Growing up a child victim of Catholic Domestic Violence

Growing up a child victim of Catholic Domestic Violence April 24, 2018
By RAWA [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: RAWA via Wikipedia Common


This post is hard to write. I’m not exactly sure how to write it, because doing so is sure to hurt someone, and I don’t want that to happen. And someone will tell me I am committing detraction, and I don’t want that on my conscience, either. And I shouldn’t be writing this right now anyway since I have two-thirds a semester worth of Spanish homework waiting for me.


But I just read Maria Mochow’s piece “Advice from my uncle, Timothy O’Donnell,” and I am reeling.



Mostly, I’m reeling because when I saw the pull-quote someone posted with her article, I thought someone had shared one of my pieces, and yet I didn’t recognize the thumbnail:


“I’m sorry you feel that you’ve been set a bad example by your father,” Uncle Tim said.

“Yes, I answered, “he has been verbally, emotionally and physically abusive ever since I could remember.”


And that’s when I realized I hadn’t written this piece. These were the words of another victim of another father’s Catholic Domestic Violence and of his family and friend’s negligence in addressing it.


I need to write this and share this article because I’ve mentioned my experiences growing up under the tyranny and terror of a Catholic Domestic Violence family. And yet, despite my dedication to integrity and raw honesty in my writing, I’m terrified to sit down and write on this subject. Which is generally a good indicator that I should.


Where to begin? How about with the fact that I was labelled the “trouble maker” in my family and my friend group because I wouldn’t keep my mouth shut? My counselor now tells me that’s because I was the truth-teller, and those roles are often conflated. She tells me that I see injustice and evil so clearly, I can’t be silent when I see it. And that makes people uncomfortable.


I could begin by talking about how, when a friend of ours, exhausted from homeschooling eight children and fulfilling her traditionalist husband’s demands for two decades, had an affair with her husband’s best friend. I remember the rage in my father’s eyes as he said “if that was my wife, I’d have killed her.” Or maybe that was about a different situation, where they had only four kids. I don’t really remember anymore.



I could begin by telling you that since I was 16, I told my mother’s friends how toxic her marriage was. I told them how much I hated my father. And when they looked concerned and asked me how they could help her, I’d answer forcefully, “poison my father’s coffee.” And instead of recognizing my hyperbole as a teenager desperate for her mother’s safety—for her own—they’d look shocked and horrified and retort,  “Marie! You can’t say things like that!”


I could tell you that I begged my mother to divorce my father since I was 17, believing I was sinning in doing so. It wasn’t until a year and a half ago that I learned I wasn’t.


I could tell you that, a year and a half ago, when I officially stopped speaking to my father, I ran into one of his friends, a theology professor I’d always loved, in the halls of the academic building at Franciscan. He asked me how things were with my family. Like Maria speaking to her uncle, Dr. Tim O’Donnell, I tried to be honest. I told him how bad things were. I asked for prayers. And he simply assured me ardently, “Marie! You father loves you! He really truly does!”

No. No, I told him, my father really truly abuses us.



I haven’t really spoken to this professor since. I think he is a good man. I know he means well. But like Dr. O’Donnell, he was a good man who did nothing.


I could tell you that, like Maria, I grew up surrounded by Catholic Domestic Violence apologists, who trained me to believe that divorce is the greatest harm that can befall a family. Who taught me that, if it didn’t involve sex or black eyes, it wasn’t abuse. I could tell you that this Church has failed women in teaching clearly about domestic violence and their true options when they find themselves in that situation. My father never physically abused us, technically, and never raped my mother, as Maria’s father did. But domestic violence encompasses much more than physical and sexual abuse. Domestic violence comprises any sort of domestic abuse. In my family this involved spiritual, emotional, psychological, and financial abuse. When my mother finally left, it involved stalking and threats of violence. He told my mother she could not receive the Eucharist because leaving him constituted a mortal sin and she believed him for a while. He wrote letters to all of our acquaintance that she was psychologically unstable for leaving him and only did so due to my manipulation. He likewise told them that I am psychotic, a narcissist, and evil. 



Oh, and the gaslighting. All the gaslighting. He even effectively taught us to gaslight ourselves. Mom, my brother, and I still do. So that sucks.



I could tell you how shaken I was when I read this article by Simcha Fisher about a married Catholic priest who kidnapped, beat, and raped his wife inside a Church. Did I mention my father once threatened to move us all to Ukraine so he could be ordained a Catholic Priest? God I’m glad that never happened.


I could tell you how surreal I felt reading Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran a year ago, or Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s Dressmaker of Khair Khanabecause I felt like I was reading about my own childhood.



