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What Is It About Religion That Fosters Abuse?

And more importantly, how can we stop abuse from occurring on an institutional level?

Photo by themostinept via Flickr

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Abuse is still rife in religion. Earlier this year, the Methodist Church of Britain released an "unreserved apology" for failing to protect children and adults, following a report that uncovered 1,885 alleged incidents of abuse in the Church dating back to the 1950s. Ministers and lay employees are said to have been involved in 25 percent of cases, with over half of those involving ministers being of a sexual nature. There are six ongoing police investigations.


Modern history has been riddled with revelations of religious child abuse. Almost every week brings with it a story relating to some scandal somewhere. Though not an exclusively modern problem, it's been tasked to us to fix, a task not always welcomed by authorities and religions themselves; inevitably, with many reports of abuse comes one of denial and coverup. It's because of this that, before we solve this problem, we must first tackle the link between religion and child abuse, and establish whether—with religion not going anywhere soon—we're simply wasting our time cleaning up institutions that are endemically abusive.

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For many British people, it's perhaps natural to assume the problem of religious child abuse is a Catholic one. How could it not be when, for years, the news ran rampant with stories of priests abusing children? The coverage was warranted: from 2001 to 2010, the central governing body of the Catholic Church considered sex abuse allegations concerning about 3,000 priests dating back 50 years, some against children as young as three.

But as the Methodist allegations reveal, this is far from being a Catholic-only problem. Furthermore, on the Protestant side of things, the Church of England revealed last year that they were investigating the personnel files of thousands of clergymen and women as part of a probe into allegations of abuse, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, expecting more to be uncovered, saying it's something he deals with "every day."


Between 2008 and 2011, Britain's madrassas—Islamic religious schools—also faced more than 400 allegations of physical abuse, according to a BBC investigation, with a senior prosecutor saying the number likely represented the tip of the iceberg. Children as young as six reported being hit with sticks, punched in the back, slapped, kicked, and having their hair pulled. Child sex abuse also appears present in the Orthodox Jewish community, the Channel 4 Dispatches program uncovering 19 alleged cases in the UK in 2013, none of which had been reported to the police.

Startling is the difference between these religions, how not just their beliefs vary but the origin and class of their practitioners, while simultaneously being similar in certain tragic areas. This continues in the United States, where the Mormon Church faces constant accusations of child abuse, one of most famous proven cases being Warren Jeffs, the Fundamentalist leader who was jailed for life in 2011 for taking girls as young as 12 to be his brides.

There's also Christian Science, particularly popular in the US, which recommends no medical care for its practitioners. Its founder, Mary Baker Eddy, defines "flesh" as "an error of physical belief; … an illusion; a belief that matter has sensation"—a definition that's also led to numerous child deaths over the years.

Scientology opposes psychiatry, having members sign waivers that state "all mental problems are spiritual in nature"—including depression, hyperactivity, and learning disorders—denying them and their children care. Testimonials from former members also state that children can sometimes be separated from their parents and forced into hard labor from as young as eight.


So what's causing this abuse? In reality, "religion" is a generalized term. Better to specify what kind of religion—or, better still, what kind of culture—fosters it, and how there are varying degrees. Janet Heimlich, one of the world's foremost authors on the topic and writer of the book Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, says children are more vulnerable to abuse and neglect if they live in religious authoritarian cultures.

"There are three perfect-storm factors that identify a religious culture or community as authoritarian: One, the culture has a strict, social hierarchy. Two, the culture is fearful. And three, the culture is separatist," she told the Huffington Post in 2011. "The more intense these three factors are—the more authoritarian the culture is – the more likely children will be harmed."

According to the American initiative the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), one in four girls and one in six boys in the US will be sexually abused before the age of 18. Away from religion, the reporting rate of sexual assault is about 32 percent. Now consider that statistic in the context of religions where, as Heimlich says, sometimes "the good of the faith community as a whole takes priority over members' individual needs," and it's fair to assume that the reporting rate may well be lower among believers.

Take Catholicism again, whose hierarchy not only failed to report allegations to authorities but who deliberately moved priests to other parishes where the abuse sometimes continued—or the Irish police, who merely reported allegations from children back to the Church before allowing the alleged perpetrators to flee the country—and one might get a sense of what's sometimes facing victims of religious child maltreatment.


Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, who blew the whistle on abuses within New York's Orthodox Jewish community. Photo by Christian Storm

Or what about the more recent cases against Orthodox Jews in Melbourne and New York? When victims went to the police, they and their parents were called moserim ("informers") and under the Rabbinic law of mesirah (it's forbidden for Orthodox Jews to report others to secular authorities) were essentially excommunicated. Meanwhile, if victims followed protocol and reported the abuse to Jewish authorities, these almost never went to the police, instead handing out homespun punishments like making perpetrators apologize, pay financial restitution, and relocate to Israel.

