Religious Child Maltreatment

by Ryan

We asked Texas-based author — and crack reporter — Janet Heimlich to prepare a guest-post for TFN Insider about her just-released book exploring the tragic connection that sometimes exists between religion and child maltreatment. Heimlich raises an important question — do certain religious cultures in America pose a particularly big risk to the health and safety of children? And this meticulously researched book argues that, in fact, children who are raised in religious authoritarian cultures are at a high risk for religiously motivated maltreatment.

Sadly, Texas is no stranger to this unfortunate connection. The cautionary tale of fundamentalist preacher Lester Roloff and his homes for troubled teens is a case in point. TFN lobbied for years for the Texas Legislature to suspend the alternative (and lenient) licensing program the state maintained for faith-based child care providers like Roloff. That program was finally allowed to expire in 2001, and the Roloff Homes moved out of the state.

As the book reveals, this is a topic that deserves far more attention. We thank Janet — who blogs at Religious Child Maltreatment — for sharing this with our readers.

What Is Religious Child Maltreatment?
Janet Heimlich

When I began writing my book, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, the term religious child maltreatment did not exist. At least, Google had never heard of it. I found its absence indicative of just how little had been said about religion’s potential to harm children. Very few books had looked at this problem in a comprehensive way. I learned, too, that the topic made many people uncomfortable, even defensive.

It’s not news that religion in the wrong hands can be dangerous. Religious wars continue to be waged around the globe. Yet, many have a hard time believing that religious faith can also lead to child abuse and neglect. In fact, the worst perpetrators tend to be those who seem perfectly pious—those who claim to have “the one truth”. Cardoza School of Law professor Marci A. Hamilton writes in God vs. the Gavel:

“The United States has a romantic attitude toward religious individuals and institutions, as though they are always doing what is right. The unrealistic belief that religion is always for the good . . . is a hazardous myth. . . . Horrible things have been done to children beneath the cloak of religion. Children have been raped, beaten, and permitted to die excruciating deaths.”

Isn’t it time we begin to ask whether religious belief should be considered a risk factor for child abuse and neglect?

Neither Breaking Their Will nor my website is a diatribe against all faith or any particular religion. Rather, they focus on a particular kind of religiosity—that which is cultivated in religious authoritarian cultures. According to my research, children who are raised in these cultures are at the highest risk for religiously motivated maltreatment.

How to identify a religious authoritarian culture? First, I consider a culture to be a community, place of worship, or single household—any environment in which members are strongly identified by their religious beliefs. Second, there are three perfect-storm characteristics that make up a religious authoritarian culture:

1) The social structure is strictly hierarchical;

2) members subscribe to, and are led to believe in, fear-based ideas; and

3) the culture is socially separatist.

Third, these cultures harm children by the way they affect parents, as mothers and fathers tend to follow norms that do not best serve the needs of children.

Raising awareness of the issue of religious child maltreatment is just the first step toward eradicating the problem. As psychology researcher Bette L. Bottoms notes in a University of Illinois at Chicago study,

“If religion-related child abuse is not acknowledged now as a problem by our society, it will be our legacy to the future.”



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