By Peter McDermott
Mary Nerney once taught school students. Now, she educates legislators.
"I would never have thought that I’d be doing what I’m doing now," said Nerney, an advocate for abused women.
But she defied expectations at least once before. When she joined a religious order upon graduating from high school, her late father said: "She’s only going to last two weeks. She likes fun too much." Forty-three years later, however, she’s still a member of the Congregation of Notre Dame.
Sister Nerney is also the founder and director of Steps to End Family Violence, an organization with a staff of ten and based in East Harlem "It’s one of the most successful programs in the city helping abused women," said Pam Rinando, a police officer who was a battered woman defendant in the 1980s.
Steps, an acronym for self-help, prevention, education, training, service, is well-known, Rinando said, for the range and comprehensiveness of its programs.
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"Steps to End Family Violence has several components to it," Nerney said. It offers, for example, programs for children aged 4-14 who’ve been victims of or have witnessed domestic violence, for teenage females who’ve been victims of violence, for teenage males who’ve begun to abuse girlfriends or family members and for battered women who have substance abuse problems. The organization has also recently moved into the area of curriculum development, producing two videos and two handbooks for city schools.
Sister Nerney is perhaps best known, though, for her work with battered women defendants. Another of Steps’ programs, the alternative to incarceration/detention program, assists women who have either killed or assaulted their abuser or are facing other charges resulting from their victimization. "We do psychosocial assessment, advocacy within the court and we work with the women once they get out of jail," she said.
"They help the women get jobs and housing," Pam Rinando said. In Rinando’s own case, Nerney helped her get her old job back. When the two women first met in 1987, Rinando had been acquitted in the courts of charges arising from the wounding of her abusive boyfriend, a fellow police officer. But she still faced a departmental trial within the NYPD. Nerney organized a group of women from Harlem to attend the trial each day. The friendship and moral support has continued. "I can call Sister Mary in the middle of the night, that’s how good she is," Rinando said.
Nerney has been involved with the issue of battered women from the beginning. "The issue has just recently been recognized. It was in 1975 that women spoke out for the first time about abuse," she said. At that time, Nerney was herself influenced by feminism, becoming aware of the "problems associated with patriarchy." She sees a direct link between a male-dominated society and the abuse of women.
"There’s a whole variety of ways in which society says it’s okay," she said.
Mary Nerney was raised in Manhattan by immigrant parents — her mother is a native of Co. Monaghan, her father was from Co. Roscommon. In 1956, she decided to follow in the path of the nuns who taught her at St. Jean Baptiste High School on the Upper East Side. Her life seemed to be mapped out before her. Then came the sixties. "When a number of sisters left the various communities, including my own, I wondered what was the best. But I just felt strongly within me that this is what I really wanted to be and do. And so I’ve enjoyed it. I work hard and play hard," said Sister Nerney, a lover of Irish dance and music.
"I’m very different from the person who joined. My vision of and faith in God is different," she said "I think that my faith has both strengthened and deepened."
The church has changed too, she said, "but not enough, certainly not enough in relation to domestic abuse."
Nerney and others like her make no apology for bringing the discussion back to the subject that concerns them most. They say that almost four million American women were physically abused by their husbands or boyfriends within the last year alone and point to Justice Department statistics that show a continuing pattern of victimization of women.
"The tide hasn’t turned yet," Sister Nerney said.