Throughout the pandemic, our public health officials wisely have been telling us to “stay home, stay safe.” But tragically, for some people in our community home is not a safe place. Domestic and family violence, including intimate partner violence, abuse of children and youth, and elder abuse, continues during this time, and some people are now trapped in homes with their abusers. While fully supporting the restrictions on gatherings, we are also mindful that we must not forget these vulnerable people; all members of our churches, and especially the clergy, must work towards protecting those who are at risk.
COVID-19 has particularly highlighted for us the vulnerability of our elderly population, especially those in care. In Canada, agencies estimate that approximately 1 in 6 seniors will experience elder abuse. This abuse may be physical, emotional or financial, and in about 75% of cases, the abuser is a family member or friend. We are also aware, of course, of the dire situation in long-term care facilities around the country, which have in some cases failed to provide safe conditions either for our cherished elders or for their immediate caregivers, and which have seen hundreds of deaths related to the pandemic. While different from abuse of elders in their homes, it is another illustration of the low value that some in our society place on the elderly.
In other homes, abuse occurs between partners. Intimate partner abuse accounts for between one-quarter and one-third of all police-reported violent crime in Canada. Those who experience intimate partner violence, and especially the victims of spousal homicide, are much more likely to be female – about 80% of spousal homicide victims are women, and about every six days in Canada, a woman is killed by a partner or ex-partner – but men can also be victims. And, as with elder abuse, many victims are now trapped at home with their abusers and less able to reach out or find means of escape. We know that rates of intimate partner and domestic violence may have increased by 20-30% in some areas of the country during the pandemic, and that in some places the calls for help have gone up by 400%.
The same concerns apply to children and youth who are victims of violence, emotional abuse or severe neglect from parents or other caregivers, and who now do not have the school-based resources previously available to them. According to the Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal, there are 14 substantiated reports of abuse or neglect per 1,000 children/youth in Canada, but this number is believed to be considerably underestimated due to the difficulty of reporting for children and youth. LGBTQ youth are particularly at risk of family-based abuse and violence, according to a 2016 report from the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada. There has been a significant and disturbing decrease in reports of child/youth abuse since COVID-19 restrictions began, a decrease that almost certainly means, according to Edmonton’s Zebra Child Protection Centre, that children and youth, especially when not attending school, have no trusted adult to whom they can report abuse.
We are all bound by our baptismal promises to “respect the dignity of every human being.” All forms of abuse and violence violate this fundamental dignity, and we must understand ourselves as called not only to stand against them, but to do what we can to actively support all victims. The Church may have a particular role to play in working to end abuse, especially elder abuse, since people over 65 are much more likely to be connected to a faith community, and abusers may permit contact with faith leaders when other relationships are cut off.
It is important for clergy to educate themselves about the resources available. Please take the time to familiarize yourself with some of them:
and do not be reluctant to refer people to them. Support can be as easy as dialling 211.
The College of Bishops feels strongly about bringing these important issues to light, and we will be working with our ecumenical and interfaith partners to raise these matters in the public consciousness. We urge you also to have these conversations in your local ministerials and interfaith dialogues. Have your congregations pray for victims of abuse – for their protection and deliverance – in your intercessions and Prayers of the People. Publicize resources in your parish newsletters and other communications. Help to destigmatize the shame that so many victims feel about reporting, so that more people can courageously come forward.
God calls us continually to health, safety and fullness of life in Christ Jesus. May God bless and guide us all in this important part of Christian ministry.
Yours in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Andrew Asbil
Bishop of Toronto