Religious Child Maltreatment — One of the Many Ills of Authoritarian Faith

This guest post by Janet Heimlich, founder of the Child-Friendly Faith Project (CFFP), explores the tragic connection that sometimes exists between religion and child maltreatment. Sadly, Texas is no stranger to this problem. The cautionary tale of fundamentalist preacher Lester Roloff and his homes for troubled teens is a case in point. TFN lobbied for years for the Texas Legislature to suspend the alternative (and lenient) licensing program the state maintained for faith-based child care providers like Roloff. That program was finally allowed to expire in 2001, and the Roloff Homes moved out of the state. Janet’s CFFP will host a conference on religious and cultural maltreatment on Dec. 4-5 in Austin. Click here for more information on the conference.


I’ve been researching and writing about religious child maltreatment (RCM) since 2008. RCM is child abuse and neglect that is enabled by religious belief, usually the fear-based kind. Soon after my book Breaking Their Will came out in June of 2011, TFN was kind enough to publish a blog post I wrote on the issue of RCM and religious authoritarian cultures, the communities in which children are at the highest risk for RCM.

It was a good feeling to be able to expose these problems. And so, mentally wiping my hands, I thought, “Glad that’s out. Now, on to other things.” But that’s not at all what has happened.

You see, it’s one thing to make others aware that children are being abused and neglected in the name of faith. It’s another to actually do something about it. And it didn’t take long before I realized that, yes, I needed to do more—I had to come up with a plan to stop RCM in this country.

The need for such a plan became apparent when I began to understand, in an all too real way, that victims were still suffering. I received emails from survivors who said they appreciated my book, but they also knew many children who were still stuck inside the same faith communities that had turned their own childhoods into a living hell.

I remember giving a talk and when I asked for questions, an elderly woman raised her hand and tearfully asked me what she should do about her daughter. The woman said her daughter was raising her toddler in such a controlled and indoctrinated way, the child had to thank Jesus every time he asked for a grape. Last month, I gave a talk to ex-Mormons in Salt Lake City, Utah, and met a 21-year-old man who was rejected by his parents because he stopped believing the teachings of the LDS church.

In addition, it’s clear that politicians and the general public often are willing to sacrifice the health, safety, and lives of young people if religious rights are at stake. For example, here in Texas, after CPS was heavily criticized for removing hundreds of children from a polygamous, fundamentalist Mormon sect—even though 11 men went to prison for sexually abusing underage girls through “spiritual” marriages—the agency failed to take away any parent’s custodial rights. To this day, even the sect’s leader, Warren Jeffs, can continue to make decisions for his hundreds of children while serving a life sentence for raping two girls.

Since 2000, according to the New York City health department, more than one baby a year has contracted herpes after undergoing a Jewish circumcision ritual that involves a rabbi sucking the infant’s penis. At least two babies have died and two have suffered brain damage. While the city now requires that rabbis inform parents of the risks, the city is not enforcing the regulation, and the dangerous ritual is still legal in New York and everywhere else in the US.

Children are still beaten by self-proclaimed Christians who insist that the book of Proverbs requires that they use “the rod” to make their boys and girls heaven-worthy. Children still die from medical neglect based on extremist beliefs about the power of “faith healing.” And members of religious organizations still fail to report sexual abuse to protect the reputation of their religion and the clergy who perpetrate those crimes.

What’s really the message here? It’s not that religion is bad and should be labeled akin to poisons under the kitchen sink— “Keep away from children.” Instead, as I wrote in that original TFN blog post, we have to speak out against authoritarian religion. Why? Because religious authoritarian leaders do things they have no business doing, such as telling parents how to raise their kids when those leaders have had next to no training in child development.

Now, it’s not a comfortable place for many people of faith to go. Many don’t like criticizing other believers—at least publicly. But this differentiation between how ultra-conservative people of faith raise their kids compared to more progressive believers has to be recognized.

So, just how do we combat faith communities that pose a threat to young people? Continue to support TFN, whose efforts help weaken the influence of authoritarian religion.

And you can do something else—attend a great conference on religious and cultural maltreatment. (Those who register and type in the code “tfn” get a discount on the registration fee.) It’s being hosted by a nonprofit organization I started in 2012, the Child-Friendly Faith Project. We educate the public about these issues. And we do something else that’s unique—we partner with, and promote, the “good guy” faith communities that attend our trainings on RCM and commit to adopting healthy childrearing practices.

The CFFP has been my answer to ending religious child maltreatment. The idea is to help grow child-friendly faith communities and let ultra-conservative, authoritarian communities that abuse and neglect children wither on the vine.

Janet Heimlich is the founder of the Child-Friendly Faith Project and the author of Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment. She can be reached at [email protected].

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  • I was disgusted by the thought of any rabbi sucking a child’s penis; there is something wrong with those rabbis. I’ve never witnessed a circumcision where that happened, but I do not doubt that it has happened.
    Two years ago I broke into a neighbor’s house when I heard a child screaming as though she were being tortured; she WAS being tortured by her father who was beating her with a 1/2″ dowel rod.
    I grabbed the dowel, broke it over my knee and then started beating the father while my sister called 911.
    The police called an ambulance, the little girl had welts all over her body. She was only seven years old. SEVEN! Her “crime?” She was too scared to say grace! Her father said “spare the rod, spoil the child.” That is NOT what was meant! How many Christian children are being permanently injured by their idiotic family’s misunderstandings of the Hebrew word?
    Yes, the parents tried to sue me for breaking into their home; the police made appearance for me stating that the child would have been killed had I not done what I did.
    Daddy dearest, BTW, is still serving time in prison; he will not be out for at least the next 15 years. The girl will be 21 by then.

  • David says:

    The punishment of children is just one manifestation of authoritarianism, which is dragging religion into identity with the broader coercive political cult Christianity is becoming. It is its Achilles heel. Ultimately it points to the brittleness of this ideology, its fundamental un-sustainability.

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