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The Order of Judith: ‘It’s ok as a Christian woman to leave abuse’

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Some 600 years before the birth of Christ, the powerful Assyrian forces were preparing to attack the Israelites in Judea, intending to slaughter them all.

The Assyrian army surrounded the Israelites in the mountainous city of Bethulia, cutting them off from their water supply. Desperate with weakness and thirst after a month, the people called for the city to be handed over to the Assyrians. 

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi. Public domain.

Then Judith, an Israelite widow known for her wisdom and virtue, stepped forward, chiding the people for failing to place their trust in God.

That night, after praying to God for strength, Judith and her maid slipped into the Assyrian camp, promising to provide information that would help conquer the Israelites. 

Enamored by her beauty, the Assyrian general Holofernes gave a banquet with the intent to seduce Judith. 

But instead, he became drunk and fell asleep. 

As he slept, Judith beheaded the general with his own sword, rescuing her people from the mighty Assyrians, who panicked and fled upon realizing that Holofernes had been slain.

The biblical story of Judith, recounted in the Old Testament book bearing her name, is a source of inspiration for Chelsi Creech, founder and chair of the Order of Judith, an organization that aims to help Christian women escape domestic abuse.

Last year, Creech was working to help a friend escape domestic violence.

For months, she tried to support her friend, to help her research options, and to help her take steps toward escaping the abuse. Over those months, she noticed something about how the woman’s Christian faith affected her experience.

“Her desire to be safe was impeded by the twisting of Christian teaching and biblical understandings of marriage and Christian themes of love and responsibility,” Creech explained.

Her friend was concerned that leaving an abusive household meant she may be violating God’s law - and being a bad Christian.

That bothered Creech. And it bothered a number of other women who were also working to support the victim as she went through the lengthy process of exiting the abusive situation and starting to rebuild her life.

A few months later, Creech and a few friends decided to create the Order of Judith to help other Christian women leave abusive situations.

The goal, Creech told The Pillar, is “to help other women make that decision to escape and rebuild after intimate partner violence, specifically from the perspective of ‘It's okay as a Christian woman to leave abuse, and that is not what God wants for your life’.”


Every year, more than 12 million people in the United States are affected by intimate partner violence. According to CDC statistics, more than 1 in 3 women in the country experience rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime.

Catholics - and Christians more broadly - are not exempt from intimate partner violence. But they can experience specific challenges in leaving abusive situations.

In particular, Creech said that she saw how her friend was hesitant to leave because of concerns that she might be breaking her marriage vows, or that God’s will was for her to endure the suffering of mistreatment.

In founding the Order of Judith, Creech drew from the knowledge she and others had gained in the months they spent helping their friend.

She also relied on her own background as a clinical psychologist.

“My training focused on religious and spiritual integration in psychological well being, with a lot of practice on identifying ways in which Christian truths are often twisted to cause harm,” she said.

Other board members of the Order of Judith bring a variety of backgrounds and experience with them, including in the fields of child education and development, and working with women who have left abusive situations. 

They believe the Order of Judith fills a void.

In their research, they had found only a few other Christian organizations working to help women escape intimate partner violence. Several operate only regionally. And a number of them were opposed to divorce even in cases of abuse.

The Order of Judith, in contrast, operates nationally and does not take a stance on whether the right option for any individual woman is reconciliation, separation, or divorce – with or without a restraining order or pursuing charges.

Whether a woman is Christian or not, there are many obstacles that can make it difficult to leave an abusive partner.

While at first glance, it may seem like exiting an abusive relationship is straightforward, the process is much more complicated than simply walking out the door, explained Cecelia Cottrill, who serves as communications manager and brand director for the Order of Judith.

Leaving takes money, resources, and time to plan. The woman must find a new place to live and might need to find a lawyer or determine whether she qualifies for public benefits, and how to apply for them.

Women may also think they deserve the abuse they are experiencing. Or they might not even realize the treatment constitutes abuse.

“That was a theme that I think has come up several times, both with this first woman…and women that we've been talking with since,” said Creech.

Cottrill, who was also involved in helping the initial friend leave her abusive spouse, said abuse is defined as “repeated and intentional maltreatment.” 

This can take many forms, she explained. But people may not recognize if it only happens periodically or if it does not look the way they expect. In addition, abusers may appear to be upstanding members of their local communities, which can also make it difficult for victims to recognize that they are being abused.

But Christians can also face additional hurdles that compound the challenges of leaving an abusive relationship. For example, Cottrill said, spiritual abuse is sometimes present and can easily go unrecognized.

Spiritual abusers may twist the faith to exert control over their victims, or to isolate them from God, she said. For example, a husband might claim himself to be a mediator between his wife and God, insisting that he is the only person who can discern decisions on behalf of the couple - and that he can do so completely separately from his wife.

