A Call for Clergy to Spotlight Domestic Abuse

Prince George's County, USA - It seemed like a no-brainer to Glenn F. Ivey: To stir a public discussion about domestic violence, he would ask churches to take the lead. But when the Prince George's County state's attorney called clergy, he was shocked at the response.

"I thought it would be an easy sell," he said Saturday at the third annual conference of the Domestic Violence Ministry of the People's Community Baptist Church in Silver Spring.

"But no, I heard things like: 'Brother, it's a little hot to talk about that one.' Or, 'Well, I'll take it up, and we'll form a task force and get back to you.' . . . And then there are churches where the response to the victim is, 'You have to stick it out.' "

It's a topic few people want to talk about publicly, even though nearly one-third of American women report having been abused by a husband or boyfriend and as many as 80 percent of teenagers report knowing others who were involved in abusive relationships.

On Sunday, gatherings will be held at churches -- including Mount Nebo AME Church in Upper Marlboro -- and community-based organizations across the region for "Project Safe Sunday," an initiative aimed at getting people to talk about the sometimes-taboo subject of domestic violence. President Obama has designated October "National Domestic Violence Awareness Month." (Ivey will appear next week at Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington for a continuation of the project)

The goal is to help people understand the serious and complicated problem and to spur them to learn how to help themselves and others get out of an abusive relationship.

The subject received national attention recently when singer Chris Brown attacked his girlfriend, singer Rihanna, and was sentenced to community service. The incident highlighted the need for better education.

Ivey said he was in the car when he heard callers on a radio show say that Rihanna had brought the attack on herself.

Ivey said he "was running off the road" because he was so stunned that women would blame her.

And, domestic violence isn't limited to romantic relationships. On Friday night, Prince George's police charged Ernest K. Bell, 62, in the stabbing death of his son Keith A. Bell, 34. The two, who reportedly had a history of domestic violence, got into an argument that ended with the son being stabbed, police said.

Conference participants said that the personal nature of such violence, the psychological abuse that often accompanies a physical assault and the rawness of it combine to keep the subject underground.

There is a tendency, too, among police, prosecutors and judges to see an assault by a husband on his wife as a lesser form of violence than an attack by a stranger, Ivey said.

In one case, a man who cut his wife's throat was in and out of jail, having posted bond, faster than it took the woman to be released from the hospital. A judge declined to raise the $75,000 bond (which required him to pay 10 percent), Ivey said.

Ivey started calling churches six years ago to ask for their participation in Project Safe Sunday. Some clergy, he said, argued with him about the acceptability of domestic violence, citing passages in the Bible that could be misinterpreted as supporting it.

He said he told one clergyman that the Bible calls for a man to treat his wife as Jesus treated the church.

"He said: 'You are a lawyer. You can't talk to me about Scripture,' " Ivey said. "This is why we need the minister-to-minister contact to increase" on the subject.

More than 50 social workers, government officials and advocates attended the conference, held at Patricia Simmons-Kelly's church. The parishioner was killed by her husband in the building's parking lot in February. He was sentenced last month to life in prison without parole.

"This is a call to action for your children and your children's friends and your friend's children," said Denise Scott, a ministry member. She told the crowd that she had been beaten by her boyfriend when she was young and wore turtlenecks to cover the bruises.

Karla Smith, chief of the family violence division of the Montgomery County state attorney's office, told conference participants about the newly opened Family Justice Center, where victims can receive social and legal services. (The 24-hour hotline is 240-777-4000.)

Ivey urged the crowd to ask legislators to stop ignoring the issue.

For example, he said, it was time for Maryland to eliminate the marriage privilege law, which allows a person to refuse to testify against a spouse in a domestic violence case one time. Such an allowance has been eliminated in child abuse cases. About 40 percent of the domestic violence cases in Prince George's are dropped because abused wives refuse to testify against their husbands.

"We don't have enough people who want to get involved," Ivey said. "It is time that we recognize that the churches have to take the lead. . . . This is the place of first responders, the place women come when they need help."

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-SAFE. Staff writer Yamiche Alcindor contributed to this report.