When Children are Maltreated by Religious Groups
By Dave Rice
Child sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church have repeatedly rocked the nation for more than a decade now, and in 2010 spread locally to reach the San Diego Diocese. The so-called “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s and early ‘90s brought the prospect of harm to children through mysterious and violent rituals to the forefront of the nation’s attention (though such focus turned out to be largely overblown), while periodically stories reach the news involving the tragic death of a child raised by a family of religious separatists. Incidents such as the aforementioned remind us that institutions of faith are capable of inspiring misplaced trust that can bring harm to the most vulnerable amongst us: our children.
These stories, however, just scratch the surface of a more widespread problem concerning the mistreatment of children in the name of religion, says Janet Heimlich, author of Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment.
It was “a chain of events” dating back to 2008 that sparked Heimlich’s research, she tells me by phone in mid-May. “It started by reading in a top-of-the-fold, front page New York Times article about an 11 year-old girl named Kara Neumann died of diabetes. She hadn’t been taken to the doctors since she was three, so her condition was never diagnosed. Her parents prayed over her, church members prayed over her, but she was never taken to the doctor . . . that story really gripped me.”
As she continued to observe the news, more stories came to light: the Pope visited the U.S. and gave what many saw as an insufficient response to the sex scandal in the Catholic Church. An isolated Texas religious group, the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, saw the removal of hundreds of children from polygamous church members who had forced young girls into “spiritual” marriages with adult men. Finally, the murder case in which a Baltimore family starved a toddler to death because “there was a demon in him” due to his failure to say “Amen” before meals moved Heimlich to act.
At the outset, and throughout her book, Heimlich (who says she was raised in an ethnically Jewish family where the topic of religion was rarely, if ever, addressed) takes pains to assure readers her premise is not to denigrate religion or its believers.
“More often than not, religion is good for children,” she states in the opening pages. The problem isn’t the majority of believers, but those who occupy the fringes or who may choose to interpret scripture in a way that denigrates or harms youth in a fashion most faithful would find abhorrent. She also admits early that, though all of the major Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) receive treatment, the focus is on different branches of Christianity, as this is the faith that dominates American culture and is thus most likely to provide examples of religious child maltreatment.
Heimlich breaks maltreatment down into four categories: physical, mental, sexual, and medical neglect. While sexual and physical abuse cases tend to be the ones that grab headlines and which many Americans are already familiar with, many children suffer at the hands of parents who have been instructed by leaders in their faith to avoid seeking modern medical care for a host of maladies, which can turn minor matters into life-threatening, or even deadly, situations.
Even more youth suffer, often in silence, from emotional maltreatment, which can lead children to become distanced from their parents, withdrawn, or even to see themselves as failures when they’re unable to live up to the expectations of the church. Young people who have been raised to believe everything in the world revolves around their faith can suffer deep emotional trauma from concluding that their faith is “not strong enough” to please their families, their congregation, or their god.
Forty year-old Rose, one of Heimlich’s many interview subjects, talks about being a shy child terrified of the mission her Pentecostal Christian parents assigned to her in kindergarten: witnessing to her teachers and classmates, and endeavoring to bring them into the church’s fold.
“I was to be saving souls,” Rose says. “That pressure was almost unbearable. I had intense, intense anxiety. I had a lot of stomachaches, headaches . . . There was no one to help a child like myself. I could just barely function because it was so scary. It was so painful, and I was so afraid of everybody.”
Being both afraid of her task and in disappointing Jesus by committing an accidental sin that could send her to Hell for eternity, Rose spent much of her early school life hiding in the girls’ bathroom.
These issues, Heimlich believes, can be tied to a single trait found across all religions that provides the potential for maltreatment or abuse to occur if misinterpreted or used overzealously.
“What’s driving religious child maltreatment is the authoritarian nature of the culture in which the child lives,” she tells me. “You’re going to have religious authoritarianism to varying degrees in many different types of faith communities and households. But the more authoritarian the governance is, the more problems you’re going to see.”
She believes that the isolated nature of some of the smaller branches of faith many refer to as “cults” allows rigid control structures to flourish, but is blunt in reminding me that such an environment can exist anywhere, and that one of the biggest challenges in addressing maltreatment issues is a pervasive belief that problems exist solely in the realm of the “other,” or that “that sort of thing would never happen in my church.”
