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Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment

By Janet Heimlich ~

As I stress in my book, Breaking Their Will, children are at most risk for being religiously abused or neglected when they are raised in religious authoritarian cultures. These cultures are homes and communities in which members strongly identify themselves by their faith. And, as in any authoritarian community, people care more about meeting the needs of the overall culture than the needs of individuals.

It’s important that people of faith distinguish between religious authoritarian environments versus those that are progressive and more tolerant. The former can often be harmful to children (as well as adults), because they negatively influence how parents raise their kids. In these groups, mothers and fathers usually adopt authoritarian, one-size-fits-all approach to childrearing; sometimes parents justify abuse or neglect with doctrine or scripture.

There are a number of ways to identify a religious authoritarian community. Breaking Their Will offers three “perfect storm” characteristics, as well as a list of questions parents can ask themselves to determine whether they are raising their kids in such a culture. In addition, members tend to dogmatically cling to certain extreme beliefs. Below I list ten of those beliefs, as well as questions for parents to ponder.

If you are a mother or father whose church or community maintains some or all of these beliefs, I urge you to look elsewhere to worship. While you might benefit from being part of a tightly structured community, you are putting your children at risk for emotional and physical abuse or neglect.


#1: Children must honor you unconditionally.

The Ten Commandments is clear that your sons and daughters should honor you. Colossians 3:20 goes a step further in requiring that your offspring honor you “in all things”. Do you take that to mean that you have the right to expect your children to always honor you? Are there ever times that you do not deserve that honor? What about the idea of parents honoring their children, a phrase that is absent from the Bible?

#2: The Bible requires that you spank your kids.

The book of Proverbs includes numerous passages stating that parents should use the “rod” to discipline and “chastise” children. Proverbs also says that spanking is a form of love and even helps bring children eternal salvation (23:14). Do you find that these passages justify the physical punishment of children? What if that “chastisement” leaves marks on the skin? What if this treatment leaves your child terrified or confused about what parental love means? I have yet to locate a study that shows that spanking improves a child’s well-being. Do you believe it does?

#3: Females must always be “pure”.

Who gains from girls and women being instructed to cover their heads, not lead religious services, suppress their sexuality, and devote their lives to being wives and mothers? So many girls are raised, as one female reader wrote, “to cover [themselves] to protect them from being abused or lusted over by men.” It is a way of “honoring and protecting women, not controlling them,” she stated. Is that your experience, that all men are to be feared and that this belief about female purity does not lead to the control of women? Even more importantly, can you, mothers, raised to submit to your husbands and other men, adequately protect your children from abuse by men?

#4: Children are sinful.

Here I am speaking only to Christians who are not part of the Mormon church. Do you believe that children are born sinful and that sin jeopardizes your children’s chances of reaching eternal salvation? If so, what are you willing to do to “cleanse” them of this sin? Terrify them about eternal damnation? Beat them, as Proverbs commands? Do you feel that you are being a bad parent if you don’t?

#5: Abuse victims should forgive their perpetrators.

In Matthew 18:21–22, Jesus commands individuals to forgive their sinners mot just once or twice but “seventy times seven.” Many believe forgiveness brings peace of mind. Do you believe that children who say they have been abused should forgive their abusers? What about getting the victim counseling? What about turning the abuser in to civil authorities. Just whom does making children forgive their abusers serve?

#6: Religious leaders can do no wrong.

Do you believe that your priest, pastor, rabbi, or imam is closer to God than you are? If so, does that mean that he could never harm your child? If your child were to tell you that your religious leader had sexually abused him or her, would you believe your child? Would you report the accused abuser?

#7: The faithful must avoid scandal at all costs.

How important is it to protect the image of your religious leaders, your place of worship, your religion? Do you believe that non-believers want to persecute you? What ends would you go to to keep problems secret from non-believers, such as child abuse. How willing are you to tell police or child protective services if you suspect that a child in your community is being abused?

#8: Marriage/sex between a man and a virgin/underage girl is a form of piety.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 69a) says, “A maiden aged three years and one day may be acquired in marriage by coition.” The Mormon text, the Doctrine and Covenants (132:61–62) states that men who marry many virgins are not adulterers “for they belong to him.” The Bible includes numerous stories of men being promised, or having sex with, virgins. What are your rules about how old a girl should be before she marries or has sex?

#9: God wants you to have many children.

The idea that couples should “be fruitful and multiply” was important in biblical times when the size of a tribe largely determined its chances for survival. Do you feel the dictum to procreate is also important today? Some pious parents have gone so far as to adopt children even after they already have many biological children. Sometimes, these parents can’t handle the stress and the children suffer from neglect and abuse. Is it fair to your children-to-be if you are not ready to handle a large family, psychologically or economically?

#10: Faith healing is superior to medical care.

Jesus supposedly cured people through faith healing. What do you do when your child gets sick? Do you believe that prayer is the only answer? Do you see seeking medical care as a sign that you are not faithful to God? If prayer doesn’t work, are you willing to admit it? How much would you let your child suffer before you call a doctor? Do you think Jesus would have condoned the suffering of children due to illness if good doctors had been available in his time?