Report provides a template for Church response to family violence

A new report highlighting the success of a pilot program conducted by Catholic Social Services Victoria and the Diocese of Sale provides a template for other dioceses in helping to educate, inform and equip parish communities to address domestic and family violence, said Felicity Rorke of the Good Samaritan Inn.

Felicity is the Executive Director of the Inn, a ministry of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, which has been delivering a specialist crisis refuge response to women and children survivors of family violence and homelessness since 1996. She is also the Chair of the Catholic Social Services Victoria (CSSV) Domestic Violence Working Group.

She said when CSSV was looking for a project to help raise the issue of domestic and family violence in the community, they wanted something which could be replicated by others after the pilot project ended.

“The idea behind it was that the pilot project could help every parishioner and clergy to understand enough about domestic and family violence that if they were approached by somebody who was experiencing such violence they would be better equipped to effectively respond,” Felicity said.

“It aims to help people identify what domestic and family violence is and when it’s occurring, and how to have conversations that will be helpful, not ‘blame the victim’, while also being aware of appropriate local and  other services and resources.

“It is also about prevention and about ensuring respectful relationships in parish life.”

The report on the pilot project, Shining a Light: A collaborative project working to build capacity for a whole-of-Church response to domestic and family violence, was launched last month in Warragul, Victoria by Victorian Minister for Prevention of Family Violence, Vicki Ward, and Bishop Greg Bennet of the Diocese of Sale.

The report outlines the findings of the Shining a Light program, which took place between March and July last year in the Diocese of Sale, in partnership with CSSV and Sister Nicole Rotaru, a Mercy Sister, social worker and counsellor with many years’ experience of working with victim survivors of domestic and family  violence.

A total of 127 people (89 women and 38 men) took part in the program, which helped participants to recognise the signs of domestic and family violence and the impacts on women and children; to be more confident in starting a ‘careful conversation’; and to know some domestic and family violence resources in the local community and beyond.

Participants included clergy, parish staff, members of religious congregations, diocesan safeguarding staff and other organisations’ volunteers and staff, including those from across local social service agencies, schools and healthcare.

In addressing the report, Vicki Ward congratulated those involved with the program for instigating conversations that “will ripple out and will lead to other conversations”.

“We know that up to 50 per cent of people in Victoria and nationwide, still think that it happens ‘somewhere else’, that it ‘doesn’t happen’ in their community, in their street, or in their schools, or in their churches. And it does. So, to continue to have those conversations, to plant those seeds of openness is really important. It’s also what develops a strong community because a safe community is a strong community,” she said.

The report outlines six recommendations that aim to enhance the Catholic community’s role in responding to and preventing domestic and family violence in light of the learnings from the pilot program.

Among these was a call to provide ongoing support for the workshop participants, and to secure resources for further work.

The report recommends that follow-up workshops be rolled out across every diocese in Australia and proposes the development of collaborative partnerships with social service organisations and ongoing training for personnel in areas such as health and education.

Sister Nicole, who facilitated the workshops, commended the participants of the pilot program for their insightful feedback, which informed the evaluation report.

“Implementing these recommendations is vital for the Catholic community to proactively contribute to preventing and addressing domestic and family violence in Victoria and beyond,” she said.

“While violence against women is a problem of epidemic proportions in Australia and children suffer the consequences intensely, it is not inevitable. It is preventable.”

Bishop Bennet said the report highlighted that there was a real need to form and educate people in their awareness and their confidence to even speak about domestic violence.

“If there is a challenge for the Church, it’s that other dioceses can learn from this report, and similarly, through their networks begin a similar project to educate clergy, to educate pastoral leaders, religious and those within their parishes … I would encourage my brother bishops, where possible, to begin to move in this direction.”

Speaking at the report launch, Felicity said CSSV was committed to being a platform for collaboration in the awareness-raising and prevention of domestic and family violence.

“No one can do this work alone. It takes a village – organisations, schools, parishes, faith communities – and guidance and an authorising environment established by government,” she said.

“This is what can bring about the change we need to see, if we want a community that is free from violence. We are convinced that we need to work together in a collaborative and authentic way.”