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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - When the Pastor Suspects Abuse

This week's question is a quite serious one, and our colleague would appreciate your wisdom and experience. She writes:

I could use some wisdom. Over the past few years, while our congregation was working closely with another congregation in our area, a couple began attending our shared worship services. Each of us (both the ministers and congregation members) assumed that this couple came from the "other" church because no one knew them. In that way, they sort of slipped under everyone's radar for a long time. Eventually, we managed to get a *bit* of information - their first names. Mostly they came for worship and  left quickly afterward without a word.

The man is about 6'5" and the woman is probably 5'4", but she is so hunched over it's hard to tell. The minute I saw them, I got that sick intuitive feeling in my gut that something wasn't right with these two. She always walks behind him and is covered head to toe even in the summer. She cowers to the point that it is hard to see her face.

Last winter she used crutches for a broken leg for about two months, then moved to a cane. When they came by me at the door, I would make a point of stopping her and asking how her leg was. She would look at me and say "Okay I guess. I'm just so clumsy" and then let out an awkward laugh. I had been through all of this with a co-worker in my former career, so my gut feeling seemed to be proving itself correct. Earlier this fall, it became apparent that they were going to be continuing to attend our worship. Our finance person asked tactfully and gently (as she always does) if they would like offering envelopes. He said "No." She asked if they would like to give us their name and address for the mailing list. He said, "No."

Then the next week, she showed up with a cast on her arm. I saw her at the door and said, "Oh my. I'm so sorry you're hurt. Is there anything I can do to help?" He glared at me and at her, took her by the other arm, and they were gone. She just looked down at the floor.

All I know is the first names they gave the minister from the other church. No last name. No address. Only a gut feeling that this woman is in grave danger. I should add that her face, and I hate to say it, may have been pretty once, but now she just looks like a bad prize-fighter. A close look last week makes me think her jaw has been broken at some point and was never re-set.

If I leave it alone and end up with a phone call to do her funeral, I'll never forgive myself. If I slip a note into her hand or coat pocket to call me, or give her the number of the women's shelter, there is the danger that he will find it and hurt her even more.

I need some help here. Should I talk to the police? Is that taking it too far and assuming too much? Would they have the authority to look into her ER visits (which I think have been multiple)?

Any ideas are welcomed. Thanks.

Ruth, who blogs at Sunday's Coming, writes:
Other matriarchs may have better advice to give – my only advice is refer. Find an agency – it may be the police, it may be some sort of outreach to abused people, who know how to deal with this and get them involved. Sorry it’s all I have to say – refer, refer, refer.

Muthah+ writes from her own sad experience:
This one is really difficult but quite important.  I was remiss once in spotting the abuse in a family and the wife ended up missing. She was a good member of my parish and I still miss her.  Her body was never found and the husband is doing life without parole in federal prison.  So I am encouraging that you address the issue NOW.  Get everyone you can into the case: police, social services, yourself even members of your congregation, if needed.  But be careful.  If the man is as volitile with his wife as to be beating her, he will be volitile with you.  The man is a bully, but at the heart of a bully is a very frightened person who can only react.  Never visit with him alone.
Talk to the people who work in your local domestic violence shelter.  Make it your mission to find who these people are and where they live.  Visit the woman when the man is at work.  You most likely won't be able to get her to leave or even acknowledge the abuse because at some level she is deathly afraid of leaving him.  Talk with your police department.  They can do little unless they see the damage, but they usually have ways of helping you.  Get on line and find the agencies that can help you and your parishioner.  Contact them. 
If they have been coming to church, one of the couple wants something to change.  So you have your work cut out for you.  I will keep you in my prayers because you feel like an alarmist--when what you are doing is perhaps saving this woman's life.
St. Casserole offers:

Really a tough one! I imagine you have a few discreet congregants, with good people skills who you can take into your confidence about this couple. These congregants can check on the couple for details you might not be able to get because you are busy with church members after the worship service. Have them follow the couple out of the sanctuary to see how they arrive at worship. If by car, can they get a license plate number and car description? If the couple arrives by public transportation, is there a way to get information about their location from the route? You need some information to give to a constable. You may wish to go to your local police department to speak to whoever handles the domestic violence matters and they will have additional ideas about how to help the woman.
I don't think you can let this situation go unchecked. If her injuries are the result of "clumsiness" from a bone disorder or other medical condition, then you may have resources to help her with coping with her health issues. Your observations sound like domestic violence to me but you don't know this yet. I understand your hesitancy in deciding without more information. Your congregants may be able to walk the fine line of being interested in the couple without scaring them away from church. With the help of a small, attentive group, you will know how to proceed. 
And Mompriest shares this:
Recently I attended a conference on domestic violence called, “Not In Our Pews” hosted by several religious and social service agencies in Wisconsin, USA. Here is a link to the review I wrote on that conference. It is filled with the advice I learned and a number of resources.

But in summary:
1.        Call the local social service agency that deals with battered women. You must contact people who are experts in domestic violence, no matter how much knowledge you currently have. Call the agency and ask to team up with them to figure out ways to help this woman. As clergy you may be the first person she opens up too, but your clergy team will need the help of the agency to offer a response that will aim to keep her safe.
2.       If the first agency you call for help won’t, call another one. Find the local expert on DV and speak to her/him. Some will not trust clergy – we have been known to be part of the problem – using scripture, badly, to keep women in violent marriages/relationships.
3.       Contact the Faith Trust Institute in Seattle, Washington: here.  They have a lot of resources. As I said, on my blog post I list other resources.
4.       You are correct when you think that anything you do may cause her more harm. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything. It just needs to be strategic and careful.
5.       The violence always escalates when a woman is preparing to leave or when the perpetrator thinks the victim is going to leave.
6.       For her, trust is a big concern – she will not trust anyone.
7.       Self-esteem is a big issue too – the perpetrator’s intention is less about the violence and more about control – and that control comes from horrible ways the perpetrator has demolished the victim’s sense of self.
8.       One woman victim, who spoke at this conference, mentioned having a slim tiny booklet that she could read, small enough that her husband/perpetrator would not find it. Unfortunately I don’t know what it was, but the battered women’s agency might have tiny resources – I think it was a booklet of reflection/hope/empowerment?
9.       When you have teamed up with an agency and learned all you can about domestic violence, preach about it.  If you are like me, that thought frightens me. But apparently it is one way that women begin to feel safe enough to speak up. Women victims are resourceful, survivors. They will try to find a way to speak to you that will keep them safe from their perpetrator. Also, more people will rise to the surface, other than this woman. DV is everywhere, and prolific.
10.   Hold workshops with the agency on domestic violence awareness. You may not want this to be or become the focus of your congregation. But these efforts will help to bring it out in the open. It may also chase this couple away, so deal with them first....? I could be wrong, so get professional advice on this idea, just my thoughts.
11.   Contact the Rev. Al Miles. He lives in Hawaii and is one of the leading clergy experts on DV.
12. Another thing you can do in the congregation is participate in the Sixteen days of prayer to end violence against women which takes place during the first 16 days of Advent.”

Most of all pray for this woman and this situation.  That is not a feeble response. Victims appreciate prayers and knowing that people are praying for them.

I will pray for you.

Our matriarchs have offered a lot of great thoughts! What about the rest of you? Do you have experience with this sort of situation? What did you do, or what do you wish you had done? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section.

As always, if you have a question you would like the matriarchs to discuss, send us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. Thank you matriarchs for your wise advice. Thank you for your links to excellent websites and for your prayers. I will take all of it to heart and consider carefully what you all have said. I especially like the idea of asking a trusted congregant to quietly follow them after worship.

    One thing is puzzling:

    " I will keep you in my prayers because you feel like an alarmist--when what you are doing is perhaps saving this woman's life."

    I am unsure how to read this. Is this an indication that I'm making too much out of this? The word 'alarmist' makes me wonder.

    Remember, I've been observing these people for almost two years, gathering and documenting information all along. I don't believe I have acted in haste or made any wrong assumptions. Also, asking this question in this forum is the first action I've taken aside from my own documentation.

  2. I don't want to answer for St. Casserole, but the way I read that comment on being an alarmist was that she will pray for you because YOU may have moments when you *feel* like you are being alarmist, when "what you are doing is perhaps saving this woman's life."

    I will pray for you as well. I think you have received wonderful input from the other Matriarchs, and that you are being Christ's hands and feet already to this woman (and the couple, really, even if the man is an abuser, he needs Christ's love, too), in what you are already doing. Many blessings to you.

  3. Well said Sarah. Thank you. That makes a lot of sense. I do so appreciate your perspective here. And yes, we do need to pray for both of these people, for both need Christ's hand upon them.

  4. Anonymous, I agree with Sarah that Muthah+ (not St. Casserole) was referring to any hesitation you might have about feeling alarmist, not saying you *are* alarmist. I don't hear anyone saying you are acting hastily. I hear absolute support for taking some kind of action, and I share the hope that you will be able to find a way to help this woman, or at least find out more about what is going on with the couple.

  5. I am grateful, too, Mary Beth. Thank you to our matriarchs for their wonderful and compassionate thoughts.

    Anonymous, I read Muthah+'s words the same way as others.

    We are all supporting you and praying for you. Blessings to you as you attempt to minister to this woman in such a difficult situation!

  6. Thank you all for this information. Prayers for Anonymous and her church as they take on this challenge. God has surely placed this couple in your path for a reason.

  7. Thanks all. I too am very grateful for this forum. And yes, I understand now that Muthah+ was not saying that I was being alarmist - it was just the first impression I had of that particular word, which felt kind of "strong" or something. I just wanted to clarify.

    Daughter, I hope you are right and that God has indeed placed this sad couple in my path for a reason yet to be seen.

    My deepest thanks and prayerful blessings to all of you.

  8. What a heavy responsibility! I agree with those who say that their attendance in your church is a positive sign, although a confusing one. It's hard for me to imagine an abusive, controlling man exposing his wife to a strong female role model or a denomination that ordains women.

    Are there a few trusted men in your men's group who could try to enfold him in that and help to give him the strength to become the man God is calling him to be, without specifically citing the abuse? It seems like you would have more options if one of them had a relationship with your congregation.

  9. I'd like to add one suggestion. Every church should place flyers or cards for the local domestic violence shelter/ social agency in the women's rest rooms. That way, the woman can even just memorize a number if it's unsafe for her to take a card. It can be a life saver.

  10. Thanks Suzy and Magdalene - both excellent suggestions.


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