Parish representatives deepen understanding and responsiveness to family violence

Hidden, tumultuous, hopelessness, isolation, terror, despair, withdrawal, neglect, lost, fear, pain. These are just some of the words used to describe domestic and family violence by participants in an interactive workshop hosted by Catholic Social Services Victoria (CSSV) recently.

Sr Nicole Rotaru RSM

Sixteen participants from the western region of the Diocese of Sale, including Bishop Greg Bennet, priests, pastoral associates, parish staff and religious sisters gathered at St Michael’s Parish in Berwick for the first ‘Shining a Light’ workshop on domestic and family violence. It is the first of at least six workshops that will be held across the Diocese of Sale in coming weeks and months as part of a pilot program auspiced by CSSV and led by Mercy sister Nicole Rotaru.

The workshops aim to equip parish staff with the information and resources needed to address domestic and family violence within their local communities and to respond appropriately. It follows recommendations made in the 2015 Royal Commission into Family Violence that faith communities be proactive about educating their people around domestic and family violence.

It is hoped this pilot program will pave the way for state-wide implementation of the workshops for Catholic clergy and parish staff, with a reference group installed to oversee and guide the program’s development.

Sr Nicole, who has a background in education, social work, and creative arts therapy, said the workshops are about understanding the issues and the role that we play in responding to domestic and family violence. The three main things are to be ‘informed, equipped and courageous’.

‘In being equipped, Church, community and group leaders can often be first responders, so with training, we can identify signs of abuse and start careful conversations,’ she said.  ‘And importantly, we need to be courageous – don’t stay silent. Don’t ignore warning signs. We need to be clear that violence is never justified, and we can use our platform and influence to create awareness about the issue and support for people experiencing violence.’

Participants were led through the various types of domestic and family violence – emotional, physical, sexual, spiritual, financial, social, psychological, technology-based, and verbal – and unpacked how power and control is the motivation of such violence, causing a person to live in fear.

Group of people seated around speaker
Participants in the first Shining the Light workshop.

She also unpacked the four gender drivers of domestic and family violence: Condoning violence against women; Men’s control of decision making; Rigid gender roles; and male peer relationships that emphasise aggression towards women. Participants were challenged to ask themselves: ‘In terms of my work as a priest or a pastoral associate, where in my work does any of this exist and what do I need to do about it? Where in the structures, and in what I do, do I need to make changes? Are the men only controlling the decisions?’ Sr Nicole encouraged the participants to check in with each other and to work together to address any systemic issues that may need to be addressed and changed.

Nicole then took participants through some of the signs to look out for and how to start careful conversations with anyone who might be experiencing domestic and family violence.

‘Look out for where are families isolated? Who are the families that are not connected? Who are the kids never going to birthday parties, or never having birthday parties in their homes? Who is not visiting relatives or having people over to visit? If you notice these things happening consistently they can signal alarm bells.’

Some of the ‘gentle’ questions parish staff might ask someone include: Are you feeling safe at home? Are you ok? I’ve noticed you’re not yourself at the moment, is everything ok? And if someone does say they’re not ok, Nicole advised listening deeply, and asking, how can I best support you? Or would you like some support with that?

‘It’s important not to take the power away from the person who is sharing, as that takes away their dignity and their power,’ explained Sr Nicole. ‘We don’t need to know how to solve it or fix it but we do need to listen with non-judgement and know how to respond in terms of what we might, or might not say.’

People conducting activity in workshop
Participants find objects and words from around the room that speak to them of family and domestic violence.

‘And where someone does need further assistance, this is where we can go another step and say, “it sounds to me like you’re in a really difficult situation, would you like to have a couple of numbers that you can ring to just get some advice?’”

And at that point, it’s important to have the resources to share with someone who needs support. SAFESTEPS 1800 015 188 and RESPECT 1800 737 732  are two Victorian agencies that provide 24/7 professional advice and assistance for people impacted by domestic and family violence.

‘In responding to people impacted by such violence, it’s not our role to be counsellors. We are there to listen and refer them on. Those agencies are trained to speak to the person and to ascertain what the situation is and to give professional advice.’

Sr Nicole encouraged the priests and parish staff present to know their strengths and what their role is. ‘We can be pastoral, but we’re not counsellors,’ she said. ‘It’s about how we can listen and how we can give those numbers.’

Speaking about the workshop, Bishop Greg Bennet said, ‘We’re all being challenged. When you hear the statistics, you know it has to be part of our reality too. I think it’s powerful that so many wonderful people want to be here, to see it with a pastoral heart, to ask, How can our parishes become safer environments, not only within the parish, but family homes? How can we support families to flourish? And where there is need, how to identify it.’

‘You can’t leave this experience today and not be somewhat challenged and transformed. It’s very impressive seeing whole teams of people here today and to know that we’re skilling people for this ministry.’

Other participants described the workshop as ‘eye-opening’, ‘enlightening’ and ‘empowering’. Sister of the Nativity Faustina Ede said the workshop opened her eyes to certain things that she didn’t know, or had not taken seriously. Things that she’d have previously ‘pushed aside’. Now she is better equipped to notice some of the signs of violence. ‘I’ve experienced a lot of awareness and enlightenment, today,’ she said.

Peggy Harvey is the Pastoral Associate at St Michael’s. At the conclusion of the workshop, she said she’d found the statistics particularly eye-opening. ‘I knew they weren’t good, but I didn’t realise how bad they are,’ she said. ‘And I always believed that listening was important but today really emphasised the importance of that skill.’

‘I think it’s amazing that the diocese is engaging in this pilot. Domestic and family violence is obviously prevalent, and I think in many ways, silent. During the sharing I was wondering about what’s happening here in our local parish – what don’t we know about or who haven’t we picked up on?’ Peggy has decided to make cards with the phone numbers for RESPECT and SAFESTEPS on them, which can be kept at the parish office, or easily handed out.

For more information, contact Sr Nicole Rotaru.

Information poster about responding to domestic violence

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