Let me repeat that: I read two books about women experiencing the oppressive control of extremist Islam, and I related so much to it coming from a traditionalist Catholic family rife with domestic abuse that I felt like I was reading about my own childhood.



I could tell you how much rage I feel toward islamophobic Catholics when they deride another meaningful religion for the evil and violence its extremist members commit against women, when those same Catholics deny the violence that its own men (and women) frequently commit against their own wives and families.



Hypocrisy, thy name is patriarchal Catholicism.



I could also tell you that I never knew how my father treated us was abuse until my life-long hero and father figure told me it constituted abuse. I was twenty. And I was shocked. And I could tell you that I still refused to believe that my family’s experience actually constituted domestic violence until my counselor insisted I look up a definition of domestic violence a year ago:


Domestic violence is the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, psychological violence, and emotional abuse. The frequency and severity of domestic violence can vary dramatically; however, the one constant component of domestic violence is one partner’s consistent efforts to maintain power and control over the other.

Domestic violence is an epidemic affecting individuals in every community regardless of age, economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, or nationality.



I could also tell you that Catholics ignore the explicit teachings of the USCCB regarding Domestic Violence:


The person being assaulted needs to know that acting to end the abuse does not violate the marriage promises. […]

Religion can be either a resource or a roadblock for battered women. As a resource, it encourages women to resist mistreatment. As a roadblock, its misinterpretation can contribute to the victim’s self-blame and suffering and to the abuser’s rationalizations.  […]

As bishops, we condemn the use of the Bible to support abusive behavior in any form but the passage (v. 21-33) refers to the mutual submission of husband and wife out of love for Christ. Husbands should love their wives as they love their own body, as Christ loves the Church.  […]

Finally, we emphasize that no person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage. Some abused women believe that church teaching on the permanence of marriage requires them to stay in an abusive relationship. They may hesitate to seek a separation or divorce. They may fear that they cannot re-marry in the Church. Violence and abuse, not divorce, break up a marriage. We encourage abused persons who have divorced to investigate the possibility of seeking an annulment. An annulment, which determines that the marriage bond is not valid, can frequently open the door to healing.



Like sexual assault, Catholic men and women are trained to believe domestic violence is impossible and non-existent in Good Catholic Families. We are not trained to be aware of its signs and forms in our lives and the lives of our friends. We are told that if we follow the Jason Evert Purity Culture Playbook and marry a Good Catholic Man or Woman, we will never ever experience these things. And if a marriage isn’t happy, love and prayer are the only solution.



Wake up, Catholics. Realize that your obsessive idolization of institutions, including the institution of marriage, is destroying lives. Teach your children what domestic violence is. And stop telling women to fix their toxic marriages by loving their husbands more or by being another St. Monica.



Just stop.



P.S. For those of you about to accuse me of being bitter, let me help. Yes, I’m bitter. So suck it.


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  • CS

    Thank you for your honesty. I hear you, and love you.

  • cmfe

    Thank you. This is very brave. The Church needs to wake up.

  • kcl64

    Just to have a better understanding of this, when you told your professor of your situation, what did you want him to say or do?

  • Amaryllis

    At a minimum, take her seriously? Listen to her? Pray for her and her mother, as requested, and with the actual situation in mind? NOT dismiss her story as unfounded and her knowledge of her father’s actions as some kind of misunderstanding? NOT collude in the gaslighting? NOT assume that abuse is “impossible and non-existent in Good Catholic Families”?

    As for more concrete help, I don’t know the specifics of the situation and what she might have needed. But she never got so far as to be able to ask.

  • Eris, elder daughter of Nyx

    I was abused by my father, and before I changed my name, people used to ask me about him. The problem was that I didn’t know, because I had cut off all contact with him due to the abuse.

    What did I want from them? For them to 1) Understand that I didn’t know how he was doing, or anything about him in the present, so I couldn’t answer questions about that 2) For them not to rush to his defense, not try to make me justify my decision not to have contact with him, and not try to get me to have contact with him again.

    People were not capable of the second, so I ended up changing my name so people would not know we were related.

  • Judgeforyourself37

    This abuse should never have to be tolerated. This is not religion this is hypocrisy, and the abuse may not always be physical, it can be in the form of emotional abuse. I know of one such case where the husband can do as he pleases but the wife must do “as she is told.” She must “ask permission” for anything she may wish to do. This woman is a college graduate but she did graduate a Catholic College, that probably perpetuated this disgraceful theory.

  • Judgeforyourself37

    These should have been reported, as they surely needed intervention.

