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The Catholic Church as a

Support for Immigrant


Mexican Women Living with
Domestic Violence
Catherine L. Marrs Fuchsel

In 2007, a qualitative exploratory study of nine in-depth interviews was
conducted, using the original method of Grounded Theory to (a) examine
the meaning of marriage and domestic violence among immigrant Mexican
women residing in a large metropolitan southwestern city and (b) develop
a domestic violence prevention model from ndings. One of the categories
that emerged in the process of developing a theoretical model was reach-
ing out for help and womens experiences with types of support systems.
Immigrant Mexican women use the Catholic Church as a type of informal
support. The ndings have implications for clergy (i.e., religious priests,
deacons), as well as pastoral staff (i.e., persons working in parishes other
than clergy), members regarding how they respond to incidences of domestic
violence, particularly among immigrant Mexican women. In addition, social
workers working with Mexican families may have a better understanding
of how this support system offers services.
D
OMESTIC VIOLENCE IN THE UNITED STATES CONTINUES TO BE A
prevalent problem for many women (Parmley, 2004). An un-
derstudied and underrepresented group, immigrant Mexican
women (IMW) experience domestic violence in our communities, yet
little is known about their experiences and the types of support systems
they use vary. A support system is dened as aid that helps someone
cope with, manage, or handle a problem (Baker, Cook, & Norris 2003).
Examples of formal support systems are social service agencies, shelters,
police, and courts, whereas informal support networks include, but are
Social Work & Christianity, Vol. 39, No. 1 (2012), 6687
Journal of the North American Association of Christians in Social Work
67
not limited to, family, friends, and clergy members. The Catholic Church
represents a safe haven and a place of refuge for many IMW and their
families. In their pastoral letter titled Strangers No Longer: Together on
the Journey of Hope, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (2003)
acknowledged the presence of immigrants and their challenges.
Migrants and immigrants are in our parishes and in
our communities. In both our countries, we see much
injustice and violence against them and much suffer-
ing and despair among them because civil and church
structures are still inadequate to accommodate their
basic needs. (p. 2)
Understanding immigrants experience with the Catholic Church
as a type of informal support is relevant and timely because immigrants
reach out to the Church for assistance with problems related to immigra-
tion as well as domestic violence incidences. For IMW living in the U.S.,
turning to formal support systems is difcult due to problems related
to legal status, fear of deportation, and the inability to speak English
(Ellison, Trinitapoli, Anderson, & Johnson, 2007; Murdaugh, Hunt,
Sowell, & Santana, 2004). In addition, the majority of IMW in the U.
S. only live with their husband and children; extended family members
reside in Mexico. These women may have no friends or relatives with
whom to discuss the abuse they are enduring (Marrs, Murphy, & Du-
fresne, 2011), perhaps because they feel ashamed or afraid. Therefore,
women reach out to clergy and pastoral staff of the Catholic Church
to discuss and help cope with these issues. A deeper understanding of
the types of informal support systems used by IMW will likely benet
social workers who are assisting victims in social services agencies.
Purpose of Study
This study examined (a) the meaning of marriage and domestic
violence among immigrant Mexican women and (b) one aspect of a pro-
posed Domestic Violence Prevention Model (DVPM; see Table 1; Marrs et
al., 2011) developed from ndings using grounded theory methodology
(Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Grounded theory has its roots in quantitative
analysis that examines hypothesis, theories, or theoretical models that
are derived from ndings of studies. The resulting theoretical models
are tested in future studies to examine the validity of the proposed idea
SUPPORT FOR IMMIGRANT MEXICAN WOMEN LIVING WITH DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
SOCIAL WORK & CHRISTIANITY 68
or theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Within the last 30 years, grounded
theory has evolved to include qualitative analysis of ndings (e.g., the
examination of themes or categories that are found throughout the
data; Glaser, 2001).
One aim of the study was to examine the applicability of a specic
facet of the DVPM that was derived from the ndings. This facet includes
a set of hypotheses that examines IMWs understanding of marriage and
domestic violence within the teachings of the Catholic Church (see Table
1: Part B) and how an increased understanding of this dimension may
prevent IMW from entering into romantic relationships that may be
domestic violence-related. This specic facet of the proposed DVPM is
in the early stages of theory development and should be tested in future
studies. By examining IMWs social support in the context of domestic
violence, the researcher sought to ll a void in the literature by adding a
domestic violence prevention perspective on ways to reduce incidences
of domestic violence among this group of understudied women. In this
paper, the researcher used grounded theory to examine (a) the theme
reaching out for help and womens experiences with types of informal sup-
port systems (i.e., the Catholic Church) and (b) IMWs understanding
of the Catholic Churchs positions on marriage and domestic violence.