It’s also too easy to dismiss such issues using the “one bad apple” theory, pinning blame on an individual for misinterpreting scripture while refusing to believe a larger population could also succumb to such beliefs.
“It’s not the workings of one crazy, Sadistic, severely mentally individual that did this,” Heimlich says of the Baltimore toddler starvation. “It was a group of people that all pitched in to ultimately kill this child,” including the parents, family members, clergy, and other worshippers.
So where do we go from here? To start, Heimlich proposes a host of solutions in her book’s closing chapters, some of which are more readily implemented than others. These include repealing faith-based healing-related religious exemptions, which allow members of certain churches to deny their children medical treatment on religious grounds when anyone else in the state would face prosecution for child abuse, stronger requirements on members of the clergy to report child abuse and neglect despite claims of “privileged communication” that alert them to the abuses, and extending or eliminating statutes of limitations that hamper the abused in their quest for justice upon becoming adults.
Heimlich further suggests that secular governmental agencies can do more to reach out to religious communities, establishing a relationship of trust that can facilitate some of the proposed reforms.
Most important, Heimlich looks to parents to make frank and honest assessments of their faith and the effects it has on their children. She suggests that parents consider whether their faith community encourages them to isolate or segregate themselves from society in general, providing an opportunity for authoritarianism to flourish and potentially stunting the emotional and cultural growth of youth. Are faith leaders hostile to questions about their method of leadership, or do they say that god has specifically instructed them to hit or spank children?* Are children in the faith respected, even through punishment, or are they made to feel shameful when misbehaving? If any of these questions can be answered in the affirmative, it goes without saying that a responsible parent may need to consider the admittedly difficult option of finding a different place of worship.
Another symbolic step forward, Heimlich says, would be ratification of the 1988 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Every UN country except for the U.S., Somalia (which effectively has no functioning government), and South Sudan (which has only existed since July 2011) has ratified the Convention. Even though President Obama has called the U.S.’s failure to act “embarrassing,” no action to remedy the situation has been forthcoming.
Beyond the proposals made by her book, Heimlich is looking to put them into action through her Child-Friendly Faith Project, founded in 2012.
“The reason why I thought it was important to start a non-profit organization like this is that the book, I feel, does a good job to expose problems, and to define religious child maltreatment and to point out what children are at risk,” she says. “But I felt like there needed to be more of a solutions-oriented approach to trying to eradicate religious child maltreatment, as well as other ideologically driven cases of abuse and neglect.”
The group, Heimlich says, wants to encourage healthy faith-based children’s programs while continuing to expose problems when they occur.
“What we really want to do is get people to think more seriously about their faith practices.”
The group’s first conference is set to occur on November 8 in Austin, Texas, centered around the theme of “How do we make faith child-friendly?”
Heimlich also has an appearance in San Diego upcoming, when the American Humanist Association’s 72nd annual conference visits the Bahia Resort in Mission Bay from May 30 through June 3.
Along with Katherine Stewart, author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, Sean Faircloth, Director of Strategy and Policy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation and author of Attack of the Theocrats! How the Religious Right Harms Us All—and What We Can Do About It, and a survivor of religious maltreatment, Heimlich will sit on a Saturday, June 1 panel sponsored by the Richard Dawkins Foundation discussing religious fundamentalism and the abuse of children.
Access to the talk is only available to conference registrants – entry to the full four-day event ranges from $179-$349, with or without meals included.
As I approach a number typically doubling my max word count, it’s time to reach for a conclusion, but there isn’t one. The process of identifying and alleviating the problems associated with religious child maltreatment are just getting underway, thanks to the efforts of Janet Heimlich and her groundbreaking work (list price $20.00 from Prometheus Books, or $8.69 digital edition). It’s up to everyone, especially those who have the responsibility of raising or caring for a child, to address the work that lies ahead.
*Side note: shortly before my interview with Janet and while I was compiling notes for this article, my daughter and I were pushing our bikes through the OB Farmer’s Market when we came across the Morning Star Ranch booth run by the Twelve Tribes commune in Valley Center, a group addressed for its child maltreatment issues multiple times in her text. Along with organic vegetables, they were peddling a tract entitled “When the Spanking Stopped, All Hell Broke Loose,” an eight-page treatise on the virtues of God-endorsed beating of children. It was a little creepy when one of the workers nodded approvingly at me and then my daughter when I picked it up.