  • Judgeforyourself37

    You are to be admired for your bravery. I hope that life is good, now, and will continue to be good.

  • GoodCatholicGirl

    I can understand how horrible the situation was, because my best friend has been in a similarly abusive marriage for more than 30 years. Her husband has been physically, emotionally and verbally abusive to her and their children. The children have no respect for their father and resent their mother because they feel she didn’t protect them from him. She, for her part, has alternately damned him and made excuses (“he’s not a warm and fuzzy father, but that’s just his way . . . “), which I suppose is partly a way to soothe herself.

  • cmfe
  • Chris John

    Could you elaborate on what you are suggesting in the last paragraph?

  • Judgeforyourself37

    No child should have to either witness violence or be the victim of violence, ever!

  • Marie Kopp

    I believe a good start would be if Priests and Catholic educational institutions focused more energy on discussing what healthy marriage is than on the evils of divorce. I acknowledge that divorce is messy and painful, but it is also necessary when there is abuse. Women and men in the Church have no idea what psychological, emotional, and spiritual abuse look like or that they constitutes domestic violence, and I’ve never heard a homily offering support or help to women (or men) in a toxic marriage. My mother stayed with my father for 25 years despite his abuse, because she valued her faith and thought the Church offered her no alternative. Also, people need to acknowledge that children raised in a toxic, abusive home will suffer far more than children whose parents get a divorce.

    There just is not clarity about what domestic violence consists of, or that the Church supports women and men in leaving such spouses and partners (as, if you read the USCCB’s letter I linked to and quoted above, the Church certainly does). And there desperately needs to be.

  • Marie Kopp

    Thank you for this. I look forward to reading it.

  • Marie Kopp

    Knowing my own mother’s position so well, I understand what your friend is going through. If you think it would help, please send her my article, or at least send her the articles I linked to and quoted: National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) on what domestic violence is, and the USCCB’s letter explaining the Church’s teaching on how to properly address it (which references the NCADV’s definition)

    Sometimes the most helpful thing is simply to let a victim know you believe what they’ve experienced is abuse, and then give them resources that help them understand this (since gaslighting, a key element of psychological abuse, trains them to discount and disbelieve their experiences, and especially that what they’ve suffered is actually abuse. My mom still struggles to wrap her head around that fact.) And then to let them know there are people out there who will support them if they choose to get help or leave.

    The hardest part as a bystander is knowing you can’t make the decision to leave for them (as I tried to do for years). You can only support them, and offer encouragement to make healthy decisions for themselves.

  • Marie Kopp

    Eris, I’m so sorry you went through this. My experience is very similar and I have likewise considered changing my name so as to no longer be affiliated with my father.

  • nicole

    Praying for you!
    Hopefully your futur looks way brighter than your past 🙂

    Can i ask a question? recently my parish priest in a homily told the husbands to take proper control over their families and that they need to be strong leaders in the family. Plus he mentioned the importance of wifely submission. No mention of mutual submission. Do you think those sort of homilies helper abusers in justifying their abuse? Or is this something that needs to be sakd from time to time as it is biblical?

  • Rachel Marshall

    You were not bitter. You were manipulated. Good for you for getting out and speaking out!

  • Marie Kopp

    I’m deeply disturbed to hear this. This mindset is EXACTLY the sort of thing that my father used to justify his control and abuse of my mother and brothers and me. This is not what Christ teaches and is a failure to fully interpret those verses from Ephesians in context.

    Please read the USCCB letter I quoted and linked to above, and consider sending it to your pastor with your concerns. You are welcome to send him my piece as well. This sort of thing is toxic and so harmful to families.

  • judystefencavage

    Personally I had a different violence in my childhood. But this is not my reason for writing. I always was and am aware of that type of violence in families, I saw it as a kid growing up in a very Catholic neighborhood. I always thought it was wrong and always wondered why the one normal parent did not leave. But I have never heard a priest tell anyone, including me that it is a sin if a spouse leaves because of violence that is not physical or sexual. I have been told quite the opposite that any type of violence of husband to wife and/or children is WRONG and should be dealt with, and that’s its okay to leave the marriage. It takes a lot of courage for someone to write what you wrote adn I am so sorry this happened to you and that you were affected for so long. I too hear you and I truly hope you feel a weight has been removed from your heart after sharing.

  • emmasrandomthoughts

    I sympathize with you. My brother and I also spent a year begging our mom to divorce our dad. She finally did. We weren’t raised Catholic, but my mom still believed that divorce was a SIN and was afraid to do it. She and I spend time raging now about how churches love to talk about how sinful divorce is but never talk about the sinful behaviors that lead to divorce.