Prevention strategies are addressed, including how the Catholic Church
can take steps toward integrating prevention of domestic violence in
faith formation programs that serve the community.
Table 1: Outline of Proposed Domestic Violence
Prevention Model (DVPM)*
I. Domestic violence prevention model for domestic violence.
/. women's increased understanding o relationships and themselves.
1. Reasons women nd a partner, enter a relationship.
2. women's sense o sel.
B. Catholic Christian women's increased understanding o Catholic
Church.
1. ncreased understanding about Catholic marriage.
2. ncreased understanding o reasons to nd a partner.
3. ncreased understanding o Catholic Church stance on
abuse.
. Domestic violence prevention or immigrant Mexican women.
/. Dating patterns among Mexican women.
B. The concept of familism, machismo, and marianismo.
C. Parents' instruction and description to daughters o what it means to
have a amily.
*(Marrs, 2007)
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Literature Review
Domestic Violence
Domestic violence incidences may include physical abuse, verbal
and psychological damage, sexual assaults, isolation from loved ones
(i.e., family and friends), and control and manipulation by the abuser in
current or previous relationships (Bent-Goodley & Fowler, 2006). It is
estimated that nearly two million women experience a domestic violence
incident per year in the U.S. (Myers & Jacobo, 2005; Rennison, 2003).
Women living in domestic violence situations lack resources and types
of support systems, such as reaching out to friends and family, due to
the isolation they experience from their abuser (Murdaugh et al., 2004).
Immigrant Mexican Women
The Hispanic community, including legally immigrated and un-
documented individuals, is the largest growing minority group in the
U.S. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). In 2006, an estimated 43 million
Hispanics were currently living in the U. S., of whom 28 million iden-
tied as Mexican. Among Mexicans in the U.S., 61% identied as U.
S. native-born individuals, whereas 39% identied as foreign-born (U.
S. Census Bureau, 2006). Statistical data on rates of domestic violence
among IMW is limited because of underreporting to law enforcement
agencies and the need for more rened categories in obtaining statistical
data on the prevalence of domestic violence among types of groups that
fall under the umbrella of Hispanic (Edelson, Hokoda, & Ramos-Lira,
2007; Frias & Angel, 2005; Hancock, 2007). The National Violence
Against Women Survey reported Hispanics experience 23% of domestic
violence incidences in their lifetime (Klevens, 2007) and for Hispanic
women living in rural parts of the U. S., 20% experience incidences of
domestic violence (Klevens, 2007). For this paper, immigrant Mexican
women include women who were born in Mexico, who self-identify as
Hispanic, and who identify themselves as foreign born (i.e., immigrant
or undocumented).
Poverty, low education, poor English prociency, a failure to
understand mainstream U. S. cultural norms, and undocumented im-
migration status are all barriers to the help-seeking behaviors of this
population of women (Frias & Angel, 2005; Brabeck & Guzmn, 2009;
SOCIAL WORK & CHRISTIANITY 70
Vidales, 2010). In addition, ethnic differences in womens responses to
abuse and how they manage incidences of domestic violence vary from
Hispanic women to non-Hispanic women (Brabeck & Guzmn, 2008,
2009; Edelsen et. al., 2007; Klevens, 2007). For example, Edelsen et
al. (2007) found that Hispanic women who were victims of domestic
violence had greater parenting stress due to their childs behaviors and
they experienced lower social and personal self-esteem than did non-
Hispanic women. Hispanic womens experiences with domestic violence
and how family social workers respond in current relationships has
been examined (Hancock, 2007; Vidales, 2010). Additional research
is necessary regarding responding to incidences of domestic violence
within a cultural perspective and how that plays a role in the outcome
of how couples manage problems related to domestic violence.
A handful of investigations have addressed IMWs experience with
the Violence against Womens Act (VAWA), legislation that aids undocu-
mented women with incidences of domestic violence. An undocumented
woman can le for a U-Visa (i.e., an application for legal status in or-
der to reside and work in the U. S.) if she can prove that she was in a
good-faith marriage to a legal resident and is experiencing incidences
of domestic violence. Unfortunately, this is the only governmental
assistance available to undocumented women in a domestic violence
situation (Goldman, 1999; Parmley, 2004). Despite this, the number
of U-Visa applications led is low because women may be not legally
married to U. S. citizens, lack knowledge about VAWA resources, lack
transportation, or be afraid of deportation (Goldman, 1999; Parmley,
2004). Because of these limitations in seeking help and receiving types
of formal support, IMW are likely to turn to informal support systems,
such as the Catholic Church.
