Gerry Garvey used to get calls in the middle of the night from a police officer or a doctor. She would dress, drive to the police station or emergency room, and hand a cup of coffee to a frightened woman who had been beaten or raped.

Garvey would put her arm around the victim, say it wasn't the first time she had done this, and tell her help was available 24 hours a day.As executive director of Independence House, a shelter for battered women, it was part of her job - a position, she says, that required the kind of empathy that can only come from a woman.

The board of the Cape Cod shelter, however, doesn't necessarily agree. Last month, it voted to hire a man, Richard Costa, a psychiatric nurse with no domestic violence counseling experience, as its executive director.

Now the agency is embroiled in its own domestic conflict, with four of its 10 directors resigning in protest.

"We don't select a Christian to run B'nai B'rith," said former board member Marianne Milton. "Women are going there to be empowered, to change their lives. Can't we get a competent woman?"

The controversy over Costa's appointment as the first man to head a women's shelter in Massachusetts is a hot topic of conversation at poce stations, grocery stores and college campuses and among wom-en's groups.

Nancy Scannell, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Coalition for Bat-tered Women's Service Groups, raised doubts about fairness of the search "in a field that is 99.9 percent staffed by women. It's not possible."

Christine Kesten, the new chairwoman at the Hyannis shelter, said of the board vote: "All I can say is six people looking at the resumes and listening to the three people felt he was the best qualified and could do the best job."

As far as those visits to the emergency room or the police station, that task will be given to a woman staff member, Kesten said. The shelter has a 20-member all-women staff.

Costa did not return repeated calls, and the women living at the shelter could not be reached for comment because the shelter has a policy against divulging their names.

Costa was selected after a search committee had recommended inter-im director Colleen Kramer, a lawyer. In her six months running the shelter, Kramer had won the staff's strong support, said Helen Goolishian, board chairman before her resignation last month.

Two other finalists also had advanced degrees and had worked with domestic violence victims.

When one of the finalists - a man - withdrew, Costa's name was submitted, Goolishian said. The board voted in favor of Costa over Kramer.

The atmosphere during the vote was so hostile that the Rev. James Kelley decided he could no longer serve the organization. Kelley said he thought the board engaged in the kind of controlling behavior the agency tries to prevent.

"I find it mind-boggling," he said.