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Spotlight Report

Clerical tack on domestic abuse

Scandal may boost program

By Lisa Capone, Globe Correspondent, 3/17/2002

A domestic abuse education program for priests and other clergy planned a year ago by the Newburyport Women's Crisis Center may be gathering steam from an unanticipated source: this winter's sexual abuse scandal involving the Catholic Church.

"That was an unforeseen aspect, but it actually may be the thing that brings people to the table to discuss the issues," Women's Crisis Center executive director Suzanne Dubus said. "I'm thinking it's probably just the tip of the iceberg, and it's the Catholic Church's turn now. People all over are thinking, `Is that going to happen here? It's happening there.' "

On Wednesday, the Women's Crisis Center will host a meeting to lay the groundwork for an educational program designed to help clergy handle disclosures of domestic violence and abuse by their parishioners, successfully navigate a proposed new law requiring religious leaders to report abuse cases to authorities, and explore ways to avoid abuse by members of their own organizations. The Women's Crisis Center in December received a $19,000 grant from the Philip Morris Doors of Hope Program to conduct the one-year program.

Dubus said the original impetus for the project was "to get at a population who might not feel comfortable opening up anywhere else." That focus "has broadened," a result of recent charges of abuse by Catholic priests, said the Rev. Laura Biddle of Central Congregational Church in Newburyport, which is collaborating with the Women's Crisis Center.

"People are afraid," Biddle said. "Clergy are feeling like we've got to protect ourselves, too. As much as I believe every case that's come forward, I also know we can get off on a feeding frenzy here with clergy."

The bottom line, said project organizers, is that it's time for religious organizations to open the lines of communication around all types of abuse issues.

Dubus invited clergy from 43 churches, synagogues, and temples in Amesbury, Salisbury, Newburyport, West Newbury, Newbury, Rowley, Georgetown, Groveland, and Merrimac to this week's breakfast meeting at the Central Congregational Church.

"What we want to encourage in this year is for clergy to have fellow clergy to talk to so that people don't feel alone when they are confronted with issues of abuse by their parishioners," Biddle said.

Saying she is "hoping to have a decent turnout" Wednesday, Dubus added that she wouldn't be surprised if the clergy who need the most help are the ones who stay home.

"My guess is that the clergy who do not show up because it isn't an issue in their church, they may not have created a safe environment, so they don't know it's going on," Dubus said. "The biggest change would be for all churches to become those safe havens, where they created an environment and a culture that makes it safe to speak out."

Even before public concern mounted over abuse by church leaders, Dubus said she was hearing about issues such as what to do when a child or a woman tells a pastor about abuse by a parent or husband who is also a member of the congregation.

"It really becomes uncomfortable for everybody," she said. "The church is a place for all of them. How do you serve all of their needs? You probably can't, and what do you do when that happens?"

To find answers, Dubus, Biddle, and the Rev. Kent Allen, also of Central Congregational Church, plan to organize training sessions for North Shore clergy and lay leaders, conducted by a Boston-based interfaith domestic violence education organization. Biddle said training sessions would likely take place in May and include training specifically for religious leaders who work with children.

Other goals of the project include creating a page for clergy on the Women's Crisis Center's Web site, scheduling visits with clergy and setting up resource tables at churches and with other religious organizations, and developing a brochure for battered women that addresses the role of faith in fighting domestic abuse.

"In our pews, in every church, are children and adults who are living in terribly abusive homes, and the only safe place they have to turn is their church home, to someone who will listen," Biddle said. "And what we have not done well in this area is educate clergy on how to make somebody feel comfortable talking about abuse and what to do with disclosures about abuse."

Biddle said the project is focusing not just on violence, but the broader issue of more subtle mistreatment such as a husband controlling his wife's phone use, which Biddle sees as rampant attacks "on the human spirit." Too often, churches tell victims, "Do the best you can . . . you can't leave him," said Biddle, who worked in the 1980s and '90s with female inmates at MCI-Framingham, many of whom were domestic abuse victims.

"The guilt of saying `I don't want to stay in a relationship that's abusive' is very high," Biddle said.

Lisa Capone can be reached at capone@globe.com.

This story ran on page N1 of the Boston Globe on 3/17/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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