Types of Informal Support
Catholic Church
Across literatures, peer-reviewed investigations that specically
examine the Catholic Church as a rst responder with incidences re-
lated to domestic violence are scarce. More common are dissertations,
reports, and editorials that address the Catholic Churchs and clergy
members theological training on domestic violence and how clergy
members should respond to incidences related to domestic violence
(Cunningham, 2005; Gustafson, 2005; Hill, 2007; Strozdas, 2004).
71
However, the Catholic Church has taken a formal stand on domestic
violence. In 2002, the U. S. Bishops assembled together to vote on a
revised version of their 1992 pastoral letter, titled, When I call for Help:
A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence. The pastoral letter addresses
why men batter and hurt their loved ones; why women choose to remain
in these relationships; how the Church responds to domestic violence,
based on biblical texts and church teachings on the sacrament of mar-
riage; and how priests, deacons (i.e., ordained Catholic Church ministers
called to serve), and pastoral staff members, as rst responders, can help
women and children who self-disclose incidences of domestic violence.
Despite these efforts made by the Catholic Church, there is limited
information about how the Church addresses incidences of domestic
violence specically among IMW. In one study, researchers explored how
lay ministers in other Christian Churches can assist immigrant Hispanic
families and couples living in rural areas of the U.S. with incidences of
domestic violence (Hancock & Ames, 2008). The authors developed an
environmentally-based model for domestic violence intervention and
prevention for lay ministers and church leaders, which identied three
ways to be effective with this group: (a) provide material, social, and
educational supports, (b) provide assessments, referrals, and advocacy,
and (c) provide counseling and advice (Hancock & Ames, 2008). It is
difcult to determine how parishes in the Catholic Church respond to
incidences of domestic violence among IMW and whether or not they
use the preventative measures mentioned above. Further investigation
is needed to assess how parishes implement effective strategies to re-
spond to these situations.
Other Christian Churches
Previous investigations have examined clergy members needs in
managing incidences of domestic violence, experience with assisting
women who self-disclose incidences of abuse, and preventive measures
to end domestic violence in Christian churches (i.e., Anglican, Prot-
estant, and other Christian churches; Danielson, Lucas, Malinowski,
& Pittman, 2009; Homiak & Singletary, 2007; Petersen, 2009; Wolff,
Burleigh, Tripp, & Gadomski, 2001). To provide preventive measures in
Christian churches, researchers have addressed the need for Christian
churches to (a) train clergy members in their current position, (b) assist
clergy members to understand the complexity of domestic violence, (c)
coordinate with other community agencies such as social service or
SUPPORT FOR IMMIGRANT MEXICAN WOMEN LIVING WITH DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
SOCIAL WORK & CHRISTIANITY 72
health care agencies, (d) train clergy members on domestic violence in
theological preparation, and (e) provide theological guidelines to ad-
dress incidences of domestic violence in the Church (Danielson et al.,
2009; Peterson, 2009; Wolff et al., 2001), preventative measures and
recommendations similar to the Catholic Churchs. An important nd-
ing is how Christian Churches and the Catholic Churchs responses are
similar. Collaborative efforts should be made by both religious groups
towards a coordinated response to address the needs of IMW.
Womens experiences when they reached out for help varied among
Christian Churches. Women oftentimes felt clergy members perception
and understanding of domestic violence situations led to barriers in re-
ceiving assistance (Copel, 2008; Potter, 2007; Pyles, 2007; Wendt, 2008).
Because of these barriers, women have often turned to family members
as informal sources of support (Bent-Goodley et al., 2006; Fowler & Hill,
2004; Fraser, McNutt, Clark, Williams-Muhammed, & Lee, 2002). More
common are investigations of African American womens experiences
when they reached out for help to members of churches and how women
preferred to speak to friends or family members (Fowler & Hill, 2004;
Fraser et al., 2002; Potter, 2007). Despite the fact that efforts have been
made to address the intersection between religion and domestic violence,
limited information is available with regard to IMW.
Methodology
Guided by grounded theory, the researcher conducted data collec-
tion and analysis for this study. The main principles in grounded theory
include: (a) theoretical sensitivity, (b) sorting, (c) theoretical coding,
(d) theoretical sampling, and (e) theoretical memoing. The method
of constant comparative analysis was used during the process of data
analysis, throughout which the researcher coded and sorted emerging
categories in the data.