  • MJMinNH

    Your father is a weak and insecure man. I pity him and I relate to him, for I am also a weak and insecure man.
    I am probably close in age to your father. I’m a father of four myself. I am haunted every day by the overwhelming task of trying to keep my children close to Jesus and his church. It’s a battle against a toxic culture that I fear I can’t win. I am powerless in the face of many threats, and I reproach myself for being so powerless.
    So I understand the impulse that your father has to control his surroundings. In his mind, this is how he protects his sheep from the wolves. I have faced the impulse many times to take more control, to move our family away from society, and to protect my own.
    Thank God, I don’t have a strong enough personality to pull this off. Thank God, my wife talks sense to me when my fears run riot. Thank God, I wasn’t brought up in an authoritarian home, so that even in those times when I wrongly idealized an authoritarian home, I lacked the wherewithal to create one.
    I write none of this to excuse your father or reproach you or your mother. When someone is damaging others’ well-being, it is an act of love and protection to get away from the one doing the damage. You all have done the right thing. Bravo to you. The best thing that ever happened to me was my father leaving my mother and me, but that’s another story.
    But I can see how your father got there. The pressure in Catholic circles to homeschool, to be a man in charge of his family, and to hide boldly from the world is strong. I thank God that there were things about that culture that made me nervous, and so I steered clear of it. But there absolutely were times when I feared I was falling down on the job by not throwing in my lot with it. One of my children graduated from a public high school, and another is in public high school, and I can feel the opprobrium sent my way because of it.
    What I have come to grasp is that Jesus redeems us not by controlling us but by dying for us. It is much easier to try to control someone than to die for them, but to die for others is the most absolute act of love there is. “Man finds himself through a sincere gift of self,” is what we’re told in “Gaudium et Spes.” I will pray that your father and others who seek to control others will awaken to the reality that we love through self-emptying, and only through self-emptying, and that control is the opposite of that.

  • Marina

    I did change my name as well. Best thing I ever did. Having to speak his name or even hearing his name made me feel sick. I’m sorry this has happened to you, Marie and Eris. And I understand the bitterness. I’ve been working on my healing for over 20 years now. I still feel bitter at times. His abuse and my mother’s collusion cost me my quality of life. It upsets me when people tell me to “get over it”. It’s as disrespectful as when people refuse to believe you. Everyone grieves and heals differently. I agree with Eris’ points on how she would like to be respected when she tells someone about her abuse. I would only add, don’t lecture the victim on how s/he must “forgive and forget”, or stop feeling bitter, or angry. It only adds to the pain. We are intelligent enough to know that letting go at some point is helpful to personal healing, but when and how that takes place should be up to each individual, not because of bullying or pressure from religion or a patriarchal society (which women often sadly perpetuate as well).

    Thank you for your honest story, Marie. I love the last line of your piece. Wishing you love and healing, on your own terms.

  • Awas

    My grandmother stayed in abusive, loveless marriage her entire life because her priest told her it was a sin to leave. I had hoped it had gotten better, but it seems like change is too slow in coming. Even if change does come, how does the Catholic Church apologize to the generations of women who stayed in horrific marriages at their advice? And it’s not just the Catholic Church-my Methodist great grandmother on my other side of the family actually tried to leave, but was sent back to a man who hit her in the head with a hammer because it was her “Christian duty.” When do these women get their apologies, and why would I ever return to the religion that did this to them? I am so glad you got out-thank you for sharing your story!

  • Nancy Hollo

    Verbal and emotional abuse of women goes on EVERY DAY in parishes, mostly by men but just as much by other women. Mainly muttered, sometimes shouted or shrieked, verbal abuse is so common that it’s refreshing on those days when it’s absent. Protocol in church doesn’t allow for confrontation so the detraction and demeaning language is ignored. Priests will obliquely address it when it’s embarrassing by preaching from the pulpit on martyrdom and sharing Christ’s passion, seminary prose for shut up and take it. It was only today, at age 64, suffering grief for my husband’s death and my elderly mother’s illness, listening to the muttered “creep” behind me as I passed the sacristan, and after quietly confronting him, I heard the very loud “she’s crazy” as I entered the pew for morning Mass. The pastor, at least 20 years younger than me, gave me a long, pointed look as he spoke of “not being as holy as you wanted to be at this point in Lent” and spoke of how dipping your finger in the holy water font made it necessary for you to take part in Christ’s passion. I finally got it! He was referring to us women, instructing us to be willingly destroyed like Christ at the crucifixion and to let the men do it. Can you even believe it?

  • Yiddisher

    Thank you.