Catholic Family Services enlists abuse survivors as mentors

  • November 5, 2010

CFSTO logoTORONTO - With a Nov. 3 Mass at St. Paul’s Basilica, Catholic Family Services of Toronto launched a program to heal the wounds of abusive marriages with equal doses of friendship and hope. The raw material will be supplied by women who have themselves survived abusive husbands.

Women Helping Women will start off modestly with seven survivors learning how to become mentors to women still trying to find their feet in the aftermath of their ordeals. The volunteer mentors won’t take the place of trained counsellors, psychologists or therapists. Their training through the month of December will teach them how to sip coffee and listen, how to be available to women who have been isolated and frightened for too long.

“It’s to have someone demonstrate that hope,” said program co-ordinator Carol Soares.

The mentors have been chosen based on their willingness to volunteer their time and their own success in establishing new lives.

“They’ve moved past leaving, situated themselves with living violence free,” said Virginia Koehler, Catholic Family Services’ supervisor of woman abuse and group programs.

The program will help abuse survivors “become less isolated,” said Koehler.

A constant of abusive marriages is that the abused woman tends to become more and more isolated, and more easily controlled. But you can’t make friends with your psychotherapist, counsellor or social worker.

With nothing more than chats over coffee, phone calls and e-mails, the Women Helping Women mentors will help break down that isolation and show how going back to school, getting a job and raising the kids may be hard, but it is possible, Koehler said.

Toronto’s Catholic Family Services didn’t come up with Women Helping Women out of thin air. Its counterpart in Peel-Dufferin has been running Sistering for more than 15 years. A majority, 55 to 58 per cent, of cases that come to Catholic Family Services Peel-Dufferin involve some form of woman abuse. Koehler and Soares have been getting advice from the Sistering program.

The great thing about the program is that it works, said Sistering mentor Theresa Kaye (not her real name).

Kaye left her alcoholic, abusive husband “probably 20 times” over the 15 years they were married. She finally got out for good when she saw the damage being done to her two children.

“What they were seeing as a parenting relationship was not very healthy,” she said.

It took years, the support she discovered in Al Anon, and finally a real marriage to restore Kaye to a life of her own. When the chance to mentor other women came up, she jumped on it.

For Kaye, mentoring a woman who has survived is the natural way to make sense of her own life.

“Been there, done that, know how much it means,” explained Kaye. “My volunteer life has become a very large and passionate part of my life.”

Over the last 14 years, Kaye has been matched up with more than half a dozen women.

“It starts off as just needing to know you’re not the only person who has gone through this,” she said.

Marla Szabota has been part of Sistering since the idea was hatched in a group session 17 years ago. The 60-year-old grandmother is practically addicted to mentoring and has had as many as three mentoring relationships on the go at one time.

“I got as much out of it as they did,” said Szabota. “We kind of enter each others’ lives in a different kind of intimacy of spirituality.”

Szabota rarely tells her own story of being married to an alcoholic husband for 17 years.

“When I’m mentoring, it’s their story we’re talking about. It’s about them,” she said.

Mentors aren’t trying to fix any of the very real problems that abused women face as they try to start again, she said.

“We’re not counselling. We’re listening,” she said. “We’re not giving advice. We’re not telling them what to do.”

Over the history of Sistering, Szabota has seen the program grow and change in response to the changes in Brampton. These days the women come from far flung places in the world, speaking languages from every continent. But she’s discovered the stories have more in common than the cultural differences might indicat.

“We found we all have similar concerns, even though the backgrounds are dissimilar,” she said.

Breaking the cycle of family violence will require a more open and honest dialogue in schools, parishes and society in general, said Szabota.

“It’s not something people want to talk about,” she said. “It’s not something you want linked to your identity.”

That’s why Koehler was anxious to kick off Women Helping Women with a big Mass at St. Paul’s.

“It’s our community. It’s how we celebrate things. It’s what we do,” she said. “It’s also trying to find pathways into the parishes.”

Koehler believes Catholics are willing to confront the facts about abuse, and that nothing will change until they do.

“For a woman to hear from her priest, from the pulpit, that this goes against canon law and she doesn’t have to stay in a situation of violence, that’s everything,” she said.



Abuse facts

Despite years of awareness campaigns, take back the night marches and a vast network of women’s shelters across the country, some men continue to beat, rape, injure and even kill their wives, girlfriends and children. By the numbers:

  • In 2008 45 women were killed by their partners. Of these, 22 were killed by their legally married husband, 10 by their common-law partner and 13 by a husband or common-law partner from whom they were divorced or separated.

  • More than eight of 10 victims of spousal violence are female.

  • 36 per cent of women who experience violence in their marriage report it to police.

  • More than 2,500 women a year are stalked by a man.

  • Between April 1, 2007 and March 31, 2008, 61,690 women had been admitted to one of Canada’s 569 shelters for abused women.

  • A quarter of the women in the shelter system have been there before. Women returning to abusive relationships and refusing to press charges is common.

Source: Statistics Canada.

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