Sample and Sampling Procedures
Following receiving study approval by the universitys Institu-
tional Review Board (IRB), purposeful sampling (i.e., specic criteria
the researcher uses to recruit participants) was the primary sampling
method used in the study. The participants were nine women (M age =
43 years, SD = 9 years; Age range = 34-60 years) born in Mexico who had
73 SUPPORT FOR IMMIGRANT MEXICAN WOMEN LIVING WITH DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
immigrated to a large metropolitan area in the southwestern U. S. The
small sample size precludes generalization to other groups of women or
women generally, but ndings are likely to contribute in-depth under-
standing and meaning of IMWs experiences with reaching out for help.
Legal status was not a criterion for inclusion because this might have
deterred participation. Women were currently in an intimate partner
relationship (i.e., dating, marriage, or cohabiting) and were involved
in a domestic violence relationship in the past (e.g., dating during
adolescence) or presently. Seven participants were living in Mexico at
the time they entered into the relationship with their partner, whereas
two of the women met their partners after residing in the U.S. All of the
women had grown up attending the Catholic Church, and more than
half had completed high school and were undocumented in the U. S.
Participants were part of a 10-week, agency-based, closed support
group for women. Each week, the women discussed facilitator-chosen
topics related to womens issues (e.g., domestic violence, parenting,
substance use, nances). Participants were recruited following the sup-
port groups session on domestic violence. Interviews (approximately
2.5 hours) took place at the agency in which the support group was
located, and participants received $45 for their participation.
In this study, an important difference from traditional grounded
theory data collection was necessary due to restrictions placed on the
study by the IRB. Because the researcher was approved only to conduct
interviews at one point in time with each participant for safety and
condentiality reasons, theoretical sampling could not be used. Par-
ticipants were not to be interviewed a second time, and the researcher
could not select which kind of participant to interview next, based on
the ndings in the data (i.e., theoretical sampling). For those reasons,
the researcher chose instead to use criterion sampling, another form
of grounded theory sampling. After each interview and having sorted
and coded the data, the researcher was able to expand on the meaning
of domestic violence and marriage by asking different questions to dif-
ferent participants. By using this method, the researcher was able to
discern and articulate theoretical relationships between the categories,
a method used in grounded theory to develop theoretical models. A
semi-structured interview with specic questions related to domestic
violence and the meaning of marriage and relationships was composed
to guide the interview.
SOCIAL WORK & CHRISTIANITY 74
Data Collection and Analysis
The researcher reviewed and analyzed a total of 288 pages of verba-
tim transcribed interviews and 100 pages of typed memos and journal
entries. A native Spanish speaker from Peru, the researcher conducted all
interviews in Spanish, as the participants were native Spanish speakers
and were most comfortable interviewing in Spanish. The interviews were
audio-taped and transcribed in Spanish by a bilingual research assistant.
The researcher began the process of open coding while reading the tran-
scribed interviews in Spanish and she noticed that similar categories were
emerging that could be theoretically linked to other categories. For that
reason, the researcher decided to translate portions of the transcribed
interviews into English that were relevant categories to the development
of the prevention model. Native speakers from Mexico were recruited to
assist with some of the translation of the Mexican words and expressions.
The data were sorted using the constant comparative analyses fol-
lowed from line-by-line coding (i.e., the process of examining each line
of the data to develop categories) and open coding (i.e., the process of
examining the data more generally to group categories). From the nine
interviews, extensive eld notes, memoing, and a brief examination of
the literature, a total of 231 categories emerged from the data. Examples
of the categories included experiences with domestic violence, types
of domestic violence, childhood trauma, coping strategies, and types
of support systems. These categories were sorted into properties (e.g.,
reasons for marriage, external forces, the meaning of domestic violence,
and families reaction to domestic violence) and collapsed into main
and subcategories in order to develop relations between the categories.
After having analyzed the data and the 231 categories, the researcher
made the decision to begin the process of creating properties to develop
the theoretical model. Researchers using the method of grounded theory
do not use direct quotes from data but instead synthesize the data and
interpret the meaning of what participants are saying (Glaser, 2001), of-
fering interpretation of meaning and understanding of social problems.
