What is religious child maltreatment?


A primer on RCM by Janet Heimlich

When I began writing my book, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, the term religious child maltreatment or RCM did not exist. At least Google at never heard of it, as numerous online searches proved.

This dearth of information indicated that there hadn’t been much study on the negative impacts of religious practices and beliefs on children. And when I began asking people about it, I learned that talking about the subject often made people uncomfortable and sometimes defensive.

But it’s important that we do talk about RCM, because it’s the first step toward eradicating it. But it’s not only children who benefit by having this conversation. Faith communities are also served. Consider that many churches, synagogues, and mosques are struggling to attract families. As the late Dr. Donald Capps of Princeton University Seminary explained in A Child’s Song:

This is not a pleasant subject, especially for those of us who have deep personal attachments to the Christian faith. But we dare not avoid the subject, for the abuse of children in the name of religion may well be the most significant reason for why they leave the faith when they are old enough to do so. We must ask ourselves: Who can blame them? Why should they not abandon the scene of their silent torment?

What is religious child maltreatment?

RCM is child abuse or neglect that is enabled by religious beliefs held by perpetrators, victims, and the surrounding community. Examples include using religious messages to terrorize children, refusing to report sexual abuse perpetrated by religious leaders, denying children needed medical care due to beliefs about “faith healing,” and beating children based on particular scriptural interpretations.

RCM is not new. There are plenty of examples in the Old Testament. But what is a recent phenomenon is our recognition that adults can abuse or neglect children in the midst of adhering to religious doctrines. Marci A. Hamilton, CEO and Academic Director of CHILD USA, 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.

As high-profile crimes against children have taken place in small and large religious organizations, more and more people are asking whether certain kinds of religious belief should be considered a risk factor of child abuse and neglect.

How pervasive is RCM?

Children throughout the US and the world suffer child abuse or neglect enabled by religious belief every day. The impacts of this maltreatment can have serious longterm effects and can even be fatal. Whether a child is raised Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or of any other faith, he or she is at risk, particularly if the adults responsible for their wellbeing are part of an authoritarian culture.

Religious organizations in the US collectively have paid billions of dollars settling lawsuits with those they have harmed. High-profile cases of religious child maltreatment regularly appear in the news. You can find memoirs written by survivors who grew up in just about every religion, spiritual group, and cult.

Consider these statistics:

  • A 1984 study reviewing the health status of children in cults showed that these religious groups had unusually high incidences of physical abuse, sleep deprivation, and medical neglect.
  • A 1984 survey of Quaker families revealed that Quaker fathers reported more acts of violence toward their children than did fathers nationally, and Quaker sibling violence was significantly higher than sibling violence rates reported nationally.
  • A 1995 study that surveyed mental health professionals found that certain kinds of allegations of abuse fell under 3 categories: torturing or killing a child to rid him or her of evil, withholding needed medical care for religious reasons, and abusing a child under the cover of a religious role.
  • A 1998 study published in Pediatrics looked at 172 child deaths occurring in church groups that strongly promoted “faith healing” to cure illness and found that the medical conditions of 140 children would have yielded a 90% survival rate had they received medical care.
  • A 1999 study showed that the more ideologically conservative parents are, the more likely they are to have positive attitudes toward physically punishing children and the more important religion is to parents, the more likely they are to have attitudes that devalue and verbally abuse children.
  • A 2003 study showed that adults who experienced “religion-related” abuse in childhood suffered from more serious psychological problems than those who experienced abuse in which religion was not a factor.*
  • A 2005 study showed that individuals who are extrinsically religious (viewed religiosity as a means for attaining other goals rather than as an end in itself) have an increased risk of perpetrating child physical abuse.

Which children are at risk?

According to my research, the most vulnerable children are those who are raised in religious authoritarian cultures. That is, members or congregants tend to:

  • adhere to a strict social hierarchy
  • are unusually fearful, and
  • are socially separatist

Raising awareness of the issue of religious child maltreatment and its risk factors is the first step toward protecting children. And that’s something we all should strive to do, regardless of whether or not we are members of a faith community.

To learn more about RCM, please visit our blog page.