this first of a two-part series, the Denver
Urban Spectrum explores what many see as taboo subjects in faith
communities--domestic violence and sexual assault. In this article, we explore the challenges
faced by victims of domestic violence and sexual assault when seeking help and
support from leaders in faith communities. Next month, in part two of the series, the Urban Spectrum reaches out to
13 local pastors and other spiritual leaders to speak on spiritual solutions to
violence and what they see as effective responses to a dangerous and growing
problem within religious organizations.
best-selling book, Daughter Your Faith
Has Healed You, Bonita Darby of Denver
shares her story of surviving a nine-year relationship with a brutal, battering
husband. Struggling with her Christian beliefs on marriage and the desire to be
free from the violence that had become her marriage, Darby remained imprisoned in
a relationship that almost took her life.
In the book, she cites her strong faith in God for getting her through
the worst time in her life. Now a
powerful faith leader in the movement to end sexual assault and domestic
violence, she leads one of a handful of survivor’s ministries in the country at
Church in Denver with Pastor Reverend Regina Groff.
of Campbell AME, who asked to remain anonymous, says, “Darby’s work and book saved
my life and helped me work through years of repressed pain from the abuse I
suffered at my father’s and later my husband’s hands. My father was also a
minister and Christian. This problem
runs deep in the church, very deep. Some ministers use the bible to keep a
woman locked into a situation that could cost her life. When my kids started
being affected, I knew I had to do something. In the end I held on to my faith
but I left my abusive husband. I found a new church that has zero tolerance for
domestic violence and that’s where I am today.”
In Colorado, according to
professionals seeking to stop domestic violence and sexual assault, these crimes
have reached critical proportions. Reports indicate that offenses cross all
boundaries of social, economic status and gender identity. In rural areas, isolation
and secrecy make it difficult to get help. Local agencies are working hard to
respond to family violence-related crimes that can become tragedies in the
blink of an eye.
Gotier, executive director of Alternatives to Family Violence, one of the
oldest agencies in the state addressing domestic violence issues, speaks of her
experiences working in the field for nearly two decades.
month, a pregnant woman was found dead in her boyfriend’s apartment in Commerce City. The family
was stunned. They never thought he was capable of committing murder. But the
writing had been on the wall for years,” Gotier says. “When a man or anyone
else starts using violence as a means to cope with life, unless he gets
continuous and ongoing help, he’s not going to change. Many abusers justify
their acts of violence by distorting biblical teachings. And it is the victim
and their children that suffer the most. And the sad part is that if the victim
doesn’t get help, the children often end up repeating the cycle of family
violence. Boys can become abusers and girls can become victims or vice versa. It
happens over and over until the cycle is broken. But there is hope when the
victim gets help. And the church can play a major role in helping them get the
help they need. Churches must not pretend the issue doesn’t exist. They have to
attack the problem head on and create visibility for the issue within their
congregations. They have to let abusers know that violence is not Christian and
that it is totally unacceptable behavior in the church and at home.”
says that secrecy and silence are two of the greatest challenges in addressing
domestic violence in faith communities, and “Families pretend the violence
isn’t happening in the hope that it will go away. Churches who don’t fully
understand the nature of the cycle of family violence use ineffective
strategies to respond including covering up the incident.”
September 2007, a Loveland woman and member of Gateway Baptist Church
experienced the silence that has allowed violence to go unchecked within church
communities. Her son came home and told her a youth minister at the church had
been inappropriate. The mother, who is not identified here to protect the
victim’s privacy, immediately went to the church leaders to report the
molestation of her 10-year-old son by the well-known minister. The church did
not deny what had happened but covered it up and ultimately did nothing. She
later filed a suit against the church. Devastated by the lack of support she
found among the congregation and church clergy she withdrew her membership.
2008, the Denver Archdiocese was forced to pay a whopping $5.5 million to
settle 18 claims of child sexual assault by its priests. The Catholic Church
has a problem so severe that SNAP—a survivors network based in Chicago for church members
abused by priests—created a list of the top 10 Catholic priests who’ve
committed acts of pedophilia while serving as church clergy. Some of Denver’s priests are on
the list. Many are still working.