Researcher Bias and Methods to Check for Validity
Due to the researchers potential for biased viewpoints as a pro-
fessional social worker dealing with domestic violence situations, the
researcher implemented journaling, peer debrieng, and memoing
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throughout the study to monitor bias. Using feedback to check for
validity, the researcher dialogued with peers, professors, community
members, and domestic violence experts and solicited feedback as
often as needed from native Spanish speakers from Mexico and from
individuals who were also not familiar with domestic violence. In addi-
tion, a research assistant compared the categories and codes emerging
in the data for reliability. Receiving information from various sources
assisted in minimizing threats to validity.
Rich data refer to data that are detailed enough to provide a concrete
picture of what is going on (Maxwell, 1996). The researcher utilized
rich data by transcribing the interviews verbatim, which generated cat-
egories or themes rather than by simply taking notes on the transcripts.
The researcher maintained an audit trail that consisted of transcribed
interviews, dictated documents, memos, eld notes, and a journal to
ensure for credibility and validity of the study.
Findings
Reaching out for help was a theme that emerged in the data. Types
of informal and formal support systems were identied and womens
experiences with the Catholic Church and other Christian churches
were explored. Although some participants discussed that they some-
times used formal support systems, such as the criminal justice system
and service social agencies, the focus of this study is informal support
systems, because IMWincluding the participantsare more likely
to use informal systems. Furthermore, a facet of the DVPM will be
examined. Part B of the DVPM explores a set of hypotheses derived
from the ndings that examines womens understanding of marriage
and domestic violence within the teachings of the Catholic Church and
how an increased understanding may prevent IMW from entering into
romantic relationships that may be domestic violence related. .
Reaching Out for Help: Informal Support Systemsthe Family
When participants did seek familial support in Mexico and prior
to migrating to the U. S., six of the nine women reported that family
members, such as mothers, mother-in-laws, fathers, brothers, sisters,
and participants own children, were not supportive when they revealed
that domestic violence was occurring. One participant reported that her
SUPPORT FOR IMMIGRANT MEXICAN WOMEN LIVING WITH DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
SOCIAL WORK & CHRISTIANITY 76
mother said she had made the decision to marry and must remain mar-
ried. Another participant reported that her father forced her back to the
relationship because he was the father of the children, and the children
needed two parents in the household. Although some participants did
not receive family support, several did. Three of nine participants in
the U.S. reported that cousins, brothers-in-law, and sisters listened to
and encouraged them to think about the relationships and possibly
leave the abusers. One participant described how her mother in Mexico
supported, listened, and did not blame or place judgment on her or her
situation because she had experienced domestic violence in her own
marriage. This participants supportive mother led her to believe that
living with domestic violence is not the norm and encouraged her to
re-examine her situation.
Reception to Disclosure of Domestic Violence: The Catholic
Church and Other Christian Churches
In addition to reaching out to family and friends as a type of infor-
mal support, the participants also reached out to the Catholic Church.
All of the women self-identied as Catholic and as having a Catholic
upbringing during childhood. Four of the nine women reached out to
clergy members in the Catholic Church for help, and two reached out to
pastors in other Christian churches. Three of the participants described
praying and asked God to help them in their relationships as opposed
to reaching out for help to clergy members or pastors. The participants
experiences with Catholic and non-Catholic pastoral staff varied from
supportive to not supportive, and these are described next.
Reception Experiences with the Catholic Church
The participants experiences varied within the Catholic Church.
One participant described how attending a spiritual retreat helped her
learn about forgiveness and obtaining an annulment, the process in
the Catholic Church in which a divorced person can ask the Tribunal
Court to evaluate the marriage and ask to have their marriage deter-
mined invalid. The experience of obtaining an annulment allowed her
to begin the process of healing until she eventually felt she could move
on. Another participant described that a priest encouraged her to help
her husband and instructed that she could not leave the relationship;
however, years later, when she spoke to another priest, he recommended
77
that her husband seek professional help from a psychologist. This priest
gave her spiritual counsel, stated that the outcome of her marriage was
ultimately up to God, and instructed her to pray for her husband.
Two of the participants described how clergy members misinter-
preted their experiences of domestic violence. For example, one partici-
pant reported she felt the deacon did not offer words of encouragement
when she visited to discuss marital problems. The deacon instructed
the couple not to be angry when they spoke and to remain calm when
they engaged in conversation. The participant believed the deacon was
confused and misinterpreted her efforts to explain domestic violence
incidences that were occurring in the relationship.
In another example, a participant initially did not feel supported;
however, after a domestic violence incident occurred, she felt comforted
by a priest. The participant reached out to her pastor in her local parish
to discuss a life-threatening situation with her husband and was disap-
pointed when pastoral staff told her she had to make an appointment. In
fact, a week later her husband confronted her with a gun during a ght.