He might say something like, “Well, if you were a better Christian, I wouldn't have to do X, Y or Z, but you're not, so I do, because God wants me to. God put me in your life as your leader.”

“While there absolutely should be some shared spiritual life between a husband and wife, and between partners, it shouldn't be mediated like that,” Cottrill said. 

This can be compounded by the belief  that the biblical concept of submission means that women must accept their husband’s leadership in every decision or action.

Women may also hesitate to leave abusive situations because they are intimidated by the thought of becoming a single parent or fear that doing so may adversely affect their children.

The negative effects of divorce and single parenting are often discussed in Christian circles, Creech said. And while these effects are real, “witnessing your parent being abused or suffering abuse yourself is also an adverse childhood event.”

Leaving an abusive home situation often makes it more likely that children will have their needs heard and met, and receive the support they need, she said.

“There is a breadth of research showing that children who are exposed to domestic violence develop internalizing problems at a higher rate than children who are not, or who have escaped,” she said. 

She pointed to a 2023 study using global data, which found psychological, mental, behavioral, educational, and social complications from exposure to domestic violence.

Cottrill said one of the women receiving help from the Order of Judith has marveled at finding it easier to parent alone than with an abusive partner, because she no longer has to spend extensive time and energy fighting against her partner and trying to keep herself and her child safe.

Another of the biggest obstacles that Christian women sometimes face, Creech said, is the mistaken belief that divorce is unacceptable even in cases of abuse.

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While the Catholic Church teaches that marriage is indissoluble, it also recognizes civil divorce as a reality, and does not hold that divorce is necessarily sinful.

In fact, most diocesan marriage tribunals actually require a civil divorce to have been completed before beginning an annulment proceeding to determine whether a marriage was contracted validly.

This is required in order to show proof of an irrevocable breakdown in the marriage and to prevent the work of the tribunal process from being caught up in later divorce proceeding.

But if a Catholic woman thinks she cannot morally obtain a civil divorce, or is intimidated by the annulment process, she may be deterred from leaving her abusive spouse.

Facing all of these challenges can make it very difficult for a woman to leave abuse, Creech said. She cited research from the National Domestic Abuse Hotline, which has found that it takes an average of seven attempts for a woman to successfully leave an abusive partner for good.

And while a woman is working up the resolve to leave, Creech said, the people who are supporting the woman may become distant – either because they grow frustrated that the woman has not left yet, or because the abusive partner is successfully able to isolate the woman.  

“So, I would say the lack of support is probably one of the biggest reasons that women stay.”

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The Order of Judith aims to provide that support for women in abusive relationships, in order to help them leave and rebuild their lives.

Women have typically reached out to the Order of Judith by finding their website or being referred by a friend or family member.

After women reach out, the group’s intake coordinator schedules a 30-minute phone call - at a time when the woman is in a secure location and not at risk of being overheard - to discuss her situation.

“We go through who all is involved in this situation?” said Creech. “Are there any children involved? How old are the children? Is it just the partner who's being abusive or are there other people involved who are abusive as well? What kind of abuse has been experienced? Because that can change what resources someone needs.”

From there, the process varies. In one case, the woman had her bags packed and just needed money for a hotel. In other cases, people need help planning things out.

“On our website, we have a list of documents,” Cottrill said. “You know, your birth certificate, your social security card, your passport, your driver's license. If you have kids, their birth certificates, all of those documents.”

“So trying to work out, do you have these documents? Do you know where they are? Can you get them?”

In addition, she said, it is important to come up with a plan of where to go. It is important to avoid going to a place the abusive partner will suspect, and be able to find the victim.

The woman will also need to try to access money, which can be tricky if the abusive partner has control or oversight of bank accounts. Rather than making a large withdrawal at once, which could raise suspicions, it might be necessary to make smaller withdrawals over a period of time.

The Order of Judith helps women plan out the steps they need to take.

“It’s really about trying to figure out little discreet steps that you can take, so that way you can leave without your abuser knowing, and without them being able to find you,” Cottrill said.

The Order of Judith also helps women find family lawyers, and look into the difference between filing for a restraining order versus an order of protection.

And it helps them consider factors they may not even be aware of – for example, in some states, moving your own children across state lines without the other parent’s consent is considered parental kidnapping, so that needs to be factored into decisions about where to go.

“We try to investigate that for them so they can focus on staying safe and getting the essentials that they need to get out,” said Creech.

The entire process is crafted with the specific needs of abuse victims in mind.

For example, the initial intake happens over the phone, Creech explained, “because it really increases a woman's safety risk to have a document, for example, saying that her husband has threatened to kill her and her children, or that he's not letting them have money for food, or keeping them from healthcare appointments, or any of these things.”