November, at Central Baptist Church,
one of the largest African-American churches in Denver, a case against Pastor Willie Simmons became
public. The pastor had been caught on audio tape by police investigators admitting
he’d sexually assaulted a former church secretary. On the tape, he basically told the victim he
was sorry and if she kept quiet she could keep her job. No charges were ever
filed. No disciplinary actions are on record of ever being taken by the church
or the police. The victim is now suing the establishment for pain and
did not respond to inquiries by the Denver Urban Spectrum regarding the
November, 24-year-old Reshma James was gunned down while praying in a church
pew in New Jersey.
Two other victims also lost their lives as the husband of James exercised what
he described as his marital rights according to their faith.
the faith community is often the last to come to the victim assistance table. There
are a distinct few who have stepped up to address these issues in the Denver church
community, but if we are to really stop the violence within our faith-based
institutions, church members, ministers and pastors must take a dedicated
leadership role in combating the problem,” says Cathy Phelps, executive director
of Denver Center for Crime Victims (DCCV).
should know; the DCCV staff fields thousands of calls from individuals dealing
with issues ranging from sexual assault to domestic violence. According to her,
religious values are often a major reason why victims remain in environments
that are abusive even when they know they’re potentially dangerous to both them
and their children.
for Crime Victims has done more than just talk about the challenges between
religious institutions and domestic violence and sexual assault survivors. They’ve
launched a program to provide training to pastors and other religious clergy on
how to effectively respond to reports of domestic violence within their
congregations. Phelps says some church organizations really understand the need
to address the issue.
several churches in the Denver
area who have partnered with us to ensure they and their staff are educated on
this issue. Rising Star
Church and Campbell AME
are just a few. Muslim Family Services is a faith organization that has really
gotten the importance of stopping the deadly effects of family violence in religious
communities. Muslim Family Services now offers specific services to address
domestic violence in the Islamic community. They’re making great strides,” she
says. “The church is a refuge for so many.
It would behoove religious leaders to include information about domestic
violence in their pre-marital counseling sessions. One in four women will
become victims of family violence. When
we look at the numbers we see how serious of an issue this really is.”
The Faith Trust
Institute of Seattle, Wash.,
formerly the Center for Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, is among
the few organizations that have taken a firm stand against these crimes from a
faith-based perspective. Other religious communities have gotten on board after
recognizing the seriousness of the problem. Awareness is growing about how
religion can be a cloak for all kinds of abuse from incest to sexual harassment
to domestic violence. This is not only a danger among Christian sects but also
in indigenous groups. Interestingly,
however, earth-based traditions such as Wicca and African indigenous faiths including
Orisa and Ausar Auset have the lowest reports of domestic violence. Some believe it is because of the matriarchal
focus of these faith practices.
is about power – getting it and maintaining it,” says Linda, a childhood
survivor of incest at the hands of a Catholic priest. “The church is a powerful
entity and its leaders represent that power. They can use that power for good
or for evil. The bible, which we know was altered severely, can be very
oppressive to women. In fact, there are chapters of the bible where women speak,
that were removed by male priests. We have to ask ourselves why? Why did men edit the bible in a way that almost
silenced women? I know this is not a representation of the church as a whole—there
are people who are doing great work who are members and leaders. But that does
not and should not excuse the wrongs.”
the Denver Center for Crime Victims lists a three-point
initial response that faith leaders can use as a guide in responding to reports
of domestic violence and sexual assault in their congregations:
the survivor or victim is telling the truth.
that the victim and their family members are safe.
and help the person get help and access resources.
She says, “Religious
leaders and members should move in the understanding that one’s faith should
guide them to health, wholeness and life and not violence, oppression and fear.
A loving God would want you in a safe and loving environment at all times. If
religious leaders implement these three practices when responding to a report
of family violence, it can make a huge difference in the life of the victim.”
information about the training, support and intervention provided by Denver
Center for Crime Victims to its religious partners, go online to www.denvervictims.org.
information about support groups, training and counseling for survivors, call
Alternatives to Family Violence at 303-428-9611.
Editor’s note: Ifalade Ta’Shia Asanti is an activist,
award-winning journalist and contributing editor to the Denver Urban Spectrum. More about her work
can be found at www.tashiaasanti.com