An Open Letter to Pastors
December 15, 1997
You don't know me but I could easily be someone that you know. I could be your sister, your friend, your next-door neighbor, or one of your parishioners attending Mass on Sunday. My story is one that could be and is shared by many others, including women in your parish.
I am a survivor of spouse abuse but you might never have suspected, it. The code of silence, the immobilizing terror, and the intense shame have kept me from telling anyone for a long time. Yet, I am writing to let you know how incredibly important you are and can be to help women like me recover from the trauma of abuse by someone who initially promised that he would love, honor, and cherish his partner.
It has taken me more than 20 years to finally feel safe enough from my abuser and secure enough in my relationship with God to share my story with you. The past eight years have been spent trying to pick up the pieces and move on with my life, raise my children, and heal the deep wounds left in the aftermath of many years of battering. By the grace of God, I indeed have come a long way in this process. I went on to complete my doctorate and am a professor at a university in this archdiocese.
My faith in God, the support of several pastors who walked with me during various phases of the healing process, and the response of the larger faith community were instrumental in moving towards wholeness. However, it was also from a pastor that I received the dangerous advice to remain in the marriage. As I share my story, I'd like to focus on the pastoral responses that either helped or hindered my escape from the abuse as well as facilitated my healing.
Unless you are particularly attuned to the signs of abusive behavior, the daily signs can be hidden by an abuser well-versed in deception and manipulation. The verbal abuse started almost immediately and quickly escalated during the early years of the marriage. So did his threats to "destroy" me and to commit suicide. Although I realized that the behavior was abusive, I felt trapped because the abuse began at a time when domestic violence issues were just being recognized and taken seriously. Most importantly, the abuse generally occurred without the benefit of witnesses. Who would believe me or my story since they did not see it?
In the third year of my marriage, I approached my pastor-confessor and revealed for the first time to anyone that I was being abused. The pastor who knew me so well sent me back to my abuser saying, "if you won't help him, who will?" His response just augmented my feelings of guilt and shame about wanting to leave the relationship. For nearly a decade, it also kept me from telling anyone else about the abuse.
During that decade, the abuse escalated. Threats of physical violence became more frequent and the emotional and psychological abuse intensified. I was now routinely called a "whore" and accused of being unfaithful with anyone and everyone. All of my actions were monitored and I became increasingly isolated from family and friends. I got caught up in, the pattern of changing my behavior in the hopes of stopping the violence. Anything I did was not enough to stop the abuse. Only later would I come to realize that I never had the ability to stop the abuse. He did.
However, the most devastating, humiliating, and shame-filled acts of abuse were the times that I experienced what is know as a battering rape. This refers to episodes when the abuser first batters a woman psychologically or physically for hours and then proceeds to rape her. This dehumanizing act leaves you in a state of total violation and terror. For years I was literally immobilized by fear thinking that there was nowhere that I could go and feel safe again. There were many nights when I simply prayed that I would be alive the next day. If I stayed or if I left, I knew that the abuse would continue; that my abuser would not stop his behavior. At the time, I stayed because it seemed to be the safer option. I at least knew what he was up to. In many ways, my life became one of just trying to survive. However, it also became one where I began looking and planning for ways to escape the abuse.
An unexpected out-of-state job opportunity provided the means by which I finally became physically distanced from my abuser and accorded the first tangible opportunity to leave and start over. When I approached the pastor at my new parish, my decision to leave the marriage was affirmed by his acceptance of my story and by his statement, "This is not the life that God intended for you." These were the words that I had longed to hear from my Church -- words that enabled me to let go of the sense of guilt and responsibility to stay in the marriage at all costs. Besides being supportive during a very volatile and difficult divorce, my pastor and other members of the faith community helped ensure my safety and the safety of my children. I'll always remember the pastoral team members who watched my children so I could go to my divorce hearing without fearing that my abuser would successfully carry out his threat to kidnap them.
Further affirmation from the Church was received from the diocesan tribunal that granted my annulment petition. The support of the Church was a critical turning point in my healing process. I had finally broken the code of silence and I had not been ridiculed or criticized because I had told my story. To receive the recognition that the terror I had experienced did not constitute a "sacramental" marriage was profoundly life-giving.
Since the divorce and annulment, I continued to be harassed and threatened by my abuser but I have learned how to protect myself and my children from the abuse. I have not been afraid to use the legal system and other community resources as needed to work through the after-effects of the abuse. However, one of the most important and life-giving resources for me has been the continued support of other pastors and parishioners. The truth of my story has never been questioned -- listening and believing is one of the most powerful things that you can do to help a woman move from being a victim to being a survivor. Not questioning or judging our decisions is another way of affirming us as we reconstruct our lives. Being patient during the slow healing process is another way to support us since our healing does not necessarily follow your timetable. My life has been blessed by the presence of individuals who have been gracious enough to continue to walk this journey with me at my own pace and under my terms.
Finally and perhaps most importantly for my continued growth, I've been able to explore faith issues with several pastors over the years. I was very fortunate to never experience pastoral care that used Scripture to justify the battering so that was not one of my faith issues. In my case specifically, I have had to deal with my anger towards my abuser, something that may never fully fade away. Although I never became angry with God because of the abuse, I had to become reacquainted with a loving, merciful God who loved me unconditionally and loved me as I truly am. In process, my relationship with God has grown much deeper and richer. God's grace has given me the resiliency to keep moving towards wholeness.
Appropriate pastoral care has facilitated this process. I pray that your ministry will also make the difference that transforms the aftermath of abuse into the promise of new life.
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