Fortunately, the participant and her children were not physically hurt
by the gun; the police arrived shortly after her son called the authori-
ties. After her husbands arrest, the participant was able to speak to the
same priest a second time with her son and they both felt supported by
his comforting words. The priest helped them see spiritually what had
happened: God was there in the moment to save their lives and help
them in order to keep living.
Reception Experiences with Other Christian churches
One of the participants discussed how her pastor was supportive
and non-judgmental when she acknowledged the violence in her life.
The pastor emphasized that it was wrong to have violence in the rela-
tionship and commented on the type of relationship two individuals
should experienceone grounded in respect and love, as opposed to
a relationship engulfed by violence. The participant felt comforted and
supported by his words and believed that she could move on from a
very difcult situation.
A participant who reached out to a group of women at a Bible
study was not supported. Women in the Bible study told her she had to
work hard to make her marriage work. The group members advised the
participant to avoid talking to her husband when he was angry and not
to anger him generally because he would hit her. In addition, the study
SUPPORT FOR IMMIGRANT MEXICAN WOMEN LIVING WITH DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
SOCIAL WORK & CHRISTIANITY 78
group instructed her that God was not in agreement with someones
leaving the relationship. At one point, the confused participant con-
cluded that God wanted her to live with violence. Further investigation
is needed to determine how IMWs experiences with congregational
members of the Christian church may offer assistance or barriers in
leaving abusive relationships.
A Proposed Domestic Violence Prevention Model
The ndings revealed womens experiences when they reached out
for help to family members and members of the Catholic Church and
other Christian Churches. From the ndings, the researcher developed
a set of hypotheses that examine IMWs understanding of the Catholic
Churchs position on marriage and domestic violence toward future
research with this population.
Part B of the proposed DVPM addressed womens understanding of
the teachings of the Catholic Church regarding marriage and domestic
violence. The ndings indicated a lack of knowledge and understand-
ing on the participants part about what marriage can look like within
the teachings of the Catholic Church. In addition, the participants
seemed not to realize that the Catholic Church does not tolerate acts of
domestic violence. If Catholic Christian women were better informed
about the teachings of the Catholic Church regarding marriage, and
how any act of domestic violence violates what an ideal marriage
encompasses, women would be less confused about what it means to
marry within the Catholic Church. IMW would likely understand the
dynamics of domestic violence and how the Catholic Church does not
tolerate acts of domestic violence in marriage. This may lead IMW to
make decisions about current relationships that are domestic violence
related and it may assist them in their ability to detect early signs of
domestic violence in dating relationships. This set of hypothesis must
be tested in future studies. In addition, women oftentimes felt clergy
members perception and understanding of DV situations led to barriers
in receiving assistance. Further examination is needed regarding clergy
members perception and understanding of DV and the impact it may
have on women receiving assistance.
79 SUPPORT FOR IMMIGRANT MEXICAN WOMEN LIVING WITH DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
Discussion
Immigrant Mexican Womens Experiences with the Catholic
Church
In the U. S., one out of four women will experience domestic
violence in her lifetime (Myers & Jacobo, 2005), and for Hispanic
women, 23% will experience some type of violent incident (Klevens,
2007). The purpose of the study was to examine (a) the theme reaching
out for help and womens experiences with types of informal support
systems (including the Catholic Church) and (b) IMWs understanding
of the Catholic Churchs positions on marriage and domestic violence.
The women in this study reached out to the Catholic Church and
other Christian churches as a type of informal support. Several partici-
pants reported that the Catholic Church provided assistance with their
relationships, whereas others reported on how they experienced barriers
to getting help. For example, in one case, the deacon interpreted the
participants problems as communication problems, and he decided
that both partners had to work on their anger. Clergy and pastoral staff
at churches must have a better understanding of what communication
problems entail versus possible types of domestic violence. In another
example, one of the participants described how she was told to make an
appointment with a clergy member. The participant was experiencing
severe acts of physical violence and reported that her husbands assaults
were escalating; her situation became lethal one week later. Catholic
clergy and pastoral staff must have a better understanding of lethal situ-
ations related to domestic violence. A key point made in the pastoral
letter (2002) states the importance of assessing the danger a woman
and her children experience and how church members must familiar-
ize themselves with reporting requirements of crimes in their states
(e.g., in many situations, domestic violence is a crime). Often, women
experience embarrassment and shame around reporting incidences of
domestic violence, and they do not report the whole story. Perhaps if
church members at this particular parish had asked the participant a
series of questions pertaining to lethality, her outcome might have been
different. The participant might have made the decision to leave a lethal
situation and nd shelter elsewhere.
