On 30 November, an ecumenical interfaith service, Holding the Light, will be held to remember victims and survivors of domestic and family violence. At this service, a bell will toll for each woman known to have been murdered by a perpetrator of violence, bringing home the horrific regularity of such tragedies. It is this reality that impels Sr Nicole Rotaru RSM, an experienced and passionate advocate, to shine a light on the devastating impact of domestic and family violence.

At the ecumenical service, Sr Nicole Rotaru, a Mercy sister for 49 years, will be sharing art works and stories from children who have been impacted by domestic and family violence. Through her years of ministry in this area, Sr Nicole has learnt that ‘Children say it as it is. Their stories are uncluttered and reveal the trauma of living within an environment of domestic and family violence.’

Not only has Sr Nicole walked alongside women and children impacted by family and domestic violence, but she also assists parish communities and community organisations to understand that we all have a role to play in reflecting on our own behaviours, helping them to break the silence around the horrific reality of violence that exists in many homes around us.

‘Violence is a deep-seated issue in our Australian community and in other parts of the world,’ she says. ‘And though government bodies and other bodies and organisations have been very proactive, the violence remains. In fact, some would argue that it has gotten worse in these past years.’

While Sr Nicole’s ministry to those affected by domestic and family violence involves many subtleties and layers, it is clear that ‘children take in what they see in their home. They watch how their parents relate to each other. They model what they see,’ she says.

‘Domestic and family violence bring about trauma. The seeds of violence are planted at a young age and acted out in relationships. Unattended trauma unleashes into wild unfettered violence. Unattended trauma is passed on from one generation to another.’

Sr Nicole explains that there are different understandings of trauma: ‘A common definition is something that happens to a person that overwhelms them; their normal capacities to cope are inadequate and the person is totally overwhelmed. Fear, anxiety, dread, hopelessness, shame and silence are hallmarks of trauma. A further understanding says trauma is not what happens to you; it’s what happens inside you—the feelings—as a result of what happened to you. It is that scarring that makes you less flexible and more rigid, disconnected and quite defended. Trauma can remain dormant. Something can trigger what happened—for example, it may be a particular sound or smell or the sight of a particular person or place. The feelings in the person become alive again. The person experiences trauma as if for the first time.’

The seeds of violence are planted at a young age and acted out in relationships. Unattended trauma unleashes into wild unfettered violence.

In the context of domestic and family violence, Sr Nicole says mothers have told her their children ‘knew by the slam of the car door that it wasn’t safe to be around and so they disappeared to their room, and when they went to bed, they blocked out the shouting by covering their ears and hiding under the doona.’

The deep impact of trauma also needs to be considered in the life of the perpetrator, which in domestic and family violence is usually a man. ‘We must ask: What happened to the person who murdered, when that person was a child? What did that child see in their family? What has been modelled that has planted the seed of violence, the seed of aggression, the seed of “I’m going to get what I want” … Power and control are the motivations of the person abusing. The intention is to create fear and dread in the person being abused.’

Sr Nicole’s ministry in domestic and family violence is informed by her own experiences of trauma, ongoing self-reflection, formal studies (including a bachelor of arts at La Trobe University, a diploma of secondary education from Mercy Teachers’ College, a bachelor of social work from the University of Melbourne, a master of arts in experiential and creative arts and a graduate diploma in professional supervision from the University of Divinity) and reflection on the experiences shared with her by the many women, men and children she has worked with over 40 years. While she listens, she has also been ‘ministered to’, she says. ‘The women, men and children have taught me. It’s not about me; it’s about us.’

Sr Nicole brought these different learnings with her into workshops she facilitated for several years with the St Vincent de Paul Society. The workshops were called Breaking the Silence and helped the SVDP members better understand what domestic and family violence is, what the drivers are, how to respond to the people they served and where to refer someone for further help. She has also facilitated similar workshops with local organisations such as Catholic Social Services Victoria and the Diocese of Sale, giving participants a deeper insight into the realities of domestic and family violence, and how to have a careful conversation with a person living within a violent situation.

Our Watch, a national leader in the primary prevention of violence against women and children in Australia, states that on average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner. In the year 2021–2022, 5606 women—an average of 15 women a day—were hospitalised due to family and domestic violence. It is against this backdrop that Sr Nicole urges everyone to reflect on their own behaviours and to work towards a whole-of-community response.

In the year 2021–2022, 5606 women—an average of 15 women a day—were hospitalised due to family and domestic violence.

‘We are all called to a transformation of respect for ourselves and for one another,’ she says. ‘Governments are called to further action to stop the violence. Each one of us is called to stop the violence in our thinking and in our behaviour.’

A Royal Commission into Family Violence (Victoria) was established in 2015, and drew on numerous consultations, public hearings, commissioned research, community conversations and over 1000 written submissions. A total of 227 recommendations were made, including Recommendation 165, which strongly urged faith leaders and communities to establish processes for examining the ways in which they currently respond to family violence in their communities and ‘whether any of their practices operate as deterrents to the prevention or reporting of, or recovery from, family violence or are used by perpetrators to excuse or condone abusive behaviour.’

We are all called to a transformation of respect for ourselves and for one another ... Each one of us is called to stop the violence in our thinking and in our behaviour.

Sr Nicole acknowledged that this is a real challenge in faith traditions ‘that have a strong patriarchal tradition’. ‘We are all created equally in the image and likeness of God. We are all called to follow the example of Jesus. We are called to be witnesses of God’s light and love in the world. The bottom line is we are all called to transformation.’

Eight years on, the 227 outcomes of the Royal Commission are still being rolled out. While this happens, violence continues to infiltrate our communities. ‘The local and international news confronts us every day with violence,’ says Sr Nicole. ‘As individuals, our attitudes, our behaviours and our way of respecting each other needs to develop. We are all impelled to “break the silence” that enables domestic and family violence to continue. As a whole community, we can galvanise support and break open the secrecy.

‘Our silence allows violence to thrive. When we lift the lid on practices that perpetuate domestic and family violence, people can live free from fear; they can live in peace and thrive.’

Holding the Light, an ecumenical service of lament held each year to remember victims and survivors of family violence and other forms of gender violence, will be held on Thursday 30 November 2023 at Wesley Church Melbourne, 136 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, at 5pm. All are welcome. Donations offered this year will go to McAuley Community Services for Women.

Photos by Fiona Basile for Melbourne Catholic.