Been working for the church
While your life falls apart,
Singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart,
Every spark of friendship and love
Will die without a home.
-from “Intervention” by Arcade Fire (Neon Bible)
I learned this morning of a local news story involving a courageous woman: survivor of domestic violence, teacher, mother of four. Her name is Carie Charlesworth, and this is what I know about her story. Charlesworth was a second-grade teacher at Holy Trinity School, where her four children were enrolled. On January 28, after what she calls “a very bad weekend,” Charlesworth informed her principal, Francie Wright, that her ex-husband had a pattern of abusive and unpredictable behavior and that she feared for her safety. In her January 29 Letter to Parents, principal Francie Wright explained that Holy Trinity School was on precautionary lockdown from 12:40-1:10pm on January 28 because the vehicle belonging to Mr. Charlesworth was in the back parking lot of the school. By the time the police arrived, Mr. Charlesworth had left the premises. Extra security measures were taken at the school that week, and, according to the Letter:
Mrs. Charlesworth and her children are on an indefinite leave of absence. We request that you keep them in your prayers.
On April 11, Carie Charlesworth received notice of her termination of employment. The letter, on letterhead of the Diocese of San Diego, is from Tom Beecher, Director, Office for Schools, and Bobbie Espinosa, Director, Office for Human Resources. The letter informs Charlesworth that she will receive a salary until August 9, but:
In the interest of the safety of the students, faculty, and parents at Holy Trinity School, we simply cannot allow you to return to work there or, unfortunately, at any other school in the Diocese. Therefore, you will not receive a teaching agreement for the 2013-2014 school year.
I’m sure she felt a great deal of consolation when Beecher and Espinosa had the heart to conclude by writing:
Please understand that this was a very difficult decision to made and we are deeply, deeply sorry about this situation. We will continue to pray for you and your family.
Been working for the church
While your life falls apart…
I called Holy Trinity School for more information, and I was told to call the Diocese of San Diego Office for Schools. I left a message. I also called the Diocese of San Diego Office for Human Resources, and left a message. No one has returned my phone calls.
Carie Charlesworth was interviewed on NBC7, and her lawyer plans to sue the Diocese. I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t know the legal grounds on which her case would proceed. When I first read about this case, I thought to myself, “Surely this is illegal. How can an employer fire an employee on the grounds that she has been and is likely to be a victim of violence?” So, I’m glad that Charlesworth has secured a lawyer, but I hope it does not come to a court battle. Would the Diocese really spend money to defend their decision in court? How much money? Still, as a theological ethicist, I see problems beyond the legal issues. I find the decision of Francie Wright, Rev. Brian Hays, Tom Beecher, and Bobbie Espinosa deeply problematic on theological and ethical grounds. I encourage all leaders within the Diocese to come up with a better solution to this crisis than dismissal of the most vulnerable people. You cannot simply say that you are sorry and that you will pray for this family. Your decisions, even if motivated by the very good intention of keeping children and staff at the school safe from a dangerous predator, only exacerbate the vulnerability of Carie and her children. They deserve better. There must be another way. The website of Holy Trinity boldly proclaims:
Be it known to all who enter here
That Christ is the reason for this school
That unseen but ever present Teacher in its classes
The model of its faculty and the inspiration of its students
The thing is, Jesus had a different way of responding to the victimization of women and children.
The Diocese of San Diego must clearly denounce intimate partner violence and stand in solidarity with survivors of domestic violence. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ own document, When I Call For Help, offers the following suggestions:
What You Can Do to Help. We offer the following practical suggestions for several audiences.
For Abused Women
• Begin to believe that you are not alone and that help is available for you and your children.
• Talk in confidence to someone you trust: a relative, friend, parish priest, deacon, religious sister or brother, or lay minister.
• If you choose to stay in the situation, at least for now, set up a plan of action to ensure your safety. This includes hiding a car key, personal documents, and some money in a safe place and locating somewhere to go in an emergency.
