Holding the light for those impacted by family and domestic violence

As people gathered in silence, in a church in Melbourne’s CBD, a bell tolled 54 times—one toll for each woman known to have been murdered in Australia since 1 January as a result of domestic and family violence. The ecumenical service, Holding the Light, is an annual opportunity to remember and pray for victims and survivors of family and domestic violence. It is also an occasion to name out loud, those who have died in the past year.

The service is one of a number of awareness-raising events held during the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign, from 25 November to 10 December. Organised by a committee of representatives from Catholic, Uniting and Anglican faith traditions, this year, the service was held in Wesley Church Melbourne, in Melbourne’s CBD, with Rev. Rachel Kronberger and Fr Michael Bowie leading.

In welcoming those gathered, Rev. Rachel Kronberger said, ‘We lament that Australian women continue to experience high rates of homicide, violence, sexual assault, and abduction in their intimate relationships, including women of all ages, ability, and backgrounds. 

Intimate partner violence contributes to more death, disability and illness in women aged 15 to 44 years than any other preventable risk factor.

Rev. Rachel Kronberger

‘Today we gather for a service of naming. We will name the dimensions and dynamics of the serious problem of violence in our society. We will name survivors and victims of family violence who are known to us. We will name the God present in and through all our efforts to create lives free from violence. We will seek to hold the light for who are in dark places and those whose lives are emerging from darkness.’

During the service, there was an opportunity for those gathered to light candles for those who were being remembered. Each of the candles were placed on the church sanctuary floor and steps. 

‘The candles are a sign of hope and promise in the midst of pain and suffering,’ said Rev. Kronberger, ‘Let us hold these beloved people silently in our hearts, as thecandles symbolically hold the light for them.’ 

Impact of domestic and family violence on children

Sr Nicole Rotaru is a Sister of Mercy, counsellor and long-time passionate and experienced advocate in shining a light on the devastating impact of domestic and family violence. She is also on the organising committee of Holding the Light. During the service, Sr Nicole highlighted the deep impact that domestic and family violence has on children. 

She explained that the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence (2015) found that children and young people have been the ‘silent victims’ of family violence and experience short-term and long-term consequences. As part of her ministry, she attended to children who found refuge and safety in the care of staff at McAuley Community Services for Women, a ministry of the Sisters of Mercy. 

‘Within the safe and caring environment of McAuley, trust was fostered and nurtured,’ she said, ‘I found that many of the children who engaged with me through play therapy were happy to talk about their paintings and sand trays. Glimpses of what had been a secret, and hidden, came out in their works of art and accompanying stories.

‘The children shared with a direct clarity, an uncluttered poignancy. At times they also spoke a soft tenderness and deep love. They often left me feeling amazed at their capacity to bear much suffering and to show remarkable resilience. It was a privilege to be with them. It is an honour now, to let their voices tell something of their experience of living within family violence.’

Sr Nicole Rotaru RSM

Through a number of stories, Sr Nicole was able to demonstrate the deep impact of violence on children. She shared:

‘David 7 and Willow 6 are brother and sister. They lived with their mother and a younger sister in a McAuley safe house for many months before I visited several times. On one occasion David said he wanted to play in the sand tray. I sat just a little away to give him space to play. He took time choosing objects and placed them with intent in the sand. This is what he said about his sand tray:

The Super Hero is helping the world by saving the fairies and the Skylanders. The dinosaur is going to eat their house. There are lots of baddies coming: snakes and rockets and lady bugs and a gorilla and sharks and evil star fishes and evil feathers. The dinosaur is going to eat the whole entire world. The Bear cards say the dinosaur is cheeky and angry.’

‘He called his work, ‘The Creepy World.’ What was David telling me? He lived in a creepy world where there were lots of baddies. Even the feathers, star fish and lady bugs were bad. The dinosaur is going to eat the whole entire world. 

‘What kind of a world was David describing? Everything was bad. Nothing was safe. It was a world of dread and fear. Yet, in this world a super-hero was helping. I wondered if David was the super hero in his family?’

Sr Nicole went on: ‘Dania 6 and Keisha 7 are sisters. With their mother they fled from a violent environment to safety. Their mother talked openly with me. She said, “Dania and Keisha tried to protect me. They were physically abused by their father too. To keep safe and try to stop the violence I taught my children to not show any affection to me in front of their father.”

‘Dania’s painting “Big Storm” captures the violence. Her strong brush strokes are red and blackish lines of chaotic movement. Her story tells us, “Once upon a time there lived a storm and it was really big. Then a really, really big storm cloud came by. He let lots of rain and the people who were walking had to quickly go home under umbrellas or in a car.”

‘We can hear the tension and intensity building, “… it was really big. Then a really, really big storm cloud came by.” Is Dania talking about the fear, terror and panic that ran through her? Is she saying that “the people had to go quickly” because the storm was becoming more and more powerful and controlling and out of control?’

Sr Nicole concluded by saying: ‘Children are indeed silent victims of family violence as we have seen in the art works and stories of these children. The impact on their lives is great. More than we can imagine. That they have survived is a testament of their resilience and their mother’s love.’

A collection of donations was taken at the service, with money raised going toward the work of McAuley Community Services for Women. 

Catholic Social Services Victoria, together with Catholic Diocese of Sale and Sr Nicole has recently launched an evaluation report about a pilot program conducted in 2022. The report, Shining A Light: A collaborative project working to build capacity for a whole-of-Church response to domestic and family violence outlines a pilot program that successfully educated, informed and equipped parish communities to address domestic and family violence. The program provides a clear pathway for other faith-based communities wanting to increase their understanding of family and domestic violence, and ways in which to address it within their own communities.

For more information, read this article on CSSV’s website, or feel free to contact Sr Nicole Rotaru RSM.

Naming those who have died:

At the Holding the Light service held on 30 November 2023, we remembered and named the 54 Australian women killed since 1 January 2023:

Lindy Lucena

Dayna Isaac

Wendy Sleeman

Krystal Monks

Janet Guthrie

Anastasia Slastion

Margaret Smetherham

Jacqui Purton

Hannah Pringle

Lisa Fenwick

Erin Mullaway

Elaine Naroldol

Emmerich Lasakar

Lynne Wright

Heather Bell

Tatania Dokhotaru

Monique Lezsak

Kristy Armstrong

Marija Ivankovik

Dee Folpp

Christine Rakik

Aleksandra Vergulis

Gypsy Satterley

Jessica Townley

Georgia Lyall

Jean Morley

Gail Patterson

Heather Wilkinson

Maree Vermont

Tiffany Woodley

Taylor Cox and her unnamed 11-week-old baby

Drew Douglass

Katherine Sefranko

Rebecca Collard

Heather Dean

Krystall Marshall

Thi Thuy Huong Hguyen

Lilie James

Analyn (Logee) Osias

Alice McShera

Amira Moughnieh

Catiuscia Machado

Mary Undalghuman

10 unnamed women

Source: Counting Dead Women Australia, on Facebook