Helping Victims of Domestic Violence

Fr. Stephen Dohner, Ph.D. 

Those who have been abused by an intimate partner (spouse, dating partner) often grapple with spiritual issues related to the abuse, their role in the relationship, the importance of forgiveness, the meaning of suffering, and their relationship with God. These issues may affect the individual's understanding of sin—the victim's or the abuser's—and the need for reconciliation.

Violence can destroy a person's faith in God or their sense that God loves or cares about them. At the same time, it leads victims to wonder how someone who loves them can do such horrible things to them. Those who live with abuse are often filled with guilt or anger toward their partner or toward God who allows these things to happen.

Religious beliefs can be a reason victims stay in abusive relationships. They may feel that the church or their faith requires them to remain with an abusive partner regardless of the level of violence.

They may also be embarrassed or ashamed of what is happening to them or fear the negative judgments of others in their church if they bring the abuse to light or decide to separate themselves from their abuser.

Domestic violence is not an issue of anger. It is about the use of force or fear to control and intimidate another person in a relationship. Those who have been abused have lived with someone who has used different means to control their life. It is important for the confessor to be sensitive to this issue of control; the confessor must resist the temptation to tell the victim what she must do or to insist that she act in a way she may not choose or before she is ready. This may be interpreted as another form of control.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation offers an important opportunity to address these issues.

There are limits to dealing with issues of abuse in the confessional.

  • There are limitations due to the seal of confession and the absolute confidentiality that it implies.
  • There are limits of time and circumstance. During normal parish hours for confession, there may not be adequate time to address everything that should be addressed with the penitent. Reconciliation chapels or confessionals do not have resources or referrals readily at hand.
  • There are limits of opportunity that do not allow an individual in confession a chance to thoroughly examine the risks they face and the options available to them.

At the same time, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is an important place to address domestic violence.

  • It provides a safe, confidential place for victims to talk about the abuse.
  • It presents an opportunity for them to hear a moral voice clearly condemn domestic violence and assure them that they do not have to live in fear.
  • It offers a context where spiritual issues related to abuse can be addressed. These include: the meaning of suffering, the obligation of marriage vows, the duty to forgive, why God allows abuse to continue, anger toward the abuser, guilt, the effects of abuse on children, and the sense of misplaced responsibility for the actions of the abuser.
  • It is an important place to raise the issue of safety with someone who is at risk and to help a victim consider what she can do to stay safe, even if she chooses to remain with the abuser.
  • It is not uncommon for those who are abused to be circumspect about their abuse. It is important for the confessor to ask direct questions to clarify their situation at home (What happens? How often does it happen? Does your spouse do other things that make you afraid?)

It will be easier for confessors to be truly helpful to those who are abused if they keep in mind several points.

First, the person who chooses to reveal their abuse in the Sacrament of Reconciliation does so for a reason. It may be because of the security the seal of confession provides. It may be because they are not ready to address the issue in a more public forum yet, even if that forum is at the parish office. It may be because they are wrestling with a misplaced guilt or belief that God is punishing them or has abandoned them. As these issues are addressed and they feel the confessor is sensitive and trustworthy, they may be more receptive to addressing these concerns outside of confession.

Second, the limits of the sacrament should be respected. It is not intended to be, nor is it advisable to make confession into a counseling session or crisis intervention. The sacrament is an experience of the healing, hope-filled presence of God. What may better be addressed outside the sacrament should be. Encouraging a victim of domestic violence to bring these issues to another forum will be helped if the following things are done first in confession.

  • If the confessor is sensitive, demonstrates understanding of the issue of domestic violence, and is encouraging to the victim
  • If the confessor demonstrates that he is trustworthy. This becomes evident if he believes the victim, does not minimize the abuse or excuse the abuser, does not blame the victim, and does not push the victim to act before she is ready
  • If the confessor clearly condemns violence as unacceptable and reassures the victim that no one has to live in fear
  • If the confessor respects the spiritual struggles the victim faces, reassures the victim that God does not abandon those in need, and offers hope and encouragement
  • Reassures the victim that dealing with domestic violence is not done quickly and that he and the church will help her, with practical assistance and for as long as it takes

Third, after the crisis passes, there will still be a role for the confessor in assisting victims and family members to deal with spiritual issues and residual guilt. Long-term spiritual issues often include addressing grief and mourning over the loss of innocence, a sense of safety, and perhaps the relationship itself.

Reprinted with permission from the
Department of Marriage and Family
Ministry, Catholic Diocese of
Cleveland, 1031 Superior Ave,
Cleveland, OH 44114.