SOCIAL WORK & CHRISTIANITY 80
Part B of a Domestic Violence Prevention Model: Prevention
Strategies for the Catholic Church
Recall from Table 1 that Part B of the DVPM addressed Catholic
Christian womens increased understanding of the Catholic Church.
To prevent incidences of domestic violence, the researcher proposes
to extend Component I: Part B of the DVPM to include an increased
understanding of domestic violence among clergy and pastoral staff of
the Catholic Church. This increased understanding encompasses two
perspectives: (a) what the Catholic Church teaches about the sacrament
of marriage, the dignity of women, and the causes of violence (Kreeft,
2001); and (b) how secular groups and researchers describe and un-
derstand domestic violence, such as the causes of domestic violence
and interventions used which mainly originate from feminist ideology
and the family violence perspective (Dobash & Dobash, 1979; Gelles
& Straus, 1988). By understanding these perspectives, clergy members
and pastoral staff will likely understand the complexities of domestic
violence from two worldviewshow women have been inuenced by
both the Catholic Church and the secular world and how to provide
appropriate interventions within the teachings of the Catholic Church.
The U.S. Bishops pastoral letter on domestic violence addresses
how to respond to these incidences. Additional prevention strategies
may help reduce domestic violence among women generally and IMW
specically, including these:
1. Evaluate current strategies that address domestic violence
among parishes that serve IMW and their families.
2. Evaluate whether local parishes use the pastoral letter and as-
sist parishes in developing a comprehensive plan on domestic
violence that can serve as a guide to respond to incidences.
3. Evaluate how domestic violence is addressed in sacramental
preparations (the sacrament of Holy Communion, Reconcili-
ation, Conrmation, and Marriage; Kreeft, 2001) in the local
parishes.
It is important to evaluate how the Catholic Church addresses do-
mestic violence because of the implications it may have on immigrant
Mexican families and social workers. Discussing and evaluating current
strategies and whether the pastoral letter is used in local parishes, clergy
and pastoral staff will likely raise awareness on domestic violence and
begin the steps to develop some type of comprehensive plan to respond
81
to these incidences. In addition, evaluation of how domestic violence is
addressed in sacramental preparations may contribute to the dialogue
about healthy relationships and dating and how any type of violence in a
relationship is not tolerated within the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Limitations, Future Research Directions, and Conclusion
Strengths and Limitations
One of the strengths of this study includes an increased under-
standing of womens experiences when they reached out for help with
types of informal support systems in cases of domestic violence, how
these experiences were helpful with incidences of domestic violence,
and how ndings contribute to the social work body of knowledge.
Another strength is how the researcher was previously trained on how
to educate families on domestic violence and provided direct services
to the immigrant Mexican community in a clinical social work practice
setting. In addition, the examination of IMWs experiences with do-
mestic violence begins to ll a gap in the literature regarding a clearer
understanding of risk behaviors among this growing U.S. population.
Finally, participants testimonies point to an important social support
mechanism for prevention and intervention of domestic violencethe
Catholic Church.
Despite these strengths, there were several limitations in the study,
especially pertaining to researcher bias. The researchers previous
knowledge about domestic violence and her role as trainer on domestic
violence for Spanish-speaking parishes in a local diocese in a south-
western city limit her objectivity. The researcher was familiar with the
position of the Catholic Church on marriage and domestic violence and
was trained under these assumptions. These assumptions might have
limited her ability to understand the perceptions and understanding
IMWs experiences when they reached out for help.
In addition, the nature of the qualitative study and the small sample
size means that ndings cannot be generalized to the larger population,
and the proposed theoretical model must be tested in future studies.
Although the experiences of these women were likely to be common
among groups of domestic violence victims, further evidence is needed
regarding the experiences of IMWs with domestic violence and reach-
ing out for help.
SUPPORT FOR IMMIGRANT MEXICAN WOMEN LIVING WITH DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
SOCIAL WORK & CHRISTIANITY 82
A third limitation in this study was the age of participants and
how the women grew up in a different social and political environ-
ment than younger women. The majority of the participants were older
women. Additional research is needed on younger IMWs experiences
with domestic violence. Several participants reported on their experi-
ences with the Catholic Church in Mexico. Younger IMW who resided
in the U.S. might have provided different experiences with clergy and
pastoral staff of the Catholic Church in the U.S. because the women
would have grown up in a different social and political environment.
