In the family of God

In the family of God – mental and physical child abuse

Maija Elina

Finally, the Catholic church is being forced to take action against its sexually abusive priests rather than just moving them to new parishes to prey upon other unsuspecting children. Spurred on by the courage and determination of the victims, public attention has put pressure on the church hierarchy to stop protecting its own reputation at the cost of the most vulnerable members of its flock.

While we are relieved that the old practice of child sexual abuse behind the facade of religion has been exposed and the first steps taken to stop it, this is just one area where abusive power over children is being applied under the mantle of religion. Physical and emotional mistreatment, condoned–and often even demanded–by dogmatic teachings, are equally ancient customs. We read occasionally about the abusive treatment of students in a fundamentalist Christian school or about some fanatical father beating his infant to death to drive out the devil. But we hear very little about the countless children who are routinely subjected to abuse by authoritarian mainstream churches. This tragedy remains hidden in the darkness of ignorance and fear.

“Train up a child in a way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” says Proverbs 22:6. Those who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible and the innate badness of children find many biblical passages that advise using physical force to make the young good for God. One of the most commonly quoted verses ties hitting children with love: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes” (Proverbs 13:24).

Parenting books which advocate corporal punishment as God’s way of raising children–and which even describe the proper biblical method of doing it–are available in Christian bookstores across the country. Their authors seem to agree that, as long as the stick is the weapon, the bare bottom the place, and love the motive, physical punishment is divinely sanctioned. These particular Christian educators say they abhor child abuse but, in the same breath, tell parents to start as early as six months, when children first show their own will, and spank as long as it takes to break that stubbornness. And don’t let them be angry or cry for too long, they counsel: children have to learn to control their feelings early.

Why has child abuse in the name of God and in the guise of love not been addressed? Because religion and family are the two sacred cows of our society. Many still believe that all religious teachings and practices–as long as they are not “cult related”–are holy, as if designed by God, and should not be questioned. Even when we find abuse, many people often conclude that Christian intentions are good or their actions follow biblical guidelines.

We also remember that freedom of religion is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and fall silent. For instance, the director of a Christian day-care center in North Carolina appealed the ban on spanking in such institutions, saying, “It is against the scriptures.” He won his case, and the superior court judge ruled that the ban was an infringement on religious freedom. It is not surprising, then, that even some child-protection agencies overlook child abuse done in the name of religious freedom. Freedom of religion can become freedom to abuse, and the separation of church and state becomes the wall behind which the perpetrators hide.

We are also reluctant to point a finger at the family, saying that it’s nobody’s business what happens in the privacy of someone else’s home. There are fundamentalist parent groups which oppose the work of child-protection agencies, maintaining that no one has a right to interfere with their families. Child rights are not sanctioned by the word of God, and child-abuse laws undermine parental authority, they say. Unfortunately, those laws rarely reach the battered children of religious fanatics. The “family of God” isolates itself from the secular community and remains, by and large, outside of social and legal scrutiny.

Child abuse that takes place in a religious home is difficult to detect. To an outsider, the family appears pious and respectable. Its members are god-fearing churchgoers who would vehemently deny that their child-rearing practices are abusive. The children show no overt signs of abuse. Their emotional wounds are camouflaged by a compliant, ready-to-please appearance; a shy smile hides their fear and pain just as the physical bruises are hidden on the backside of their bodies.

Uncovering any child abuse is difficult, but children beaten as a punishment from God very rarely tell anybody because they are taught that they themselves are to blame. A woman raised in a fundamentalist home told me an incident that illustrates the collective approval of this phenomenon. As a little girl, her mother’s regular whippings gave her horrifying nightmares and panic attacks. “Once I fell asleep during Sunday school and the teacher wanted to know why I was always so tired. I told her. She said I should be more obedient to my parents and to pray harder.”

In cases where abuse is reported, children themselves often deny or minimize it. There is a strong tendency in all of us to protect our parents; but for those those raised under the commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother,” the necessity to preserve the illusion of righteous parents is continually impressed upon their minds. Even after leaving the church, the adult survivors of religious child abuse are reluctant to tell what happened to them. Like a woman I know who was raised as a missionary child, most of them say, “I don’t want to make my parents look bad. They thought they did the right thing because they believed children are born evil and must be made good for God.” My friend was beaten several times a week to break her will and make her obedient to her parents and God. She was indoctrinated with a lasting fear of God’s wrath, demon possession, and eternal damnation. “Even now, 15 years after leaving the church, I’m afraid that God will strike me dead if I tell what was done to me as a child,” she says.

Others have to break through a wall of denial. The daughter of a fundamentalist Christian college professor was regularly subjected to the “rod of correction” and kept isolated from the “evil world,” yet she believed in an illusion of a perfect Christian home. “`This is for your own good. If we didn’t love you, we wouldn’t do this,’ my parents told me. I believed I deserved the beatings. The most difficult part of telling my truth has been the death of a fantasy that my family was good and loving.”

As a result of “good intentions” and obedience to divine orders, untold suffering is inflicted on innocent, powerless children in many mainstream Christian homes, schools, and day-care centers. In them, the Christian message of love has been distorted and twisted into a most insidious form of cruelty: the hurting and damaging of children in the name of God. It is my hope that, like those molested by clergy, the victims of childhood religious abuse will find the courage to tell their stories publicly so that the silence about this taboo subject will finally be broken.

COPYRIGHT 1996 American Humanist Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group