Chicagoland

Parish ministries working to end domestic violence

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
March 20, 2019

Parish representatives carry signs from parishes that have domestic violence programs during the archdiocese’s Mass for Domestic Violence Awareness and Outreach on Sept. 29, 2018 at Holy Name Cathedral. The Mass is sponsored by the archdiocese’s Domestic Violence Outreach office, which has developed ministries serving victims of domestic violence in about 100 parishes. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Domestic violence is a problem that most priests never address in their homilies, preferring to believe it doesn’t happen in their parishes, according to Dominican Father Charles Dahm. They don’t know what their people know: It happens everywhere, and it affects all kinds of families.

Dahm has been working to bring awareness about domestic violence since 2008, when he started visiting parishes to speak about it. He has preached at all the weekend Masses at about 140 parishes, and about 100 of those have formed their own domestic violence ministry groups.

Those groups, in turn, work to raise awareness of domestic violence, to connect victims to community resources and to prevent future domestic violence by educating young people.

His efforts got a boost in 2011, when the archdiocese started the only diocesan domestic violence outreach ministry in the United States. Dahm serves as its director on a volunteer basis. Since then, the parish groups have formed their own network to collaborate and support one another.

“When Father Chuck goes to a parish to speak at the weekend Masses, we go back and have a meeting on Monday evening to see if there’s interest in starting a ministry,” said Bernita Johnson, a member of the domestic violence ministry at St. Katharine Drexel Parish at St. Ailbe Church, 9015 S. Harper Ave. “If they do, then we have mentors who will go to at least their first three meetings to make sure they have the resources they need.”

St. Katharine Drexel, and before that St. Ailbe, has hosted a series of forums on domestic violence and packed donated purses with toiletries for domestic violence shelters.

Bibiana Tohme has been involved in the ministry at St. Bernadette Parish in Evergreen Park. She said she wanted to help because she is a survivor of domestic violence herself.

“When I was going through it, no one talked about it,” Tohme said.

Now the ministry at St. Bernadette gathers information so that anyone who comes to the parish seeking help can be referred to an agency that can help. They also put information with the domestic violence hotline number inside the stalls in the women’s bathroom.

Tohme said there’s no way to know how many people have been helped by that, “but I’m going to say hundreds. It happens all the time, and bringing awareness to the situation is actually helping people.”

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, people call domestic violence hotlines in the United States more than 20,000 times on an average day. The coalition estimates that 20 people in the U.S. experience domestic violence every minute.

Jan Burdulis, who is involved with the domestic violence ministry at St. Pascal Parish, 6199 W. Irving Park Road, said her group worked with existing parish organizations like the women’s club when it started. Now it is trying to work to bring educational materials for young people to St. Francis Global Academy, which is located on the parish campus, and the parish youth group, but that hasn’t gotten much traction.

Last year, members of the ministry set up a display on the parish grounds with silhouettes of women to represent domestic violence victims. They encourage parishioners to take photographs and share them on social media to raise awareness, Burdulis said.

Dahm is still traveling to parishes, speaking at Masses and holding meetings. At a March meeting at Sacred Heart Parish in Melrose Park, 30 parishioners showed up. Fifteen identified themselves as victims of domestic violence.

Dahm said the sermon he preaches is “pretty powerful” (watch it at pvm.archchicago.org/human-dignity-solidarity/domestic-violence-outreach). In it, he focuses on the “When I Call for Help,” a document released in 1992 by the U.S. Catholic bishops. The document makes it clear that the church does not expect or require anyone to stay in an abusive marriage.

“Clergy are unaware of the size of the problem, or they think it’s too controversial, or they don’t hear anything about it,” Dahm said. “They don’t know how to talk about it. Clergy is the blockage. The people get it.”

Just because priests don’t hear about domestic violence doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Dahm said he didn’t hear much about it either, until he was made aware of the problem and started talking about it. Then, he said, people started coming to him in droves.

“They know if you’re open to listening to them,” Dahm said. “They might reveal a little bit and see how he reacts. If they see you as understanding and compassionate, they’ll open up to you.”

The Domestic Violence Outreach ministry will hold its third annual gala March 29 at the Diplomat West , 681 W. North Ave., Elmhurst, Illinois. Visit www.DomesticViolenceOutreach.org.

In an emergency, dial 911 or call the National Domestic Violence 24-hour hotline at 800-799-7233 or 800-787-3224 TTY.

Topics:

  • domestic violence

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