• Find out about resources in your area that offer help to battered women and their children. The phone book lists numbers to call in your local area. Your diocesan Catholic Charities office or family life office can help. Catholic Charities often has qualified counselors on staff and can provide emergency assistance and other kinds of help.
• The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides crisis intervention and referrals to local service providers. Call 800-799-SAFE (7233) or 800-787-3224 (TTY). E-mail assistance is available at email@example.com. In some communities, cell phones programmed to 911 are made available to abused women….
For Pastors and Pastoral Staff
Make your parish a safe place where abused women and abusive men can come for help. Here are some specific suggestions:
• Include information about domestic violence and local resources in parish bulletins and newsletters and on websites.
• Place copies of this brochure and/or other information, including local telephone numbers for assistance about domestic violence, in the women’s restroom(s).
• Keep an updated list of resources for abused women. This can be a project for the parish pastoral council, social justice committee, or women’s group.
• Find a staff person or volunteer who is willing to receive in-depth training on domestic violence; ask this person to serve as a resource and to help educate others about abuse.
• Provide training on domestic violence to all church ministers, including priests, deacons and lay ministers. When possible, provide opportunities for them to hear directly from victims of violence.
• Join in the national observance of October as “Domestic Violence Awareness Month.” Dedicate at least one weekend that month to inform parishioners about domestic abuse. During that month, make available educational and training programs in order to sensitize men and women, girls and boys to the personal and social effects of violence in the family. Help them to see how psychological abuse may escalate over time. Teach them how to communicate without violence.
The problem, of course, in Carie Charlesworth’s case, is that SHE FOLLOWED THESE GUIDELINES AND WAS FIRED. She thought that help was available, and she brought her situation to the attention of her supervisor at the school. In the NBC7 interview, she explains the negative consequences of the Diocesan decision for other survivors of domestic violence in that it will likely have a chill-effect:
I mean that’s why women of domestic violence don’t come forward, because they’re afraid of the way people are going to see them, view them, perceive them, treat them.
If we fire the victims, who wins? What message does that send to other women facing situations similar to Charlesworth? The implication of this decision by the Diocese is that other survivors will think twice before seeking help. This decision tells other women facing abuse that unless they want to sacrifice their job and their children’s education, they should remain silent.
Domestic violence is clearly contrary to the dignity and flourishing of women and children. Violence against women is deeply rooted in cultural traditions of patriarchy sanctified by Christianity. Wife battering, while now explicitly condemned by the Church, is rooted in beliefs of women’s inferiority, views sustained by the Church in previous eras. Violence against women remains a threat to the well being of women and to the institution of marriage itself. According to the United Nations World Population Fund, violence kills and disables as many women between the ages of 15 and 44 as cancer, and its toll on women’s health surpasses that of traffic accidents and malaria combined. Worldwide, one in five women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime, and one in three women will have been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused, usually by a family member or an acquaintance. Survivors of gender-based violence often experience life-long emotional distress. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once said that “A woman who lives in the shadow of daily violence is not truly free.” The UN Millennium Project affirms that freedom from violence, especially for girls and women, is a human right essential to a healthy, free, and productive life.
I understand that the parents of other children at Holy Trinity were and are concerned for the safety of their children. This is a real concern, and the Diocese should address it. A school should be a safe place. Children should be protected. BUT NOT BY SENDING AWAY THE FAMILY MEMBERS WHO ARE UNDER THREAT OF FUTURE VIOLENCE. Maybe the families of Holy Trinity could put together a volunteer security team to patrol school grounds, or hire professional security guards. Maybe the Diocese could transfer Charlesworth to another paid position. Community members could offer supportive services to assist the family in securing the cooperation of law enforcement. There must be other creative solutions. How can a community of faith send away the members most in need of assistance, on the grounds that they are a community of faith? If the Church is to be a safe space for survivors, Church leaders cannot fire victims who disclose their vulnerability. If you want to chime in, please do so below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Center for Community Solutions operates a 24-hour bilingual crisis hotline in San Diego: just call 1.888.385.4657
The Diocese of San Diego’s Code of Ethical Standards includes the following expectations: