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1999 NCC News Archives

NCC Family Ministries Director Submits Testimony
to Pennsylvania Attorney General's Task Force on Domestic Violence

August 3, 1999, WILKES-BARRE, Pennsylvania-- The Rev. Dr. Joe Leonard, Director of Family Ministries and Human Sexuality for the National Council of Churches (NCC), is speaking today to hearings on domestic violence held by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Family Violence Task Force.

Rev. Leonard supports recommendations made by the Religious Institutions Working Group of the Task Force, in particular a recommendation that religious denominations which already require pre-marital counseling include sessions on family violence. He includes a call for clergy to be educated "to care for the specific pastoral issues family violence raises."

Rev. Leonard is a resident of Wayne, Pa. At the NCC, he staffs the Committee on Family Ministries and Human Sexuality, which is a network of 21 denominations and 11 family serving organizations, including the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence.

His testimony follows.

August 3, 1999

 I am Joe H. Leonard, director of the Office of Family Ministries and Human Sexuality of the National Council of Churches in the USA. I staff the Council's Committee on Family Ministries and Human Sexuality, which is a network of 21 denominations and 11 family serving organizations. Prominent among the organizational members of the committee is the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, an interfaith educational organization dedicated to helping religious communities confront, prevent and heal family violence. I sit on the Center's Binational Advisory Committee. I am also the author of Tough Talk: Men Confronting Men who Abuse, written for and published by the Presbyterian Men's organization. I have come to recognize that as a heterosexual, white, male person I am given a privileged status in this society simply because of my sexual orientation, my skin color, and my gender, a status that is maintained in part by violence against those who are not straight, white, males. I am glad that the Religious Institutions Working Group of the Attorney General's Family Violence Task Force is holding these hearings and seeking to challenge the religious communities in our Commonwealth to stand against the sexism that facilitates family violence.

I want to speak in support of recommendation three but before I do I want to add a comment about the first two recommendations: I believe they could be strengthened by adding to them a call that clergy be educated to care for the specific pastoral issues family violence raises, especially for victims who are active members of faith communities. Issues such as "why did God allow this to happen?" and "for what sin is this punishment?" and "how do I fulfill my duty to be a submissive wife if I leave for a shelter?" are the kinds of questions religious women may well raise. They deserve thoughtful, compassionate, discerning and theologically grounded responses from their pastors who have done their scriptural and theological homework (see the attached recommendations to the religious community from "A Community Checklist: Important Steps to End Violence Against Women" published by the United States Justice Department).

Turning to recommendation three, I support it for the following reasons:

First, because male violence, abuse and controlling behaviors are such widespread realities in dating and premarital relationships, it is dangerous for clergy to omit exploring the issues of power, control and conflict in the relationships of couples who come to them for marriage preparation. Nearly all couples come to marriage preparation with many taken -for-granted assumptions about male privilege and patterns of male dominance, assumptions and patterns that need to be challenged on scriptural and theological grounds.

Second, this recommendation is crucial because addressing violence, power and control issues in a couple relationship by clergy is almost universally neglected. Unfortunately, these have not been among the issues that clergy include in premarital counseling. Few are trained to do so. This recommendation will help to change that dangerous reality.

Third, premarital counseling has a positive effect as reported by couples in retrospective studies and there is a movement underway among many clergy to strengthen their practice in this area as a way to reduce the relatively high incidence of divorce. So it is timely to focus a recommendation on premarital counseling.

Finally, I believe the recommendation could be strengthened by adding that if violence has occurred in a couple's premarital relationship, the clergy must insist that the individuals deal with it before proceeding further with marriage plans. The pastoral role is always to ensure first the safety of the abused and refer her to appropriate help and to insist that the perpetrator seek professional assistance to deal with his violent behavior. Clergy can then offer pastoral care to the abused and make clear to abusive male partners that only after concrete work on their part to change their behaviors and make reparation to their victim is it morally and theologically appropriate to continue with marriage plans.

Thank you for this opportunity to share my views with you.


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