Churches start to confront horror of domestic violence Some rethink idea of spousal loyalty

November 15, 1992|By Orange County Register

If she didn't have his towel laid out for his shower. If she didn' have his dinner on the table. If she spent too long watering the lawn out front. The tension would build like steam in a pressure cooker.

More often than not, the woman said, her husband would explode. He would yell that she was lazy, that she was flirting with the neighbors. Sometimes, he would hit her in front of the children.

The 35-year-old woman, a born-again Christian in San Clemente, Calif., turned to the only sanctuary she knew, the one place she felt she could go for help: her church. "They laid hands on me and prayed for me," she said.

They told her to submit to her husband, because, after all, he worked hard to put food on the table. Just be on time. Be nicer, sweeter, better, pastors and church members told her. God wouldn't want her to leave her husband.

"It was like they wanted to turn their ears deaf, like, 'This isn't happening in Orange County,' " she said. "God, it probably happens here more than anywhere else."

Spousal abuse is a thorny issue for many churches, especially conservative Christian churches that follow a strict interpretation the Bible, Christian counselors and researchers say.

Over the past decade, it has become acceptable -- even lauded -- for Christians to admit failings and wrong-side-of-the-tracks problems, like drug or alcohol abuse. But domestic violence has remained largely in the back pew. Now, slowly, churches are beginning to confront the issue.

The U.S. Roman Catholic Church thrust the issue into the open this month, issuing a pastoral response condemning all domestic violence -- physical, psychological and verbal -- as "sinful." A church spokesman said the document was a response to the concerns of thousands of women in the church.

In the statement, two committees of the National Council of Catholic Bishops said that "battering thrives on sexism" and that women should not consider themselves religiously bound to remain in abusive relationships.

The National Council of Churches, which represents 32 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican denominations and 42 million people, released a policy statement in 1990 urging clergy to take a more compassionate response to domestic violence.

"I think it's terrifically widespread," said Eileen Lindner, associate general secretary, the second-highest-ranking member of the council.

"Not only is it an issue across theological lines, but across class lines and cultural lines," Ms. Lindner said in an interview last week.

Women, like the San Clemente woman, have been moral and theological hot potatoes, tossed around behind a screen of Christian culture and "family values," Christian and secular counselors say. To tell a wife to leave could lead to the breakup of a family.

"They asked, 'Has your husband committed adultery?' " the San Clemente woman said. "I said no. They said, 'Then God will not release you.' "

The woman, as did others mentioned in this article, asked that her name not be used because, despite a protective court order, she fears another beating.

David Delaplane, executive director of the Spiritual Dimension in Victim Services, said many churches "will go to any lengths to keep the family together."

His group, based in Sacramento, Calif., and supported by state and federal grants, leads workshops for clergy on how to deal with domestic violence and child abuse.

"The pastors say, 'We're destroying the sanctity of the family by encouraging a woman to leave for a little bit for her own protection,' " said Mr. Delaplane, a United Church of Christ minister. "They don't seem to understand the safety issue."

On the back porch at Human Options, a shelter for battered women and their families in Laguna Beach, Calif., a group of Christian women nodded angrily as the San Clemente woman, a past resident of the shelter, told her story.

The women had shared her sense of guilt, a gnawing, sometimes crippling uncertainty that by leaving their husbands, they had gone against God's wishes.

It is a guilt, they say, often hardened by their Bible-quoting spouses -- who refer to verses that say a wife should submit to her husband, the head of the household.

It is a guilt that in almost every case has been reinforced by their pastors, their church women's groups and, in many cases, by their Christian upbringing.

In his 1988 book, "Abuse in Religion: When Praying Isn't Enough," James Alsdurf, a psychologist, detailed his survey of 360 U.S. and Canadian pastors about domestic violence. Seventy-one percent said they could accept a marriage in which some violence occurred, rather than advise a separation that might end in divorce, Mr. Alsdurf said. Twenty percent said they would advise a woman to leave her husband only if her life was in jeopardy.

There are no statistics on how many Christian women are battered by their husbands. Christian psychologists and counselors estimate that the percentages mirror those in society as a whole.

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