Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment

A long time ago I used to be a Roman Catholic, and in those days we talked a lot about tests of faith. They happened when you were confronted with facts that clearly challenged the creed you professed. Humanists can have tests of faith too, as when faced with the stories and study data reported in Janet Heimlich’s Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment. Reading this book will certainly challenge your belief in human dignity.

Heimlich, a freelance reporter for National Public Radio and the recipient of several journalism awards, set out to expose religious child abuse and neglect in the United States. The result is a 397-page compilation of studies, interviews, and reflections on the physical and emotional harm done to children by allegedly pious people whose religion commands, condones, or hides their abuse. The book is meticulously documented, each study and interview referenced in the sixty-nine pages of notes. It is a sad but important addition to a growing volume of literature on maltreatment of children at the hands of the faithful. It also serves as a testament to how twisted human beings can become when placed in the right circumstances.

Media coverage of child religious abuse most often centers on either sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy or the withholding of life-saving medical care by Christian Scientists—most recently, by The Followers of Christ based in Oregon City, Oregon. In Breaking Their Will, Heimlich delves deeper and devotes several chapters to each of these.

One troubling chapter (actually, they’re all troubling), entitled “Why No One Calls it Neglect,” explains legislation that exempts medical neglect of children by religious persons from the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. The Christian Science Church lobbied for the exemptions and, according to Heimlich, also provided financial incentives to states that adopted them. She reports that as of 2010, about thirty states had religious exemptions related to faith healing. Legislators in these states blatantly colluded with parents who would be criminally prosecuted were it not for their profession of religious faith. Heimlich’s reference to America’s love affair with religion couldn’t be more apt than in this shameful legislation.

The book chronicles several other forms of abuse. Some are emotional, as in the humiliation of youngsters taught from birth that they’re simply bad to the bone. The creation of a fear-filled community dominated by an angry, punishing, and all-seeing God is another. Some religions further require geographic or social isolation of their members with the effect of stunting children’s intellectual growth and social skills—not to mention those of the adults who are raising them.

Abuse is rarely only emotional, though, as we see in reports of exorcisms used to chase out the demons of sinfulness in general but also used to dislodge those of homosexuality, autism, and mental illness. Beating the possessed child—perhaps a baby crying in church, ostensibly being used by the devil to distract worshippers—can be part of the ritual.

Correction of willful and disobedient children is the source of some amazingly brutal physical abuse detailed by Heimlich—from beating stubborn toddlers to spanking six-month-old babies, to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ practice of “breaking in” babies by a combination of spanking and near-drowning under running water. Another example is what became known as the “biblical chastisement” case prosecuted in 2010 in California where a couple beat their seven-year-old daughter to death with the quarter-inch plumbing supply line recommended by Michael Pearl, a Christian parenting authority.

Thus, molesting children and letting them suffer and die from curable illnesses are far from the only way that people of faith brutalize their children. So barbaric are their practices, so twisted are their motives and personal emotional needs that it seems impossible that any amount of education or therapy could heal them. Hence my humanist test of faith.

The author doesn’t take on the question of whether people who hit babies or perform sexual acts with children are irremediable moral deviants or not. And perhaps she shouldn’t since her goal is to report the abuse, not draw conclusions about the abusers.

What Heimlich does offer are some important insights into the conditions that allow such abuses to happen in the first place. Her principal conclusion is that children are most at risk in religious cultures that are dangerously authoritarian. She describes “a perfect storm” of characteristics that signal danger. First, the group displays a strict social hierarchy. Second, its culture is fear-filled. And third, it’s separatist. The supporting evidence offered in the book is easily sufficient and relevant to justify the author’s conclusions.

The book ends on a hopeful note with suggestions of ways to prevent future abuse by religious people. They are as obvious as they are difficult to implement: 1) Repeal religious exemptions specific to faith healing; 2) Require clergy to report child abuse and neglect; 3) Extend or eliminate child sexual abuse statutes of limitation; and 4) Have secular agencies reach out to religious groups, become familiar with their beliefs, and educate them about their legal responsibilities.

Heimlich urges further that we, as a nation, recognize children’s rights. She points out that the United States and Somalia are the only two nations that have not ratified the recommendations of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Finally, she calls on religious people to view children in a different way by focusing on scriptural support for protecting children rather than on doctrines that condone harming them.

In closing this book, one is left with a feeling of overwhelming sadness. The reality that there are parents and church people blind to the pain they inflict and oblivious to the fact that their victims are but fledgling, innocent human beings simply leaves you speechless.

The author’s recommendations for change are reasonable and, if they were implemented, would provide a firewall of safety for this vulnerable population. And perhaps the public mirror that’s being raised before them may prompt some abusers to step back and see their actions for what they are. Perhaps.

Nonetheless, it is a challenge to me, as a humanist, to believe that such efforts could make a difference, so broken are the perpetrators themselves. This must be what it means to have humanist faith—to continue to believe, in spite of it all, that humans have within them the ability to be better. To trust that if we, the lucky ones, are steady in our compassion towards the victims and rational in our treatment of their abusers both can heal and even flourish. I guess if faith is belief in things unseen then believing in the dignity of a child abuser is as true a faith as can be.