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Batterers and the Sacrament of Reconciliation

Batterers hardly ever go to their clergy to help them end their violence. It is more common for abusers to approach the clergy when they are in trouble and need a character witness to appear in court or if their spouse has left them and they want the clergy to talk her into coming back.

Those who are violent in relationships use a great deal of denial, minimizing and blaming. It is highly unlikely for abusers to voluntarily turn to anyone for help or raise this issue in confession. When they do, it may be with a genuine sense of remorse and intention to change or it may be with a misplaced sense that seeking forgiveness is all they have to do. Guessing a penitent's motives, however, is not the role of any confessor.

To be truly helpful, it is important that confessors understand the excuses that batterers rely on and what real help entails.

Battering, like any behavior, has a moral and spiritual dimension. The roots of violence are often embedded deep in the history and behavior of the individual. Breaking the cycle of violence is not done quickly or easily. This is important for the confessor to understand because abusers, even well-intentioned ones, may assume that all they need is forgiveness—whether from their partner or from God—and things will get better. But forgiveness alone is insufficient to resolve the propensity to batter.

Batterers often minimize their behavior, attributing the abuse to outside factors such as stress at work or alcohol or something their spouse may have done. Until the batterer is willing to accept responsibility for the abuse and recognize that he is always responsible for his actions, no improvement will occur. Batterers often label their behavior in benign terms. They may deny being violent because they don't "hit" their spouse, though if pressed they will admit that they "slap," "kick" or use verbal or emotional means to control their partner. They may not see—or be willing to admit—that this is domestic violence, though it is.

Batterers often use religious teachings or misuse scripture to justify their behavior and attitudes (e.g., "Wives be submissive to your husbands"). They may expect the confessor to agree with them or give tacit approval to these attitudes by their silence. Batterers - commonly have misogynistic or disparaging attitudes toward women and a sense of personal entitlement in relationships. They may feel that controlling another person or lashing out is justified in some circumstances. It is important for the confessor to challenge these faulty beliefs and attitudes.

A pastoral response to batterers should include these elements:
  • For the batterer to stop the abuse (whether verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual) immediately
  • For the batterer to acknowledge his role in perpetrating the abuse
  • For the batterer to accept responsibility for his behavior and its   
  • To start the process of healing without rushing prematurely to ask the abused partner to forgive

For the confessor to be helpful in dealing with the batterer, it is important that he
  • knows the excuses batterers use and not accept them
  • be able to condemn the abusive behavior without rejecting the abuser as a person
  • help clarify with the batterer that his behavior is, in fact, abusive and harmful
  • assist the batterer in determining what steps he must take to stop the abuse and seek real help to address the roots of that violence

There is a role for the clergy outside of confession and confessors should encourage batterers to raise the issue outside the sacrament. Battering is so offensive to most people that batterers may find themselves rejected and bereft of support or encouragement once they become involved in a treatment program. An important role for the confessor is to encourage responsible behavior on the part of batterers, including ending the abuse, receiving treatment, and addressing the attitudes and behaviors that support it. This will only happen if the confessor does not give in to the charm, excuses, or blaming that batterers use to avoid responsibility. Confessors who can remain compassionate without excusing or enabling the batterer can be of great value in helping end abuse.

Reprinted with permission from the Department of Marriage and Family Ministry, Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, 1031 Superior Ave, Cleveland, OH 44114. © Fr. Stephen Dohner Ph.D.

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