DALLAS Days after her happy wedding in 1976, a life of madness and pain began for Connie Nash.

"He had come home and I was cooking beans," recalled Nash, now 53. "He thought that they were burnt; they were scorched; and that was the first time I got beat up. And that was the first time he asked me to forgive him for that."

Nash forgave... and went on to endure 25 years of abuse.

On any given day, women often with several children with stories similar to Connie Nash, show up at the Dallas County District Attorney Family Violence Office and pour their hearts out, in fear.

Last year, more than 2,500 women asked about a protective order, but only 300 were issued.

The question is: Why?

"This is one of America's best-kept dirty little secrets," said Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Tammy Kemp.

Kemp supervises the Dallas County Family Violence Unit. She says many (mostly Christian) women say her their own churches and pastors have counseled them to change their minds.

"There are those that seem to be out of step with what would be in the best interest of keeping victims safe," Kemp said about her struggles with some church messages. "We would hope that they would seek to make both parties whole not just to maintain the institution of marriage at all costs."

It was Scripture Connie Nash followed devoutly, until she was black-and-blue.

"Til death do us part," Nash said. "I went into this covenant with this man to be married forever, and that's what the church teaches... the church I went to."

"It absolutely happens a lot," says Paige Flink, executive director of The Family Place, a shelter for battered women and children.

Flink said many clients report they've been spiritually pressured for years. "And so if that faith leader says to you, 'You need to stay in that relationship and work on it; God frowns upon divorce, or you must submit.' If that's the first thing that comes out of a faith leader's mouth, it's going to be really hard for a victim to leave," she said.

It was hard for 40-year-old UT Southwestern nurse Karen Cox Smith. She was killed by her husband in the hospital's parking garage last month.

Her mother, Sara Horton, blames not just a lag in constables serving a warrant for his arrest; she says her daughter's church which knew of the abuse for years urged Mrs. Smith to stay with her husband.

"If the pastor had counseled her to get away from him, yes she'd be alive today, because she wouldn't be with him," Horton said. "I think she would have left him years ago if she had not gone to that church. So I don't think we would've been in this situation to have to rely on a warrant to pick him up, because she would've divorced him and she would have been safe."

"Sometimes our counsel, our advice, can perpetuate a problem rather than provide the support and the relief and the healing that they need," conceded Bryan Carter, pastor of Concord Church.

Carter said churches have good intentions when it comes to guiding couples, but he says more pastors, preachers, and priests should re-think preserving marriage at all costs.

"God has given us parameters," he explained. "If there is abuse in a relationship, God does not expect you stay in that relationship."

Connie Nash said she received a different message.

"They told me, in the eyes of God, divorce is a sin, and if I knowingly commit that sin, then I'll be banned from the church. And that's exactly what happened," she said.

It took a quarter of a century of beatings, but Nash never went back to that church.

She speaks regularly now to women at other churches about faith, forgiveness, and God's desire to end the cycle of family violence.

"He loves us so much," Nash said. "He doesn't want us to go through that pain or to be abused. He wants us to be happy and live a happy life."


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