If we hope to end religious child abuse and neglect, people of faith and the nonreligious must put aside their theological differences and learn about this form of maltreatment.
When I tell someone that part of the work of my nonprofit organization, the Child-Friendly Faith Project, involves ending child abuse and neglect that is enabled by religious belief, I often get one of two reactions. Either someone is convinced that religion is in no way responsible for harm done to children, or he or she believes that religious faith is akin to poisons under the kitchen sink and should come with the warning, “keep away from children.”
Clearly, people have strong feelings about religious faith, in general, and its influence on children’s lives. But I see a problem here: people in both camps are allowing their opinions about religion to get in the way of protecting children from harm—specifically, religious child maltreatment (RCM). [Religious child maltreatment is child abuse or neglect that is enabled by religious beliefs held by perpetrators, victims, or the surrounding community.] If people of faith and those who hold no religious beliefs were to learn more about RCM, they could find common ground and join together toward the goal of protecting children from this form of maltreatment.
Religious beliefs can lead adults to both help and hurt
Contrary to what both apologists and critics of religion say, research shows that religion—that is, religious beliefs and religious practices—can enable adults to both nurture and harm children.
On the positive side, studies show that involving children in religious activities helps them psychologically (Heimlich, 2011, p. 24). I have interviewed people who appreciated their religious upbringings. Even survivors of RCM have told me they were grateful for some aspects of having been raised with religious faith (Heimlich, 2011, p. 23-4).
Conversely, just as adults use religious doctrines to benefit children, others use them to abuse and neglect. Specifically, perpetrators justify maltreatment by believing or stating that harmful actions are mandated by religious leaders or a belief system. “The United States has a romantic attitude toward religious individuals and institutions, as though they are always doing what is right,” writes Marci Hamilton in God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law. “Horrible things have been done to children beneath the cloak of religion. Children have been raped, beaten, and permitted to die excruciating deaths” (p. 12).
Examples of RCM include
- quoting scripture to victims as a way to overpower them and convince them to keep silent about the abuse [An example would be a father telling a daughter that she must comply with sexual demands because she must always “honor” her parents.];**
- withholding needed medical care due to absolutist beliefs about “faith healing” and divine intervention;
- administering severe corporal punishment based on the belief that the Bible requires parents to use “the rod” to discipline;
- failing to report sexual abuse to protect the image of a religious leader or faith community and avoid scandal; and
- spurning or terrorizing using religious messages about sinfulness or eternal damnation.
Religious Belief as a Risk Factor of Maltreatment
Many risk factors contribute to child maltreatment, including poverty, stress, mental illness, and substance abuse (Department of Human Services). Experts do consider some types of belief to be risk factors, such as accepting that children should be physically punished or that children are property (Department of Human Services). Religious belief should also be considered as a risk factor of child maltreatment.
It’s difficult to quantify how many children suffer from RCM—such statistics are not kept by child welfare workers and other first responders—but numerous studies indicate that adults’ religious beliefs can enable them to abuse and neglect children (Heimlich, 2011, p. 27-8). Furthermore, cases of RCM have special characteristics that are not found in maltreatment cases in which religious ideology plays no role, such as
- Perpetrators can use fear-based religious doctrines to easily control victims’ emotions and actions.
- Perpetrators may be driven to adopt harmful childrearing approaches based on extremist religious beliefs or a strong desire to comply with childrearing norms set by a religious leader or group.
- RCM usually occurs in homes and communities that are “governed” in an authoritarian manner.
Perpetrators of RCM have special characteristics not found in maltreatment cases in which religious belief does not play a dominant role:
- They claim to possess the “one true faith” and consider those who maintain different beliefs to be misguided, depraved, or “evil.”
- They are members of a religious culture that is “governed” in an authoritarian manner.
- They are motivated to mistreat children based on their interpretations of faith doctrines and scripture or their desires to follow the norms of a faith culture.
- They invoke religious doctrines to overpower children and discourage them from talking about the abuse.
- They do not possess a conventional understanding of what abuse and neglect is and/or believe their actions are spiritually beneficial to victims.
- They are willing to break laws that criminalize child abuse and neglect, believing they are acting according to a “higher” law.
- They rarely show remorse for their actions and, instead, justify their actions with religious scripture or doctrine.
Faith communities take the lead: a solution
There are many ways to reduce RCM, including improved legislation and governmental policy. For example, we can look to state governments to require all clergy to report child abuse and do away with what I call the “confession loophole.” [At least 25 states require clergy to report child abuse but many states exempt clergy who claim “penitent-clergy” privilege.] They should also repeal religious exemptions that allow adults who withhold needed medical care from children for religious reasons to avoid being prosecuted (Heimlich, 2011, p. 301-9).
However, I believe that the best hope for long-term change is through education. Specifically, religious organizations, in addition to receiving child abuse prevention training, should hold ongoing, structured discussions about RCM, efforts that should be supported by secular and faith-based child advocacy organizations.
Historically, faith communities have been reticent to discuss child abuse and neglect of any kind. Religious leaders still refuse to report abuse cases to police or Child Protective Services, and instead, try to “investigate” or “prosecute” them internally. Very often, the end result of not reporting cases to outside authorities is that perpetrators avoid prosecution and victims are denied support, such as therapy (Heimlich, 2011, p. 201-5).
This failure to bring the issue of maltreatment into the open hurts not only victims but the faith communities themselves. Religious organizations that do not squarely face the issue are usually unprepared to properly respond to cases when they arise. Once that happens, the organization may get sued, lose members, and suffer a poor public image.
By putting aside theological differences, learning about RCM, and supporting faith communities in their efforts to protect children from RCM, people of faith and secular individuals can work together to better ensure that a religious upbringing is a nurturing experience for every child.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What is child abuse? Child neglect? Have you ever seen these first hand? Can you share about those experiences?
- Where do religious rights end and children’s rights begin?
- Are there parenting choices that are legal but make us uncomfortable? How should we respond to them?
- What role should places of worship assume in teaching parents about raising children?
- What kinds of faith teachings enhance child development? Hinder it?
- Religious Child Maltreatment is a reality that must be addressed by both the religious and nonreligious, to find a way to end all forms of child abuse and neglect.
- Instances of child maltreatment within religious settings are not grounds to condemn religious involvement of children entirely. However, nothing—including religious beliefs and practices—should be used as justification to mistreat children.
- Faith communities must be willing to talk about child abuse and neglect if they hope to solve this problem. Covering up the issue or pretending it does not exist only serves to make the situation worse—and provides covers and excuses for perpetrators.
Department of Human Services. “What are the causes of child abuse?” Retrieved online June 10, 2014.
Marci A. Hamilton (2005). God v. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Janet Heimlich (2011). Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment. Amherst: Prometheus Books.
* A child is a person under the age of eighteen. I define abuse and neglect or maltreatment according to most states’ child welfare laws, although I acknowledge that some aspects of those laws are controversial, such as the acceptance of mild to moderate use of corporal punishment.
**Even if perpetrators do not actually believe what they are telling victims, such instances still qualify as RCM because victims are convinced that such doctrines must be followed.
Janet Heimlich© 2019 CYS