Janet Heimlich’s book Breaking Their Will, Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, is a cogent investigation into religious child abuse. Breaking Their Will covers a broad array of religious sects, and Heimlich does a good job at documenting the child abuse within these sects.
While Heimlich states several times that she is not suggesting that all religions are bad or that all religions lead to religious child abuse, she comes pretty close to proving otherwise. I wonder if she had to say not all religions are bad to avoid being labeled a closed-minded hater of all religions; but regardless of her reason for playing nice with religion, she does a more than adequate job proving that religious child abuse is widespread.
Heimlich writes that religious child maltreatment manifests itself in many ways, such as:
- Justifying abusive physical punishment with religious texts or doctrine
- Having children engage in dangerous religious rituals
- Taking advantage of religious authority to abuse children and procure their silence
- Failing to provide children needed medical care, owing to a belief in divine intervention
- Terrifying children with religious concepts, such as an angry and punitive god, eternal damnation, or possession by the devil or by demons
- Making children feel guilty and shameful by telling them they are sinful
- Neglecting children’s safety by allowing them to spend time with religious authorities without scrutinizing the authorities’ backgrounds
- Failing to acknowledge or report child abuse or neglect in order to protect the image of a religion or a religious group
Breaking Their Will is divided into four parts:
- The pain of chastisement—religious child physical abuse
- Harm without hitting—religious child emotional abuse
- Violating a trust—religious child sexual abuse
- Sin of denial—religious child medical neglect
Heimlich’s book is well documented and chock-full of real life stories of boys and girls who were abused. In my most recent battle with people within the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement I noticed that the testimonies of people who were abused are routinely dismissed. In most every case the abuse deniers know of people who were not abused while in the same setting as those who were abused, or they know the accused abusers personally, so they dismiss abuse claims as lies or attempts to attack and destroy the IFB movement. I subscribe to the theory that where there is smoke there is fire and the sheer number of people claiming to have been abused makes it highly in unlikely that they are all lying.
At times Breaking Their Will made me uncomfortable. The book reminded me of what I once was. It is hard to admit that my sincere literal interpretation of the Bible led me to preach and teach things that are clearly abusive. I routinely recommended child rearing books by John R. Rice, Jack Hyles, James Dobson, and Richard Fugate. While I cannot undo the past, I can advocate for and demand that religious child abuse be taken seriously.
Heimlich suggests that clergy be required to report child abuse and neglect. Here in Ohio, such a requirement is already law. However, many pastors do not consider beating a child with a rod or a belt to be abuse. The Bible teaches (requires) it and they hold to the philosophy that their parents disciplined them using corporal punishment and look how they turned out. Until there is a federal law making striking a child a crime, physical child abuse in the name of God will continue.
I observed and participated in disciplinary methods that I would today clearly consider abuse. Back then I called it Biblical discipline; Today I call it child abuse. Over the course of 25 years I reported abuse to Family Services three times. All of the reports were made after I observed or heard about abuse (all of the reports came from our bus ministry). In retrospect, I now know that what I called good bible-based, God-honoring discipline was actually religious child abuse.
Heimlich advocates extending or eliminating the statutes of limitations on sexual child abuse. She will get no argument from me. (though I do have some concern about false claims of sexual abuse being used to get back at a parent, pastor, teacher, etc.). I think it is scandalous that the Roman Catholic Church in many states hides behind statutes of limitations, refusing to even acknowledge that abuse “might” have occurred.
Heimlich encourages parents to examine the norms and behaviors of the faith-based communities of which they are a part:
- Is my faith community theologically exclusive? That is, do religious leaders and other worshippers claim to be the only people who “know” religious truth?
- Does my community fear or hold in contempt those who are not part of our faith?
- Do I feel at ease asking questions, voicing complaints, or expressing feelings of religious doubt to those in authority or others?
- Do I raise my child according to strict guidelines or beliefs held by my faith community?
- Would I be rebuked or treated closely if I did not follow those norms, including enforcing strict discipline in the home and using physical punishment in ways that make me feel uneasy?
- Do my faith leaders tell us God wants us to spank our kids?
- Are children in my place of worship treated respectfully, even when they misbehave, or are they made to feel shamefully?
- If parents or children need help in managing their lives, does my place of worship offer suggestions for mental health services, or do authorities simply tell them to talk to a member of the clergy, pray harder, or undergo an exorcism?
- If I were to find out that my child was abused by a member of my faith community, or if I had strong suspicions that such abuse had taken place, would I feel comfortable reporting that abuse to outside authorities, or would I feel obligated to first contact faith leaders and follow their instruction?
- If I did speak to faith leaders first, would they likely advise me to report the allegations to law enforcement or child protective services, or to keep the problem within the church?
- How much power does my religious leader hold?
- Do worshipers believe he or she has some sort of God hotline and thus can tell us how God wants us to live our lives?
- Does a religious leader try to scare people faith?
For those of raised in IFB churches and Evangelical churches this list pretty well describes most of the churches of which we have been a part. In other words, tens of millions of Americans attend churches that have dangerous abusive tendencies. How can this be? Simple. When a religious text becomes the authority over every aspect of life, and its teachings implicitly obeyed, abuse is sure to follow (and we see the same thing in the Muslim faith and Orthodox Judaism).
Heimlich raises one controversial point towards the end of the book when she deals with female and male circumcision. Most everyone would agree that female circumcision (the cutting of the clitoris) is morally wrong and should be criminally prosecuted. But what about male circumcision? Heimlich makes a compelling case that male circumcision is just as barbaric and immoral as female circumcision. Fortunately, male circumcision is in decline with barely 55% of newborns being circumcised (high of 80% in the 1970s).
I heartily recommend Janet Heimlich’s new book Breaking Their Will. If you want to study the connection between religion and child abuse this should be the first book you read. Religious child abuse can be stopped IF parents and religious leaders are willing to tackle the subject head-on. Thoughtful parents need to leave the belt in their pants and relegate the rod to the trash bin of archaic, unenlightened tools of discipline. As a parent and a grandfather I have an obligation to encourage and gently instruct my children in matters of child discipline and the propriety of religion in the lives of their children (my grandchildren). Our children know my wife and I oppose any form of hitting children and they know that we do not support children being indoctrinated in a religious faith before they are mature enough to make a decision on their own.
I hope Breaking Their Will is widely read. May it spur a mass exodus out of churches that promote and teach religious child abuse. May it also make government authorities aware of the extent of abuse that goes on in faith communities.
Who is Janet Heimlich?
A freelance reporter for National Public Radio, Janet Heimlich won nine journalism awards, including the prestigious Katie, given by the Press Club of Dallas; the Houston Press Club’s Radio Journalist of the Year Award; and the Texas Bar Association’s Gavel Award. In addition to her radio work, Ms. Heimlich has written nonfiction articles for such publications as Texas Monthly, the Austin American-Statesman, the Texas Observer, Tribeza, and Edible Austin.