Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment


The following is an excerpt from the book Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment (Prometheus Books, 59 John Glenn Dr., Amherst, NY 14228, ISBN #978-1-61612-204-0, paperback, $20.00). Breaking Their Will is the first book to take a comprehensive look at all forms of child abuse and neglect enabled by religious belief.


The term religious child maltreatment did not exist before I began writing this book. At least, Google had never heard of it. I found its absence indicative of just how little has been said about religion’s potential to harm children. Very few books look at this problem in a comprehensive way. I have learned, too, that the topic makes many people uncomfortable, even defensive.

It’s not news that religion in the wrong hands can be dangerous. Religious wars continue to be waged around the globe. Yet many have a hard time believing that religious faith can also lead to child abuse and neglect. In fact, the worst perpetrators tend to be those who aim to be perfectly pious. Other factors might come into play, such as mental illness or a need to overpower the vulnerable. Still, most who commit the abuses addressed in this book appear to sincerely believe their actions are religiously righteous.

And yet, Breaking Their Will is not a diatribe against all faith or any particular religion. Rather, it stands to deliver a warning about certain religious cultures in America (specifically, those that are authoritarian). Thus, the book is not structured according to various religions or types of religious organizations. Rather, it is structured according to four commonly accepted forms of child maltreatment—physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and (medical) neglect—and explains how each is manifested in a religious context. In addition, there are two chapters that discuss two forms of religious child maltreatment I feel deserve special attention: child ritual abuse and male and female circumcision.

To begin, chapter 1 provides important background. Specifically, it defines religious child maltreatment, describes different ways that it manifests itself, and explains that this kind of abuse and neglect is a serious and pervasive problem. The chapter also describes how I became interested in covering this topic.

Chapter 2 looks at America’s general unwillingness to see religion as something that can harm infants, children, and teenagers. This country is one of the most religious in the world, and so it is not surprising that many Amer- icans tend to see faith as only a force for good. In addition, many faith com- munities are in denial about the fact that their own worshippers abuse and neglect children, despite much evidence that the pious are just as culpable of such crimes as nonbelievers.

Chapter 3 answers the question of what the difference is between healthy faith and dangerous faith, where children are concerned. Based on my research, I conclude that it comes down to whether children are living in a religious authoritarian environment, due to the way such cultures affect parents. In more tolerant climates, parents are allowed the necessary autonomy to make their own decisions about child rearing, whereas in religious authoritarian cultures, mothers and fathers tend to follow prescribed norms that are often not designed to meet children’s individual needs.

Chapter 4 scrutinizes the most popular religious text of all time: the Bible. While the book has some wonderful things to say about children, it could say a lot more about them. What’s more, the Bible contains many passages that depict children as victims of violence—violence that is sometimes ordered, or perpetrated, by God. We should question how such passages might affect wor- shippers’ views of children, particularly worshippers who interpret the Bible to be literally true.

The next four chapters (chapters 5 through 8) make up part 1, which covers religious child physical abuse. Because most physical abuse entails corporal punishment gone awry, this section looks at various scriptural passages and religious teachings and ideologies that encourage the use of corporal pun- ishment and have even been used to justify physical abuse. The section covers such religious concepts as an obsession with child obedience and a view of children as inherently sinful. In addition, part 1 looks at the potential harm caused by religious conservatives who heavily promote the physical punish- ment of children.

Part 2’s four chapters (chapters 9 through 12) look at the significant ways that religion psychologically and emotionally harms children. While religious belief has usually been shown to have a salutary effect on the mind, there are many ways in which a faith-filled upbringing can be detrimental. This section examines how four types of emotional maltreatment—spurning, terrorizing, isolating, and exploiting—manifest themselves in a religious context.

The four chapters of part 3 (chapters 13 through 16) look at religious child sexual abuse, which occurs when perpetrators are religious authorities. Remarkably, some religious groups have sanctified sexual relations between adults and minors. But, even as most faith organizations openly condemn child sexual abuse, there have been problems. Namely, the power bestowed upon religious leaders allows child sexual abuse to occur and sometimes to continue for years. In addition, faith communities, including congregants and high-ranking religious officials, often fail to meet victims’ needs when sexual abuse is alleged or discovered.

Part 4’s three chapters (chapters 17 through 20) examine a particular form of religiously motivated child neglect: the withholding of needed medical care. Many sick children are denied this care due to their caretakers’ unwavering beliefs that faith healing is superior to the care that is provided by doctors and hospitals. As a result, untold numbers of children have suffered with, and died from, illnesses that would be treatable with standard medical care.

Chapter 20 looks at a highly misunderstood phenomenon, child ritual abuse. Part of the problem dates back to a time during the 1980s and early 1990s known as the satanic panic, when many Americans believed children were being horrifically abused by devil worshippers. Eventually, many realized that their fears were for naught, as most of those abuses never took place. However, this realization created a problem: Today, many Americans believe child ritual abuse never happens, and that is not the case. Many children are ritually abused through exorcisms as adults attempt to “cast out” evil forces from their bodies.

Chapter 21 discusses male and female circumcision (genital cutting), which is motivated by both cultural and religious beliefs. Americans consider female circumcision to be abusive, and so it is illegal in this country, yet many girls from immigrant families are at risk of being taken to their homeland to be genitally cut. In contrast, male circumcision is common in the United States, although many Americans are not aware that the procedure is associated with many of the same risks as female circumcision, including death. The chapter also exposes another little-known fact: For decades in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, girls in this country were circumcised, and Christian religious beliefs about the “sin” of children masturbating played a key role in causing these abuses.

Chapter 22 examines what is being done to reduce religious child mal- treatment and what more should be done. The chapter discusses legislative solutions, such as requiring clergy to report actual or suspected cases of child maltreatment, getting rid of faith healing–related “religious exemptions,” and extending or eliminating child sexual abuse statutes of limitations. In addition, the chapter suggests that governmental agencies become more familiar with religious groups that allegedly maintain harmful child-rearing practices; it encourages parents to raise children in nonauthoritarian religious environ-ments; and it urges faith communities to be more open to discussing problems related to child abuse and neglect.

Finally, chapter 23 looks at the importance of acknowledging the rights of children. The failure to recognize and grant children’s rights is a significant underlying cause of all child maltreatment, including that which is religiously motivated. Unfortunately, some religious institutions and faith groups have resisted granting children rights, such as religious conservatives’ opposition to the United States ratifying the international treaty, the United Nations con-vention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

As mentioned earlier, the main message of Breaking Their Will is not to turn people against all faith. Rather, this book aims to expose child abuse and neglect enabled by certain kinds of religious belief. By raising awareness of this issue, the book aims to initiate a discussion about religious child maltreatment in hopes of someday eradicating it.

As psychology researcher Bette L. Bottoms notes in a University of Illinois at Chicago study, “If religion-related child abuse is not acknowledged now as a problem by our society, it will be our legacy to the future.”[1]


[1] Bette L. Bottoms et al., “Religion-Related Child Physical Abuse: Characteristics and Psychological Outcomes,” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, and Trauma 8, nos. 1–2 (June 2004): 89.

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