"Part of what has allowed abuses to continue unabated so long in very large religious institutions, such as the Methodist Church and others, is the power they have over congregants," Heimlich told me. "They have the power to not only convince them they should not report abuses to outside authorities, but to tithe [give money]. These institutions also have power over politicians, who can be lobbied to keep statutes of limitations short, which, of course, benefits the institutions financially and keeps cases of abuse hidden from the public eye because survivors don't get their day in court."

Here in secular Britain, consider the recent Rochdale debacle, where girls as young as 13 were plied with food, drugs, alcohol, and gifts so they could be passed around a group of men for sex, where, eight years previous to prosecution—during which the abuse continued—both victims and perpetrators were named in an internal police report, about which nothing was done. Greater Manchester Police constable Sir Peter Fahy told ITV that officers had developed a "mindset" that victims in sexual abuse cases were "unreliable" and that, regarding the report, senior police and council officers claimed the data had been "fabricated or exaggerated" while subjecting the report's author to "personal hostility." To this day, no officer has been charged.


It seems, regardless of what context child abuse takes place in, or where, it's hard not only to speak about these crimes but to have them listened to. Clearly, child abuse is bigger than religion—for example, Catholic priests are no likelier to commit sex abuse than the average male, celibacy having no proven bearing. Also, it isn't just religions that protect perpetrators—what about the Jimmy Savile case?

Though uncorroborated, he's said to have committed 214 sex acts, some against children as young as eight, at 13 NHS hospitals, as well as on BBC premises. There have also been allegations against the Scouts. And what about the most protective institution of all, the family, where 80 percent of child abuse takes place?

Yet, accounting for their prevalence, power, and international reach—and that a lot of non-sexual abuse can be directly related to rules and scripture—many religions do seem uniquely toxic in this area. Perhaps most toxic is the broken sense of trust felt by victims and victims' parents, having given religions their love, spirituality, and innocence in the belief they were right and moral, only for them to obliterate that trust. One priest, one vicar, is bad. Denying, stigmatizing, and avoiding responsibility on an institutional level is something else entirely, decades-late apologies or not.

Children who survive abuse may experience feelings of guilt, fear, and shame. They may suffer from self-hatred, low self-esteem, and depression. As adults, they're likelier to find themselves in abusive, dangerous relationships and have problems with intimacy. They're also likelier to kill themselves. To say we must crack down on this is an understatement—as is that eradicating all institutions would make it easier—but we live in the real world, and certainly there's an argument to be made that innocent believers, of which there are many, needn't be tarnished.


Another renowned writer on the topic, Katherine Stewart—author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children—told me about the role played by those who I'll call "average peaceful" believers.

"Of course, there is no guilt by association, and people aren't directly responsible for the misdeeds of their coreligionists," she said. "But they do have a significant responsibility. Questions of morality are, to some degree, questions of paying attention. When people join a particular religious group, they don't have the luxury of not paying attention to what that religion and its hierarchy are doing. It doesn't mean they are responsible for misdeeds, but it is irresponsible to maintain ignorance of a pattern of allegations of abuse."

READ ON VICE NEWS: More than 1,000 Jehovah's Witnesses Have Been Accused of Child Sex Abuse in Australia—and Police Never Knew

Going forward, we're obviously in an imperfect position, forced to rely to a large extent on authorities like the police and social services, which—in the past—haven't always been particularly effective at dealing with these issues. We need to encourage them to be more open and connect more frequently with religious communities, ending what's been a wait-and-see environment of negligence. When abuse is suspected, a support group structure is needed to monitor a child's situation, as are nurses to evaluate their care-taking arrangements, with pediatricians in schools also helping spot it. Videoconferencing has also been used to diagnose abuse in remote areas, so there is certainly cause for hope.

Heimlich believes the best way we can make a difference is "to encourage religious organizations and professionals to be educated about religious child maltreatment, which is what my nonprofit organization, the Child-Friendly Faith Project, does. Every person of faith should be asking administrators and religious leaders of their church, synagogue or mosque to learn about religious child maltreatment, how it impacts child development and what is needed to ensure that child abuse prevention policies are effective."

Stewart adds: "If a religion places a huge stress on obedience and parental authority, sanctions corporal punishment, and emphasizes female disempowerment or subjugation, or the subjugation of other ethnic or religious groups, it lays the foundation for abuse. Of course, this principle does not just apply to religions. If members of any group or community suspect there may be abuse within their midst, they are required to pay attention and address it. We should all demand openness, transparency, and investigation of any allegation of abuse."

Lastly, though apologies mean little in the face of decades—perhaps centuries—of abuse, religions like the Methodist Church recognizing what they've done creates an openness around abuse, making the environment more accepting for victims to come forwards. They also reflect an invitation for people to observe these religions more stringently, a transparency which, in the Catholic Church, has seen abuse by priests drop sharply in the last 20 years. In 2010, accusations of a sexual nature numbered eight cases in the United States, a significant drop. And though there are many other religions out there where abuse is still rampant, surely, if the Catholic Church can begin getting its act together, others can too.

To read more about child abuse, and help fight it, visit the National Children's Alliance.

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