The group’s website is designed to look nondescript – at first glance, it could be the website of any Christian ministry. This was an intentional decision, to lower the risk of an abuser overseeing the website.

“So if someone's thinking, ‘Oh, I would love more information, but I'm never alone. I never have a second to myself,’ we have worked to make this as nondescript and covert as possible,” Cottrill said.

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The group chose the biblical figure of Judith as their namesake. Cottrill explained that her story is “a very powerful one of a woman who overcomes oppression with the blessing of God.”

Cottrill said they wanted to push back against the idea that bible womanhood means submissively accepting mistreatment.

Creech clarified that the Order of Judith does not condone violence, but said the story of Judith is “one that inspires women to find their voice, and find their energy and ability to be empowered and active in responding to God's healing love in their life, even when that doesn't look like what we're kind of taught to expect biblical femininity to look like.”

She added that the organization also takes inspiration from other Biblical women, including Rahab, Jael, Deborah, and Esther.

“Some of these women are so lauded as heroes that they end up in the line of Christ himself, as the matriarchs of our faith,” she said.

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Creech and Cottrill believe there are several ways the Catholic Church in the United States could be more supportive to victims of domestic violence.

First, they said, there should be better catechesis about the Church’s actual teaching on divorce and separation.

Marriage prep classes and general Church culture often emphasize the permanence of marriage, but fail to acknowledge that the Church actually does allow for civil divorce in some cases, including that of abuse, they said.

Second, just as the Church has implemented safe environment classes in response to clerical sexual abuse, the leaders of the Order of Judith would like to see Catholic marriage prep include education about the definition of abuse and how to recognize red flags.

Even if these messages are not internalized right away, they said, having this knowledge may help someone recognize abuse if it happens to them years later.

They added that churches could follow the example of airports, gas stations, and bars, which often have fliers in women’s restrooms with warning signs of abuse and discreet ways for women to signal that they need help.

Creech added that she would like to see marriage prep include mentor couples who can talk to both spouses together, as well as individually.

“Everyone needs communities that can both be supportive and also hold them accountable,” she said. “The biggest antidote to abuse is when people can't be isolated.”

She said she would also like to see the Church doing more to highlight the stories of saints or blessed who have left abusive situations.  

“[These individuals] are honored by the Church as people of heroic virtue to emulate,” she said. “People like Saint Fabiola of Rome, or Servant of God Catherine Doherty, [or] Blessed Seraphina Sforza.”

“Maria Goretti is my confirmation saint, and I love and admire her. And I don't mean to denigrate that example at all,” she said. “But we don't hear about Servant of God Catherine Doherty, or Blessed Seraphina or any of those people in our confirmation prep, when those are equally valid ways to be a faithful Catholic woman.”

Among the broader Church community, Creech would also like to see stories of local women who have left abuse and rebuilt their lives being shared.

“These people are our neighbors, they are our community,” she said.

“A lot of times there's so much shame, and the only antidote to that shame is the light, and that is the light and love of Christ,” she continued.

“Knowing that you are welcomed and you are not damaged goods where we'll tolerate you, but we really don't want you super involved. Instead, saying, ‘No, you are cornerstones in our community because the love and strength and perseverance that you have demonstrated up to this point, that is what we want’.”

This could even include concrete ways to help women rebuild their lives after escaping abuse – for example, through meal trains or childcare during court dates, she said.

Next month marks one year that Creech and Cottrill will have been supporting their friend who left her abusive husband — first through their aid as individuals and then through the organization she inspired.

“We've been basically helping fund her life for the past year,” Creech said.

The Order of Judith is a nonprofit in the state of Missouri, and is in the process of finalizing its non-profit status. The group fundraises through its website. In addition to money, though, Creech said the greatest need is prayer.

“I think the biggest thing that we do, probably the most unseen, but the biggest thing that we do is provide hope and prayer,” Creech said.

The order is enrolled in a 40-day novena this Lent with the Discalced Hermits of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The leaders would like to line up other novenas throughout the year, “just so that there's kind of these perpetual prayers surrounding these women.”

Cottrill said she wants any woman in an abusive situation to know “that you do not deserve the treatment that you're receiving, and the treatment that you're receiving is not indicative of your role, your position as a beloved daughter of God.”

“Then I think secondly, we want to tell them, you don't have to stay and accept it,” she continued. “There can be hope. There can be healing for you, and we'd like to help you find that, however it's going to manifest itself for you.”

“And you are doing a kindness to your abuser to leave,” Creech added. “Because every time an abuser commits another act of abuse, they're heaping burning coals on their own heads of their own eternal judgment. So, it is an act of love to leave.”

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