Clergy are ‘first responders’ to sexual, domestic violence

MIDDLEBURY — A group of local clergy members gathered last Tuesday for an all-day event at which they asked themselves how they could do more to end sexual and domestic violence and how they could better serve those who turn to them in an hour of need.
The event was sponsored and hosted in Middlebury by WomenSafe, which provides resources to combat domestic and sexual violence. (See related story.)
“Clergy play a really fundamental role in people’s well being, in their health and in their spiritual life and in their life in general. And they also meet people at very critical times. So if they’re trained to be a support, they can really make a huge difference in the safety and well being of survivors,” said WomenSafe Executive Director Kerri Duquette-Hoffman.
The workshop was led by speakers from Boston’s Safe Havens Interfaith Partnership Against Domestic Violence, a non-sectarian nonprofit that works to bring together survivor advocacy and communities of all religious faiths.
Safe Havens’ missions are to provide training for clergy and congregations, connect religious leaders with service providers and law enforcement, and advocate for religious communities to take the lead in ending domestic and sexual violence.
Over the past 25 years, Safe Havens has earned many awards — and grants from the U.S. Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women to provide training around the country.
Co-presenter Anne Marie Hunter, a Methodist minister and the founder and executive director of Safe Havens, noted that clergy are often the first place survivors turn for help.
“Research shows that … they’re more likely to turn to their faith leaders than they are to call the police or call the hotline,” she said. “So that means that faith leaders are first responders. You wouldn’t send someone into a burning building as a first responder without training. So in the same way, faith leaders shouldn’t have to respond to victims and survivors without critical training.”
AREA CLERGY LISTEN as Safe Havens Associate Director Alyson Morse Katzman reads a composite ‘monologue’ from the point of view of a domestic violence survivor. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Yet few seminaries, Hunter said, teach clergy how to work with trauma victims, and that lack of training can prove dangerous for those who turn to them.
For example, she said, an untrained person might elicit a confession during couple’s counseling and not understand how a beating might follow, or encourage a woman to leave without a safety plan and not know that leaving is often the point of greatest danger for abused women and children.
Hunter added an untrained clergy person might not hear carefully guarded clues that alert an experienced listener that an individual could be suffering abuse, or might unintentionally use language that shames, blames or silences the victim.
Hunter also addressed the ways that religion has been at times used to keep women in abusive relationships and the ways that clergy themselves have abused their positions of trust and authority.
Duquette-Hoffman said that Addison County’s faith community has been an important partner for WomenSafe, and that Tuesday’s training was intended to strengthen partnerships and clergy skill sets.
 “We have a pretty fabulous faith community in Addison County, we really do,” Duquette-Hoffman continued. “So this wasn’t because we felt like there was any concern. It was more because we wanted them to have even more tools to help survivors.”
Safe Havens’ Associate Director Alyson Morse Katzman joined Hunter in addressing such topics as:
•  Defining domestic violence.
•  Learning more about trauma.
•  Understanding why women stay with abusive partners.
•  Countering “boys will be boys” and “locker room” stereotypes.
•  Building bridges between advocates and faith leaders.
•  Learning how best to respond to abuse disclosures.
•  Connecting survivors with advocacy groups, so they can access services.
Hunter and Katzman urged attendees to lead not only their congregations but also their communities.
“We believe that the key to broad social change lies with faith communities,” said Hunter.
The group brainstormed on the issue of how abuse affects women, and created lists sorted with labels such as trapped, shocked, nauseous, frozen, alone, betrayed and defeated.
At one point, Katzman read a monologue that recounted a “composite survivor’s” journey from meeting a “really great guy,” through first experiencing physical abuse, to finding herself married with three kids and saying, “Everyone thinks he’s perfect, so it must be me. I’m going crazy. I just hope this relationship isn’t the death of me.”
At another point, the presenters explained to the clergy-attendees how women often sanitize the language they use to disclose abuse and how the code can be broken, and they provided a handout detailing the unprintable destructive statements used by perpetrators to subdue intimate partners.
Clergy offered up their own questions and suggestions, including ideas about how to let survivors know that it’s OK to ask for help, such as putting up posters in church bathrooms, using sermons, addressing instances of abuse in scripture, teaching healthy sexuality through youth programs, or distributing WomenSafe pens.
Phillip Westra, pastor of the Champlain Valley Christian Reformed Church in Vergennes, said that attending helped him understand how to work with WomenSafe should the need arise. He also said he felt better equipped to listen to and support those who come to him seeking help.
“I think I have some better language for naming these things, especially the vulnerabilities, and trying to put myself into the shoes of someone who’s experiencing abuse,” said Westra.
Middlebury College Muslim Co-Chaplains Beau Scurich and Naila Baloch both attended the training.
Baloch said having sensitive and informed religious leaders is especially important for members of some cultural communities in which talking to a counselor is not the norm.
“Someone from a particular kind of community, you never go to strangers,” Baloch said. “You always go to someone you might know.”
First Congregational Church of Cornwall Minister Mary Kay Schueneman has volunteered for WomenSafe for two years. Schueneman saw the workshop as a way to build better partnerships to help survivors, especially those who are alone in rural areas.
“My church is in a rural community and (victims) can be more isolated in what can be an isolating experience,” said Schueneman. “So I want to find ways as clergy and clergy communities and faith communities that we can be responsive to the needs of people who are experiencing any kind of intimate partner or domestic violence.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

Share this story:

No items found
Share this story: