What is religious child maltreatment?

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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 (and numerous searches proved that Google had never heard of it.)

This dearth of information indicated that there hadn’t been much study on the negative impacts of religious practices and beliefs. 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 to protecting children. And faith communities are also served by learning about RCM, especially when you consider that many churches, synagogues, and mosques are struggling to attract families. As Dr. Donald Capps of Princeton University Seminary said:

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? It 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.

When are children most at risk? According to my research, the most vulnerable children are those who are raised in religious authoritarian cultures. That is, cultures in which members 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 we belong to a religious community or have no religious beliefs.