Diocese tackles family violence

There was a time, not so long ago, when the church was the last place victims of family violence would go for help. The impression was that churches either would not understand the problem or, worse, would counsel victims to continue a commitment to marriage, even a dysfunctional one.

The Diocese of Fredericton’s newly formed Family Abuse Issues Ministry (FAIM) is working at changing that.

Denial of the problem of family abuse was common in churches years ago, said Rev. Eileen Irish, a member of the ministry team.

“There were clergy who said ‘I don’t have any of that in my parish,'” said Ms. Irish, rector of the Parish of Greenwich.

“To me, there was a lot of putting the head in the sand. Now, we’ve gone beyond that and people are saying there is a need.”

There is still some reluctance by parishioners to seek help from a priest for violence at home, said Ms. Irish.

“In my experience, most people in abusive situations believe they’ve made that commitment,” she said, adding that people with a church background can find it even more difficult to leave. “But we have to understand that we are all God’s children and to be a whole person, you have to be free and not abused in any way: mentally, physically, spiritually.”

The ministry, an outgrowth of a diocesan task force created for the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women (1988-1998), was launched recently to deal with abuse, which the task force felt it had to continue to address.

“We’re responding to a need we feel is out there,” said Ms. Irish.

Members of the ministry team include Ms. Irish, fellow priests Rev. Brenda McKnight and Rev. Barry Craig and lay people Margaret Petrie, Mary Richardson and Joan Teed, a social worker. All have either counselled victims of abuse or been victims themselves.

The ministry is working with a University of New Brunswick sociologist, Nancy Nason-Clark, to put together a training program for the diocese’s clergy, which it will test in a pilot project in one of the diocese’s deaneries. It also hopes to declare a Family Violence Awareness Sunday which would serve as an education day for parishes.

The group is convinced that the solution to the problem of family violence is to offer support to both victims and abusers.

“We’re looking at abuse holistically rather than simply the abuse of women,” said Margaret Petrie. She explains that the cycle of abuse often starts when the abuser is a child, “so, you’re not going to get far by working with just one individual (the victim).” While the ministry does not expect to eradicate family violence in the diocese, “our objective is to make a dint in it,” said Ms. Petrie. Its primary focus will be to increase awareness about domesticviolence and to educate clergy and the public.

Ms. Petrie admits that in the past, some women particularly did not approach their clergy for help in dealing with violence at home, partly in fear that their church would tell them that marriage is permanent, violence notwithstanding.

“Unfortunately we have had to deal with that here,” said Ms. Petrie. “A lot of women are not comfortable going to their priests. Now, at least, priests are saying they have no training but they are realizing that this is a reality.”

The group has established a website which it hopes will serve as a clearinghouse for resources on abuse.

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