ROME – Clinical psychologist and specialist in intimate partner violence Christauria Welland has long asked that Church leaders pay more heed to victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, and she is now making a special appeal to participants in the upcoming Synod of Synodality to address the issue.

In a letter sent to dozens of delegates at last year’s October session of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality, Welland said, “We can no longer turn a blind eye to these insults to the rights and the sanctity of the human person!”

It is time, she said, “to be outraged, to break the silence, to follow in our Holy Father’s courageous footsteps, to denounce what we all know is evil, and to take collective and effective action.”

Welland has been a clinical psychologist for 25 years and a catechist for over 50 years. She and her husband Michael Akong for two decades have traveled the world educating pastoral agents, professionals, and couples on the reality of domestic abuse and offering resources in treatment prevention for survivors and those who abuse their partners.

In 2014, they founded the Pax in Familia organization dedicated to the prevention of violence and abuse in Catholic families, seeing an opportunity given Pope Francis’s repeated condemnations of violence against women.

Together they give online courses through their organization and travel the world, mostly Latin America, Africa and Asia, offering workshops to families, priests, bishops, religious, and lay people to raise awareness of the problem of so-called Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) in Catholic homes and to teach prevention skills. They were among the speakers at the World Meeting of Families in Rome in 2022 and in Philadelphia in 2015.

Ahead of the synod’s second session, set for October of this year, Welland is reiterating her appeal to synod delegates.

In her letter, Welland said she wanted to reach out to synod participants on behalf of “the silent, the unheard, the neglected and marginalized victims and survivors of domestic violence.”

Drawing on her decades of expertise as a catechist and as a psychologist, Welland said she has heard many hundreds of tragic stories from Catholic men, women, and children who experience violence in the home, most of whom “received little or no support from their parish.”

Many victims choose not to speak out due to either shame or ignorance, she said, saying some have been blamed for the violence and have been told to simply bear it.

“May their cries for help not remain unheard in this great gathering! May the serious threat that domestic violence is to the well-being of Catholic families be acknowledged and included in your prayer and your discussions,” she said.

Welland asked that pastoral responses to domestic violence and preventative measures be both comprehensive and compassionate.

While the clerical sexual abuse scandals and the impact they have had on the Church are “truly terrible,” she said, violence against women and children in Catholic families “affects many more millions of our people.”

She quoted the synod’s working document, called the Instrumentum Laboris, which asks what steps can be taken to offer justice to victims and survivors of sexual abuse and abuses of power and conscience by Church representatives.

“I propose to you and to the Synod that this extremely valid and vital question should be asked not only for victims/survivors of clerical and ecclesial abuse, but for all the victims/survivors of abuse of every kind, including in our Catholic families,” she said.

Countless victims suffer silently and, in some countries and cultures, are expected “to endure these indignities and real threats to their physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual health and life without complaint.”

Welland noted that currently, there is no provision in the Church’s Code of Canon Law that offers an abused spouse grounds for a declaration of nullity on account of abuse, since the abuse “normally does not happen at the time of consent.”

Citing statistics from the World Health Organization, Welland said on average 30 percent of women over 15 years of age worldwide have been victims of either physical or sexual violence at least once in their lives.

“Research has shown that families who practice religion, including Christianity, do not have a lower rate of domestic violence,” she said, saying there are currently 500 million Catholic women over the age of 15, and that if the 30 percent is applied to this number, then an estimated 125-150 million of them have been affected by physical or sexual violence at least once in their lifetime.

What this means, she said, is that “As you look around at your congregation on a Sunday, one out of every five, four, three or even two of the women looking back at you has experienced this devastating life event.”

The numbers might be more or less depending on the region, she said, saying she realizes these statistics might be difficult to believe since many women stay silence about their abuse.

She lamented that domestic violence is not mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church or the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, “yet its victims are among us by the millions.”

Welland then offered several suggestions for what she said are essential areas of pastoral awareness and action regarding violence in Catholic families, stressing the importance of being aware of survivors’ needs and to focus on healing.

Solutions must also be offered for abusers who inflict violence, she said, saying many of them learn violent behavior from growing up in a violent environment, and apart from accountability, they need to learn new relationship skills.

Therefore, these healthy relationship skills must also be taught to children and young people, as well as young couples, she said, and insisted that the problem of domestic violence and prevention be brought up in marriage prep courses.

For families affected by domestic violence, “it is our pastoral response that will begin the process of healing and transformation,” she said, saying this response must focus on Christ.

Drawing on her experience working with abusive men, Welland said a “new installation paradigm” is needed that entails “learning another way to be a man” and requires shared, knowledge, deep personal work, and forging new ways of relating to others, especially women and children.

She said the abuse of power is present all over the world, and in homes as well as rectories and parishes. However, she insisted that the “parallel task” of fighting the abuse of power in homes “does not in any way diminish” the vital importance of overcoming “the clericalism and machismo that exclude women and the marginalized from the processes of discernment.”

Welland pointed to the importance in the transformation process of being humble and listening, and of fostering a readiness to change, saying, “We can teach these essential self-regulation and relationship skills to those with whom we come in contact, in the privileged settings of Catholic education and catechesis, since they are entirely compatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

“Let us not forget the voiceless, the forgotten, the hidden, those who suffer in silence, in fear, and often with deep shame,” she said, saying her request to synod delegates “is to keep present during your Synodal discussions the need for awareness of violence in Catholic families.”

She also asked delegates to focus on the need to “train pastoral agents so that they will respond with compassion, and make the necessary referrals for assistance for professional, practical, and spiritual aid.”

“Let us prioritize training for building healthy and respectful relationships between young people and men and women, based on our God-given equality and intrinsic dignity,” she said.

In addition to synod delegates, Welland also wrote directly to Pope Francis, as she has on several other occasions.

In a February 2021 letter to the pope, Welland asked that he open a training and pastoral studies center first in Rome, and then in other parts of the world.

At these centers, “pastoral agents of all kinds could learn to respond to violence against women in Catholic families, to work for an end to men’s violence against women, and to learn to incorporate violence prevention strategies into all catechesis and education from childhood to adulthood,” she said.

She noted that in the synod’s continental documents, there was frequent mention made of violence against women and their desire to be “instruments of healing and peace in families.”

Welland voiced gratitude to synod delegates who pledged to raise the issue, as well as for the October 2023 session’s closing synthesis document, which acknowledge that the “cry of those who are poor resounded among us,” including victims of violence.

She lauded the fact that the synthesis document repeatedly mentions the need to listen to those who have suffered in order to learn from them, and said she and Akong continue to pray with men and women around the world that greater strides be made in listening and responding to them with efficacy and compassion.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen