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Online Training Lesson #2: Religious leaders as helpers

Building Bridges Series

As I mentioned in lesson #1 in this series, I am often asked the question by those working within the criminal justice system why they should consider adding religious leaders to the collaborative community response to domestic violence.

You will find my top-ten reasons for inviting religious leaders to the collaborative community table to address domestic violence placed in the Community Resources section of our website. In these lessons, I focus on one or two reasons per lesson and suggest ways that bridges might be built or reinforced between religious and secular service providers.

Religious leaders are sought out by many perpetrators when the victim leaves the home.

When an abused religious woman seeks refuge in a transition house or shelter, it is not uncommon for the abuser to call his pastor for help. Sometimes he will use religious language in an attempt to convince the religious leader that he is sorry for his abusive deeds. Other times, he will tell the minister or rabbi of the extravagant gifts he has bought his wife, or the many tears he has shed, or how much he loves her. For some abusive men, this contact with a religious leader is part of their manipulative plan to have their partner return home. Yet, our research reveals that when religious leaders take seriously their role in encouraging abusive men to seek help, they are more likely to comply with attendance requirements in a batterer intervention program. While program attendance cannot guarantee change, intervention programs are an important part of any coordinated community response to domestic violence. Religious leaders are part of the team to ensure ongoing accountability in the lives of religious men who are, or have been, abusive.

Religious leaders are invested with moral authority.

In many religious traditions, the leaders—whether they are ordained or work in a lay capacity—hold considerable sway over other followers. As a result, when a religious leader says that “abuse is wrong” it has a strong impact. In fact, many religious victims feel abandoned by their faith tradition when crisis strikes in the family. When a pastor or priest is able to use the language of the faith tradition to support a victim through her struggle, her journey towards healing has been augmented. Similarly, when a minister or other faith leader holds a religious abuser accountable for his behaviour, it enhances the coordinated community response to violence at home.

Principles to help build bridges:

  • Focus on your agreement that the physical safety of the abused woman and her children is the number one priority in any response to abuse;
  • Focus on your agreement that the abusive acts on the part of the perpetrator must be condemned;
  • Focus on the desire to ensure that every family be (or become) violence-free.

Strategies to help build bridges:

  1. Acquaint yourself with the judicial response (in your local jurisdiction) to those abusers who are processed through the court system. Are there victim advocates? Are most abusers mandated to an intervention program for batterers? What proportion of abusers do time in jail or prison? An initial step in bridge building is always to identify and introduce those working in the local community to one another. If you are a religious leader, it will sometimes be a challenge to convince workers in the criminal justice system that you do have a role to play in the elimination of family violence within the community.
  2. One of the most obvious ways that religious leaders play a role in responding to the needs of abusers is through ongoing accountability. Ask about the way that the judicial system works in your area as it relates to domestic violence. An initial step in bridge building is to ask lots of questions directly from those working in the field. Then you may be well positioned to provide some assistance when required to do so by either a referral from someone in the court system (like a probation officer) or when a family in contact with the criminal justice system seeks your help in the aftermath of violence at home.

Questions to ask yourself:
(if you work in a community-based agency)

  1. Are there times when clients who are religious might have benefited from contact with a religious leader?
  2. What resources of a spiritual nature am I familiar with that speak about the impact of domestic violence on the victim?
  3. Might there be added accountability in the life of a religious man who has acted abusively if his priest or pastor provided some level of spiritual support?

Questions to ask yourself:
(if you are a religious leader)

  1. We have learned from interviews with court staff, including judges, that the only time they see religious leaders in the court room is in support of the religious man who was violent at home. Why does the pastor or priest support the abuser and not the abused?
  2. How might I help to hold a man, who acts abusively, accountable for his actions?
  3. What Scriptural or other religious resources might I use to speak the language of the spirit to a victim or perpetrator?