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Relationship Safety: A Guide for Catholic College Leaders


Catholic campuses can take some easy steps to send the message that the institution cares about relationship safety

By Sharon A. O’Brien


In episode four of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ podcast, Made for Love, titled "When Love Means Leaving (Domestic Abuse)", Sara Perla describes the Catholic response to domestic abuse by telling the compelling story of Denise. Before her marriage, Denise had serious doubts about her nuptials but had neither the words to describe her concerns nor the support to cancel the wedding. After 27 years of being in an abusive marriage, Denise finally filed for divorce.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines intimate partner violence (IPV) as a pattern of physical and/or sexual violence, stalking, or psychological harm to a current or former date, partner, or spouse. Sexual intimacy is not required. The CDC has also determined that nearly half of female victims of abuse (47%) and more than one-third of male victims (39%) are between 18 and 24 years of age when they first experience violence by an intimate partner. This means that Catholic college and university leaders — faculty, mission officers, student affairs and academic officers, and others — have a chance to help people in this vulnerable age group know what IPV is and how to seek safety and healing.

Hotlines and Lifelines

Even today, Denise’s story remains a common one. The fiancĂ©e, usually (but not always) the woman, senses something is wrong but struggles to describe it. If she shares her concern with a trusted soul, she is likely to hear, “It’s common to have cold feet before marriage.” A more helpful response would be, “Thanks for sharing. I believe you. I am not an expert, but I wonder if this is abusive behavior. The National DV Hotline is a trusted resource. Their number is 800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY at 800-787-3224. Should we give them a call now?”





But a well-considered response like that doesn’t come easily to most people. Fortunately, thanks to the work of academicians and researchers, among others, National Resource Centers offer assistance on many aspects of abuse. Catholics for Family Peace, an initiative of the National Institute for the Family, has as its goal providing support to dioceses and others — including colleges and universities — to create a coordinated, compassionate, and informed response to dating and intimate partner violence.

A number of options exist for campus leaders to help students and others harmed by intimate partner violence to recognize what is happening to them and know that help exists. Start with the simple commitment to do something. Just posting the hotline number around campus or making frequent reference to the college’s counseling and spiritual services goes a long way in normalizing and encouraging the search for help by those being abused.

People experiencing abuse benefit from cognitive dissonance — hearing someone state a belief or demonstrate a behavior different from their own beliefs or experiences. (Academicians excel at creating cognitive dissonance!) Consider the real-life story of a daily Communicant who, after a long marriage, seven children, and years of abuse, saw the USCCB’s resource card in her church’s restroom. One side of the card read, “Someone you know may be in an abusive relationship.” The reverse side listed indicators of abuse. Reading this card in the privacy of the restroom saved her life. It was the first time she had any idea that abusive behavior is not acceptable in a Catholic marriage.

My heart breaks every time I recall that story and yet I am heartened that the simple act of someone caring enough to place those cards in the restroom opened the door to this woman seeking safety and recovery for herself and her children. It is a true testament that the Holy Spirit will use our smallest efforts for good!

The resource card complements the free, downloadable document, "When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women." One line from this resource that frequently surprises people reads, “The person being assaulted needs to know that acting to end the abuse does not violate the marriage promises.” Challenging such commonly held misunderstandings can provide the first step for someone seeking help.

Another easy way to help those who need support is to invite each department on your campus to do something to recognize Domestic Violence Awareness Month, observed every October. It is likely that your campus already recognizes Sexual Assault Awareness Month each April, but what does your campus do for this fall observance?

Even during the pandemic, information can be shared to promote safety and healing, and to promote the message that abusive behavior denies the dignity of each person. Your campus will likely identify a variety of strategies, to which I offer the following suggestions:

  1. Join us in prayer. Each day at 3:00 p.m., we pray individually but as one in spirit for all harmed by intimate partner violence and their family and friends. Would you set your cell phone alarm to join us?
  2. Use existing resources such as our Domestic Violence Awareness Toolkit, developed in conjunction with the USCCB and available in English and Spanish. Also, the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence has extensive resources, including a multi-faith resource manual.
  3. Invite everyone to read Dr. Christauria Welland’s free, downloadable booklet, "How Can We Help to End Violence in Catholic Families?" This brief publication is available in seven languages and is applicable across faiths. Faculty may want to consider class discussions of the book. PAX-familia
  4. Does your campus offer pre-Cana counseling? Invite the leaders to analyze "Peace and Respect in Your Marriage: Domestic Violence Awareness for Marriage Preparation." This 30-minute module identifies signs of domestic violence and can be used with groups or by individuals preparing for marriage.
  5. Assign the topic for student learning. What better way exists for students to learn about a subject than to write a paper on it? Faculty might ask a class to: (a) describe why domestic abuse is a pro-life issue; (b) identify and describe Church teaching about domestic abuse, with special emphasis on Canon 1153, Amoris Laetitia, and “When I Call for Help,” among other resources; or (c) choose a topic of interest from the Catholics for Family Peace website and compose an infographic about it.
  6. Internships. Over our 10-year history, we have hosted college interns and consulted with them on projects. Faculty and students are welcome to contact us.


What can any of us do to help people like Denise? Plenty. We can acknowledge that abuse happens in families of faith and that hope, help, and healing are possible. For a Catholic campus, recognizing Domestic Violence Awareness Month will send the message that the institution cares about relationship safety. Knowing that someone cares can be the first step to recovery. Please join us in expressing that care.


Sharon A. O’Brien is the founder and director of Catholics for Family Peace, an initiative of the National Institute for the Family. She can be reached at Visit for extensive information and resources.