Woman praying

Faith leaders respond to domestic violence and sexual assault of women 

As the name suggests, the Podcast on Crimes Against Women (PCAW) covers a wide variety of topics related to the investigation of violent crimes and their impact on women. In June 2021, I had the unique privilege to interview a diverse group of faith leaders and discuss how they address domestic violence and sexual assault with their congregations. Two of the four podcast guests – Dr. Renee Fowler Hornbuckle and Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum – are women faith leaders who are also survivors of domestic violence. And two others are men – Dr. Omar Suleiman and Fr. Charles Dahm – who have taken deliberate steps to identify, serve and prevent domestic violence and sexual assault. 

Across all of the conversations, their views were strikingly similar as these faith leaders summarily agreed that:

  1. We as faith leaders do not talk enough about these issues with our congregations;
  2. Faith leaders need more training about how to address domestic violence and sexual assault;
  3. The experience of domestic violence and sexual assault is on the rise;
  4. We want to help!

Their unification on the need to respond to domestic violence and sexual assault was refreshing. During our conversations we turned to scripture as a primary, authoritative source on equality, peace in the home, and to validate the sanctity of marriage. One after another, from priest to imam to reverend and rabbi, they quoted relevant passages that identified the rights of women and the obligation of men to care for them. We talked of verses that denounce violence and those that elevate women. We talked about love, honor, and respect. With so much emphasis on love and peace and equality in these religious doctrines, it is surprising to witness a world where 1-in-3 women are experiencing domestic violence. With such a high rate of occurrence, we each are likely to encounter at least one woman in an abusive relationship every time we attend a religious service.

Our podcast interviews did not result in definitive answers for why domestic violence and sexual assault continue at such aggressive rates even within members of our churches and temples. But what is clear, is that violence against women does not discriminate according to creed, as 30% of women attending sabbath services each week are experiencing abuse in their own homes. Knowing this, each of the faith leaders interviewed agreed they will continue to address domestic violence and sexual assault with their congregations. To achieve any level of reduction in violence against women and prevention of future abuse, it is imperative that congregants also participate in this conversation (if and when they feel safe to do so). Moreover, organizations that support women experiencing domestic violence and sexual assault play a key role in this dynamic, and should communicate with faith leaders about the services offered so clergy can get women to places of safety, shelter and support. Each of us has an opportunity to extend support to women who experience abuse, either through referral, sharing information, talking to our clergy, or simply knowing the signs of abuse. Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support and the Conference on Crimes Against Women offer robust educational resources about domestic violence and related forms of abuse. Take a look at the Genesis website and refer your faith leader to this information so she or he can answer the call when a woman is in need. 

For a more in depth understanding of this topic, listen to the four-part series on faith-based responses to domestic violence from the Podcast on Crimes Against Women.

Written by Maria MacMullin, senior director of major gifts and the host of PCAW.