Beliefs Culture Opinion

COMMENTARY: Clergy need to step up efforts to prevent domestic violence

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Marie Fortune, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and executive director of the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle, is the author of”Keeping the Faith: Guidance for Christian Women Facing Abuse (HarperSanFrancisco).

UNDATED _ Not long ago, a man employed the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protection of religious beliefs to support his right to abuse his wife.

The defendant, Ramiro Espinosa, said he believed the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church gave him the right to have sex with his wife whenever _ and however _ he chose. Espinosa reasoned that the couple’s marriage vows signaled his wife’s consent to have sex with him, and, that once given, this consent was somehow permanent.

Espinosa, 54, seemed to equate breaking into his wife’s locked room, slapping her and ripping her clothes with legitimate foreplay. Thankfully, the court was not swayed by his defense. Still, this is yet another tragic example of an appeal to church doctrine to justify wife abuse.

In response, church leaders rejected Espinosa’s argument saying Catholic doctrine teaches sex should be part of a loving relationship. This is a useful but less-than-adequate response offering little recognition of the harm done to the woman (which is a sin) and of the need to call the husband to account for his abusive behavior.

Espinosa’s misunderstanding of his rights as a husband is evidence of the gross inadequacy of traditional Christian teaching on sexual ethics and marriage, resulting in some battered woman and their children being abandoned by their faith communities.

Either by its silence or its instruction, the church has communicated specifically to battered women that they should stay in abusive relationships, try to be better wives; just pray about it, forgive and forget. To those who batter, the church has communicated that their efforts to control their wives or girlfriends are justified because women are to be subject to men in all things.

Church history is filled with examples of men who tried to justify their abusive behavior. Martin Luther, for example, unapologetically described his own use of physical violence toward his wife.

The stated purpose in all this is generally the preservation of marriage and the family. But the real purpose is the preservation of male control over women and children.

Only recently has the institutional church recognized this failure and begun to confess its neglect of the victims in its midst. Several years ago, the Roman Catholic bishops in Quebec made a policy statement on family violence in which they acknowledged the church had to bear some responsibility for the harm done to battered women when it had taught women to stay in abusive relationships and failed to protect them.

If the church is to be faithful, it must support battered women, pray with them, help them find safety, and call abusers to account.

Despite the church’s good intentions to keep families together, abusers destroy the bonds of trust that exist in healthy families. If a battered woman chooses to separate or divorce, she is only making public what is already a private reality.

Part of the responsibility to stop domestic violence lies with the churches, and clergy should work alongside the effective programs for battered women in their community.

Since October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, now and the coming weeks are an excellent opportunity for clergy to begin speaking and acting to shatter the silence that has protected abusers and sentenced battered women and their children to violent homes.

(For more information, contact The Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence at If you are being abused and need help, call the national hotline at 800-799-7233.)