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Violent marriages: A woman’s quest to help synod bishops grasp the issue

Christauria Welland is a clinical psychologist who’s worked with both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence – and with one in three women worldwide suffering from abuse at the hands of a partner, her goal is to make sure bishops know about the problem.

Often kept secret through shame or fear of stigma, the scourge of physical and emotional violence between couples is something the Catholics are anything but immune from, and Welland says she hopes to bring about healing and change through awareness and education.

After raising the issue with Vatican officials during last year’s extraordinary synod of bishops on the family, she’s seeking to push the issue even further onto radar of this month’s event by distributing booklets to all of the synod participants.

This year’s Synod on the Family runs from Oct. 4-25, is the second and larger of two such gatherings to take place in the course of a year. Like its 2014 precursor, the focus of this year’s synod is the family, this time with the theme: “The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the modern world."

A professor and author, Welland began working in the field of domestic violence 45 years ago, and has extensive experience working in Catholic communities.

She works in private practice in Solana Beach, Calif., with a hospital practice in the rehabilitation unit at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas and Paradise Valley Hospital in National City. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Alliant International University in San Diego, where she teaches a licensure course on domestic violence.

For the first 25 years of her career, Welland focused on victims of domestic violence, however, for the past 20 years she has concentrated on abusive men.

She was in Rome during last year’s extraordinary synod of bishops on the family, where she met for the second time with the secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Archbishop Jean Laffitte, to discuss possible initiatives designed to bring greater attention to the issue of domestic violence.

At the council’s request, Welland drafted a 100-page booklet titled “How Can We Help to End Violence in Catholic Families: A Guide for Clergy, Religious and Laity," for the Philadelphia World Meeting of Families, where she was the only speaker to present on violence inside the home.

Addressing ways in which Catholics can both respond to and prevent domestic violence, as well as how to educate Catholic youth and couples on how to avoid it, the booklet is available in six languages and as of last week was distributed to all synod participants.
In an Oct. 13 interview with CNA, Welland said that domestic violence is “such a common problem that there’s probably at least one person in every extended family who’s gone through that experience."

Although she said the issue has been gaining greater awareness in the public eye, it’s still a major problem, and that the numbers tend to be higher “in countries where women have fewer rights, where their legal rights are not equal to men’s rights."

In terms of statistics, Welland said that worldwide one in three women are effected by some sort of physical or sexual abuse from their partners, while the number effected by emotional or other types of abuse could be higher.

While most countries don’t have stats on men, in the U.S. 28 percent are affected. So it’s “a very big problem worldwide," she said, noting that, depending on the country, the lowest statistics read one in five women, whereas the highest are one in two.

She defined domestic violence – frequently referred to by research professionals as “Intimate Partner Violence" (IPV) to distinguish from other types of domestic abuse – as any “physical, sexual, emotional, economic abuse, isolation" and in general “the kind of control that one partner exerts over the other."

Even though there are no specific studies exploring the frequency of IPV within Catholic families, Welland said that it still happens, and that Catholics “aren’t immune" from the phenomenon.

“I hear it every single day, from my Catholic and my non-Catholic patients, so I think it’s something we need to be really aware of," she said.

Welland said she intentionally made her booklet short and easy to read so that people would actually take an interest, and expressed her hope that synod would “focus on this issue because it is so common in Catholic families."

A recent example can be seen in a heart-wrenching open letter one Catholic woman wrote to the synod fathers, in which she tells the story of her husband’s dramatic anger problems and the failure of those around her – priests included – to provide adequate help.

One of the synod participants, Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu and president of the Ugandan Episcopal Conference, has already spoken up about the issue.

Archbishop Odama told CNA that in his intervention during last week’s first round of general congregation discussions, he “defended the rights of women against violence whether it be in their homes or in society in general."

“Violence done to women, or done to children or to anybody is a violence done to the family," he said, adding that he knows well the toll that violence can take, since his area for 20 years was “bedeviled by internal insecurity and insurgency."

What he saw during that time was “children suffering, but more the mothers who had given life to these children being put in a situation of stress and of pain."

“I lived with it and I wouldn’t wish it to happen again, not only in our area but it shouldn’t happen again in any part of the world, in a society of humanity as a whole," the archbishop said.

Archbishop Odama explained that his intervention at the synod was aimed not just at changing the situation in the specific context of Africa, but of humanity as a whole.

“In other parts (of the world), wherever it may be women suffer. So I’m addressing with a small local experience, but with a global issue…we live local but our vision of life should be global."

Before speaking at the World Meeting of Families Welland spent a month in Africa promoting her booklet and other information surrounding IPV.
She said that after presenting information to various priests, religious, catechists and several bishops in Kampala, Uganda, she got “a very positive response," and published the booklet there in both English and French.

In terms of African “there’s a very great interest," she said. “I would say priests and bishops, sisters, anybody who is a pastoral worker is really looking for answers."

“How do I deal with this, because it is so common and it does show up in your parish office, it shows up in the confessional, it shows up in your school, in your Catechism class."

In terms of best practices in handling situations of violence in the home, even from a pastoral standpoint, the most important things are not to blame victim and to focus on the person who needs help.

“The first thing is don’t blame the victim. You don’t want to make trite comments, cliché’s like ‘you have to forgive and forget,’" Welland said, because when those comments are made “you can really put someone in danger and you don’t really help them process…you’re kind of discounting what their issue is."

On the other hand, working with the person who is violent is crucial, because “that’s the person who has the power to change. He or she is the one who needs to make changes so the family will change."

If a person has any sort of desire to change then the change is possible, she said, noting that the percentage of people who want no change at all is normally very low.

Welland said that while she’s not working with the Church directly, she leads a program in Latin America in Spanish that she developed while working with abusers in San Diego, and that most men have found her program “very effective."

She voiced her hope that the synod fathers would give the issue the attention it needs and deserves during the synod, and that they would find her booklet helpful in terms of knowing how to handle situations of IPV on a pastoral level.

“If we want to have good marriages in the Church and happy families, if you take that through domestic violence you’re not going to get that goal, that’s never going to happen," she said.

“So it’s really important to know how to be aware of it and help people prevent it, and if it shows up to know how to treat it and how to respond to it."

Photo credit:

By Elise Harris


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