In addition, the participants in this study might have been inuenced
by the Catholic Church on what it means to be married in the Catholic
Church in Mexico. It is important to examine these differences because
they may shed some light into how priests or pastors understood do-
mestic violence and how they responded in two different countries.
Implications for Social Work Practice
Findings have implications for social workers who want to under-
stand the unique experiences of IMW living with domestic violence.
Social workers should engage in dialogue and work collaboratively
with the Catholic Church on how to provide effective services because
IMW use the Church as a type of support. In addition, social workers
should advocate on behalf of this group because the Church serves as a
rst responder. Working together with the Church, social workers must
evaluate and develop a community comprehensive plan of responding
to incidences of domestic violence. The Catholic Church is a safe haven
with regards to issues related to immigration. The recent passage of S.B.
1070 in the state of Arizona, legislation that will likely increase IMWs
fears in turning to the criminal justice system for formal support, may
lead these women to increasingly use the Catholic Church as a type of
informal support.
Findings have implications for clergy and pastoral staff of the
Catholic Church regarding how they can better serve IMW and their
families in responding to these incidences. Clergy and pastoral staff may
begin the process of evaluating current strategies that address incidences
of domestic violence. Furthermore, clergy and pastoral staff may use
the domestic violence pastoral letter as a resource to address issues
related to domestic violence incidences. An important point to address
is male support systems in the Catholic Church. Clergy, pastoral staff,
83
and social workers must be mindful that IMW approach male support
system members (i.e., clergy members of the Catholic Church) with
their domestic violence experiences.
The women in this study identied men (i.e., husband or partner)
as their abuser. Some IMW may be reluctant to seek support from male
gures in general because they identify the male support system with
the abuser. However, in this study, several participants reached out to
male members of the Catholic Church regardless and found support.
The ndings from this study indicated that the intervention efforts of the
Catholic Church have value despite gender difference. Therefore, the
prevention efforts have value for IMW. Some participants were advised
by male pastors and clergy members when they disclosed incidences of
domestic violence and they were open to spiritual guidance and sug-
gestions to re-evaluate their situation. Prevention efforts can include
clergy and pastoral staff partnering with social workers who can provide
support groups in local parishes for IMW living with domestic violence.
The support groups in the local parishes can address womens experi-
ences with abuse and provide an increased understanding of what a
healthy relationship encompasses.
Several prevention strategies have been identied for members of
the Catholic Church. One preventative measure may assist clergy and
pastoral staff in the Catholic Church regarding integrating an under-
standing of domestic violence in sacramental preparations (i.e., Recon-
ciliation, Holy Communion, Conrmation, and Marriage) and regarding
the recognition that violence in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony is
never tolerated. Furthermore, other types of Christian Churches (i.e.,
the Protestant and Anglican Churches) may use the proposed theoretical
model and prevention strategies to a) examine womens understanding
of marriage and domestic violence, and b) respond to incidences of
domestic violence by examining current strategies or documents they
may have on domestic violence and comparing it with the preventive
strategies proposed. Catholic Church clergy members can work toward
a collaborative, faith-based-community response to reduce incidences
of domestic violence by initiating conferences with other faith-based
communities to investigate the topic.
Finally, an increased understanding of domestic violence among
clergy and pastoral staff of the Catholic Church would benet all types
of families within the universal Catholic Church. The ndings in this
study may promote dialogue and collaborations between service pro-
SUPPORT FOR IMMIGRANT MEXICAN WOMEN LIVING WITH DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
SOCIAL WORK & CHRISTIANITY 84
viders, social workers, and the Catholic Church with specic recom-
mendations on how to coordinate services for IMW and their families
residing in the U.S. and how to develop strategies to prevent domestic
violence incidences.
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Catherine L. Marrs Fuchsel, Ph.D., LICSW, is Assistant Professor, St.
Catherine University and the University of St. Thomas School of Social
Work, 2004 Randolph Ave. F-15, St. Paul, MN, 55105. Phone: (651) 690-
6146. Email: clmarrsfuchsel@stkate.edu.
Key Words: immigrant Mexican women, domestic violence, prevention,
Catholic Church, support systems
Authors Note: This research was completed as part of a doctoral dissertation
submitted to Arizona State University under the direction of Karen Gerdes. The
author would like to acknowledge committee members Elizabeth Segal and Sharon
Murphy, as well as reader Jodi Swanson, for helpful comments on previous versions
of the manuscript.
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