Church did not require women to continue in an abusive and violent relationship, and that "a woman has the right and sometimes the duty to protect herself and her children by leaving a violent situation when it occurs."

In Edmonton, as in many dioceses, these leadership statements were accompanied by a series of local archdiocesan and parish workshops.

Today, 20 years after these statements, we are in a different situation in the Church in terms of addressing domestic violence.

In the Edmonton area, religious orders and lay organizations such as the CWL, have taken the lead in providing much-needed shelters for women and children escaping from family violence. Think of Lurana Shelter, LaSalle Shelter and Wings of Providence.

While Church leaders today speak often about marriage and the family, little is said explicitly about domestic violence. Many in the Church have forgotten or never heard of the teaching and bishops' statements on domestic violence from the 1990s.

In a recent study of Canadian dioceses on this issue, sociologist Catherine Holtmann discovered that none of the priests ordained in the last 20 years who participated in her study had even heard of the Canadian episcopal statements on domestic violence or preached a homily that included this issue.

NO MENTION

The Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF) has a website with excellent resources on life and family topics, but there is no mention of domestic violence issues.

In the recently concluded Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome, a wide range of pastoral challenges related to the family were discussed, but domestic violence received only passing mention in the preliminary questionnaire and the concluding statement.

One valuable local resource is the Receive, Respond, Refer workshop offered by the parish outreach team at Catholic Social Services. (For more information, call CSS at 780-378-2454.)

This workshop has been prepared to assist priests and members of parish pastoral teams to reach out pastorally to those who have experienced family violence, and to help members of the Church and the wider society work together to end family violence in our communities.

(Bob McKeon: sjustice@caedm.ca)