Counselors seek clergy's help to fight abuse Domestic violence topic of conference held in Columbia

October 23, 1998|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Clergy and other religious leaders are often the first to hear about domestic violence in their communities -- and Judy Clancy has made it her mission to make sure they know how to handle it.

"We really hope to involve the clergy in the issue of domestic violence and very much want to work with them to help families in the community who are affected by these really difficult issues," said Clancy, executive director of the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County. "Clergy are the counselors for people who never come to agencies like mine."

The cooperative effort between the Domestic Violence Center and Howard County clergy began several weeks ago with a conference at Oakland Mills Interfaith Center in Columbia. About 80 religious leaders attended the meeting, which offered pep talks, counseling tips, legal advice and statistics.

Clancy said the purpose of the conference was twofold: to teach religious leaders how to respond to domestic violence, and to teach social services workers how to counsel clients with spiritual issues.

"Probably most of our clients raise issues of faith and God and religion," she said. "The whole spiritual side is really important to women. One of the things we would like the clergy to help us with is how better to respond to women when they bring up religious and spiritual issues."

Clancy is one of many victim advocates in Maryland who realize the powerful role that religious leaders can play to help battered women, men and children.

Similar conferences have been organized this year in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties. Last year, the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced a series of initiatives to combat domestic violence, and a domestic violence center serving five counties on the Eastern Shore is planning a conference early next year.

"It's a relationship that's long overdue," said Nicholas J. D'Alesandro, a community liaison for the Baltimore County Department of Social Services who began working with Baltimore County clergy about a month ago.

He said he recently conducted a survey in Dundalk, asking people where they go if they need help. More than a quarter -- 27 percent -- named a priest or pastor, he said.

"These are some key players with which we have to develop stronger bridges," D'Alesandro said.

Traditionally, religious leaders and secular advocates such as Clancy have not worked well together.

"There's usually a fair amount of suspicion between the two groups," said Joan Englesman, founder and executive director of the Clergy Partnership on Domestic Violence based in Madison, N.J., and a speaker at the Howard County conference.

"I think until the problems of domestic violence became widely known, clergy were really not prepared to talk about the issue and basically felt that this was a situation that the couple could work on together. They really didn't understand how life-threatening domestic violence is," Englesman said.

"What happened was, women would finally get up the courage to go to a shelter, and they would have all of these stories to tell about clergy who were part of the problem. Now what is beginning to happen is the clergy are going to be part of the solution."

Because of Englesman's efforts, New Jersey was one of the first states to get clergy involved in domestic violence issues 12 years ago. Maryland, she said, is one of the first states to follow suit.

"This is really cutting-edge," she said.

Dennis M. Sweeney, a Howard County circuit judge and co-chairman of the Family and Sexual Violence Coordinating Council of Howard County, has high hopes for the burgeoning partnership in Howard. He acknowledged at the Howard County conference that he often feels powerless to help domestic violence victims.

"I don't have any of that magic," he said. "What we are trying to do is deal with problems that are long-festering." Religious leaders, he added, can address the problem of domestic violence before it reaches the courtroom.

Many pastors who attended the conference said they plan to talk about domestic violence more in sermons and newsletters to raise awareness in their congregations.

Cynthia Snavely, pastor of Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, said the conference helped her "to be more aware."

"One of the things I realized was how much we do shy away from talking about family violence," she said. "I think I want to bring it out more regularly."

Conference participants also struggled with theological issues -- such as whether it goes against the Bible to help end a marriage.

Mary Lou Rowe, a lay minister at Bethany United Methodist Church who attended the meeting, said afterward that many Bible passages, if taken literally, tell a woman to submit to her husband, but "you've got to understand the text and how it was written."

"To me, that doesn't give free rein to the male," she said. "Christ's example is a loving example. Always a loving example."

Englesman said many domestic violence victims have trouble with the issue of Christian forgiveness.

"It's OK to tell a deeply wounded person they don't have to forgive," Englesman told the Howard County group.

Sometimes, Clancy said, she counsels women who don't want to leave their abusive husbands because they believe God will take care of everything.

James Stovall Sr., a pastor at Full Gospel Baptist Church in Cooksville who also attended the conference, has advice on how to address that issue.

"I think that God expects something from those whom he has created, even though some people say prayer is all you need," he said. "I don't believe we should leave it all to God."

Pub Date: 10/23/98

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