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ROME – For nearly three decades Christauria Welland and her husband Michael Akong have been traveling the world educating couples on the reality of domestic abuse and offering both families and local church leaders various resources for prevention.

According to Welland, who will be speaking alongside her husband at the World Meeting of Families in Rome this week, roughly 30 percent of women over 35 worldwide have been victims of either physical or sexual violence at least once in their lives.

In terms of numbers, “It’s enormous, it’s huge,” Welland told Crux.

While there is no specific information about the number of Catholic women affected by domestic violence, Welland said she and a friend once crunched the numbers based on various studies and research on population statistics.

Estimating that there are around 500 million Catholic women over the age of 15, Welland said that of these 500 million, an estimated 125-150 million of them “have been affected by physical or sexual violence at least once in their lifetime,” and that number is likely “a huge undercount,” since many incidents never get reported.

“These are staggering numbers,” Welland said, but noted that regardless of the statistics, the church has very few resources on the topic of domestic violence.

“It’s not really part of anyone’s formation: How to give a helpful, compassionate, and effective response to domestic violence in Catholic families, specifically. It’s not something that any bishop, sister, educator, catechist, or family life minister has ever studied before because there was no material out there,” she said.

The reason for this, Welland believes, is a lack of awareness about the issue, as well as denial, as many people believe domestic violence is “something that happens out there, but it doesn’t happen in my family.”

This lack of material is one of the reasons Welland and her husband decided to publish their book, How Can We Help to End Violence in Catholic Families? ahead of the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. The book is now in its third edition in English.

Welland, a specialist in domestic violence between couples – known as “intimate partner violence” (IPV) among experts – has worked as a catechist with families for 50 years, and as a clinical psychologist for 25 years.

In 2014, she and Akong founded the Pax in Familia organization, dedicated to peace and the prevention of violence and abuse in Catholic families, as a result of Pope Francis’s frequent condemnations of violence against women.

Together they give online courses through their organization and travel the world, mostly Latin America and, increasingly, Africa, offering workshops to families, priests, bishops, religions, and lay people to raise awareness of the problem of IPV in Catholic homes and to teach prevention.

It happens in Catholic families, too

According to Welland, domestic violence encompasses physical and sexual violence between couples, as well as child abuse and elder abuse, whereas IPV specifically refers to violence between couples.

Violence that falls under the umbrella of IPV, she said, can range from physical and sexual violence, to emotional, psychological, and economic violence, as well as controlling and coercive behavior. However, the main four categories are: physical, sexual, economic, and psychological violence.

In terms of Catholic couples, Welland said that the use of religion as a means of coercion is especially prominent, not just in Catholicism, but in any religion.

“That would be more in terms of psychological violence, emotional violence, and sometimes sexual violence,” Welland said. “For example, ‘You have to forgive me because you’re Catholic. Your emotions are irrelevant here, you’re a Catholic and you have to forgive me.’”

Many abusive husbands, she said, will use the scripture verse about wives being submissive to their husbands to justify violence. They will take it out of context and say, “You have to do whatever I tell you,” or, “You’re my wife: I have a right to have sex with you however I want, whenever I want and it’s your duty to submit.”

While some of this abuse might happen anyway, the use of religion adds “a different edge” and makes it more difficult for victims to stand up for themselves or acknowledge their rights, “because they think and believe that what is being said is true,” Welland said.

She said there are still some Christian or Catholic counselors who will tell women that they can’t leave their husbands if they are violent, but have to find a way to cope instead, which is also problematic.

Pope Francis and violence against women

Welland said Pope Francis, since his election in 2013, has increasingly drawn the world’s attention to the problem of domestic violence and, specifically, violence against women, which has helped put the issue on the global Catholic radar.

Not only does Francis traditionally dedicate his Jan. 1 homily for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, to ending violence against women, but he has repeatedly condemned the issue in speeches and documents throughout his nine years in office.

Many of the quotations Welland uses in her materials, including the latest version of her book, come from Francis’s 2016 exhortation Amoris Laetitia, on love in the family.

Not only does the pope mention it throughout the document, but he also speaks about different forms of violence, including physical, sexual, and emotional violence, as well as separation among couples and the need for better support, especially in terms of professionals trained in the area.

Especially useful, she said, are paragraphs five and 241, and the entirety of the fourth chapter, which is an extended reflection on First Corinthians Chapter 13, which contains the popular verse that begins, “love is patient, love is kind…”

“It’s so important for people to understand about human rights, to understand about psychological well-being, to understand about violence prevention,” she said, adding, “Our Holy Father has been very, very clear about it and he continues to be clear about it.”

She also pointed to sections of Pope Francis’s 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti on social friendship that highlight the issue of violence against women, as well as forgiveness and reconciliation, that she said have been helpful.

“He gets passionate about it, which is really exciting for us who work in this field, to have this kind of ally,” she said.

One of the most useful points the pope has made, especially in Amoris Laetitia, Welland said, is the need for “accompaniment” of families. Priests, religious, educators and catechists all ought to have training on domestic violence when they go into family ministry, she said, saying they should also know some professionals if couples need further assistance.

“We have to accompany families and walk with them where they are, which is really very beautiful advice,” she said. “You meet somebody where they are, and you walk with them and try to help them get to the next level.”

Offering resources

Welland said that while levels of domestic violence have been going down, the triggers for domestic violence – which include stressors such as war, poverty, unemployment – have risen in recent years due to the coronavirus pandemic and families being stuck at home and, in many cases, strapped for cash, and now, the war in Ukraine, which has caused inflation to spike and has added further pressure to families.

Although it’s still too early to get conclusive statistics for the pandemic, it is clear that help lines “were getting more calls on domestic violence, and the rate of deaths went up,” as did the number of incidents in the home.

Getting the invitation to speak at this year’s World Meeting of Families in Rome, which is taking place June 22-26, in this context was both exciting and an opportunity to provide resources for an extremely relevant, yet under-addressed topic, Welland said.

Welland’s and Akong’s presentation, which will be given Friday, June 24, will last just 15 minutes, and will cover “the basics,” with the aim of providing listeners an overview of the definition and expressions of domestic violence, as well as some strategies for prevention and tools for priests and bishops to take back to their parishes and dioceses.

According to Welland, the greatest risk factor in being either a victim or a perpetrator of domestic violence is growing up in a violent home, where abuse was considered normal, and where children didn’t learn respect or self-management strategies or how to react when they are upset.

“All of these things can be taught. If their parents didn’t teach them, it’s not too late. They can learn it now,” she said, adding, “All of those things are really important, and they will really add to our ability to prevent violence in the future.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen