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A Roundup of 2008's Developments Relating to Harms Suffered By Children in Religious Settings: Our Disturbing Current Status, and Some Signs of Progress


Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009

Children's interests often intersect with adults' religious beliefs, and too often, the children suffer. The events of 2008 confirmed this ugly truth, though they also evidenced some emerging signs that our society is capable of protecting children by invoking science and law. There is a long road to follow, but the signs that we have a chance to begin the necessary journey are already there.

Deaths in Faith-healing Homes

During 2008, there were three widely-publicized deaths of children suffering from treatable medical ailments who had lived in faith-healing homes. In Wisconsin, Kara Neumann died from untreated diabetes at 11 years old; her parents were members of an Internet-based faith-healing organization, Unleavened Bread Ministries. In Oregon, fifteen-month-old Ava Worthington died of bacterial pneumonia and a blood infection; her uncle (or cousin depending on the report) Neil Beagley, 16, died of heart failure prompted by a urinary tract blockage. Ava and Neil's families were members of Followers of Christ, a notorious group responsible for the deaths of more children than just these two.

One medical neglect case appears to be headed in a more positive direction for the child: In late December, a New York judge ordered an Amish couple to permit their 15-month-old son, Eli Hershberger, to have the heart surgery he needed to survive.

Abstinence-only Programs and Teen Sex: The Failure Even to Educate Teens About AIDS and Other STDs

As I discussed in a prior column, abstinence-only approaches to sex education received federal funding and enthusiastic backing from the Bush Administration. In these programs, information about contraception and sexually-transmitted diseases was severely limited, while the programs tried to encourage teenagers to abstain.

The programs were overtly religious in their initial versions, as teens exchanged chastity rings, pledging abstinence in the context of religious verbiage. When the courts held that version unconstitutional, the programs simply switched to sending teens the message to abstain. These programs were backed by religious conservatives, including President Bush, in both their earlier and later versions. When health practitioners objected, they were ignored.

The questions still on the table were, first, whether teens would reduce their sexual activity as a result of the abstinence-only programs, and, second, what consequences would flow from not teaching teens about contraception and STDs. At the end of 2008, Janet Rosenbaum of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health released the results of her in-depth study of the effect of abstinence-only programs on teen sex practices. She presented two conclusions that, together, should lead to the end of abstinence-only education: First, the percentage of teens having sex remained constant whether the teens received abstinence-only education or traditional sex education. Second, those teens who did have sex following abstinence-only education were less likely to use contraception, and especially condoms -- which means that the risk of unplanned pregnancy and STDs increased as a result of these programs. Religiously-motivated programming, therefore, meaningfully increased health risks to teenagers.

Sexual Abuse and Neglect at the Yearning for Zion Ranch

One of the biggest stories of the year involved the Texas authorities' decision to remove the children from the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints' (FLDS) Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas. While many paid attention to the early stories and photographs, few followed the story to its end in 2008.

Some had criticized the Texas authorities for taking all of the children from the FLDS compound, but those critics often were not well-informed on the actual degree of abuse that had been occurring within the compound. Those who were inclined to attribute Texas's actions to religious animus, as opposed to child protection, should take a very close look at the report released by Texas Children's Protective Services (CPS) at the end of 2008 detailing the level of abuse. It exceeds all standards of decency, let alone the law's baselines.

The statistics the report cites should be chilling for anyone who cares about child safety: Over half of the 439 children removed were victims of abuse, as defined under state law. Two-hundred-and-sixty-two children were victims of "neglectful supervision," which means the parents permitted their child to remain in a situation where the child would be exposed to sexual abuse within the family or household. Over 25% of the pubescent girls (ages 12-17) were victims of sexual abuse; they were "married" to adult men. Of those girls, two were 12; three were 13; two were 14; and five were 15 when they were given away to adult men. Seven of these girls had one or more children following the underage marriage. Twelve men have been criminally indicted to date. No amount of expensive public relations or legal doubletalk can whitewash the facts.

Sexual Abuse in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Community

While the YFZ Ranch was the blockbuster national story of the year, the more unexpected story involved emerging information about child sex abuse within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. With some brave survivors coming forward, the troubling scope and extent of the abuse has become increasingly well-documented.

Unfortunately, the story seems to be following the plotline we have seen repeat itself with so many groups that find themselves embroiled in child-sex-abuse allegations from within: The powerful individuals within the group are struggling with the basic, unavoidable premise that all information about child sex abuse needs to be turned over to the civil – not just the religious -- authorities.

Believers often have a stunning ability to overestimate their fellow believers in this context – even despite strong, clear evidence to the contrary. In any other sphere, it is simply accepted as a given that there is no "cure" for child predators, and that, if children are the priority, then known predators need to be turned over to the justice system to meaningfully block their access to children in jail, and then listed on public Megan's Lists. Imagine if a secular group of day-care centers were to claim that its "chosen" policy was in-house treatment of its known predators, including continuing access to children for the perpetrators, followed by only reporting crimes to the authorities when management unilaterally said so. Its stance would be rightly seen as contrary to the best scientific evidence and horrifying – and if it were acted upon, management would be rightly prosecuted as aiders and abettors of abuse.

There are those within the ultra-Orthodox community who know the names of active perpetrators, but there is no indication yet that the civil authorities have been given those names. Moreover, there is still open debate among rabbis about the "appropriateness" of going to law enforcement when these heinous crimes are committed or reported to them.

Indeed, at a recent gathering of rabbis, some expressed the uninformed view that they should pursue treatment for the perpetrator before thinking of going to the authorities. That was precisely the line followed by the Catholic Church bishops for decades when they shuffled off priests to places like St. Luke's in Maryland in order to be "cured," after which they were returned them to the community and gave them access to children once again. With the facts of Catholic abuse so clearly on the record, it is inexcusable for the ultra-Orthodox community – or any other community -- to make the same mistakes.

There are two obvious problems with such an approach: A "cure" for the perpetrator, if there could be one, would not address the needs of the children already abused. Regardless, this is an area where "cures" are notoriously difficult, if not impossible. It is a simple fact: Until a community starts automatically reporting child perpetrators to the civil authorities, it has not chosen child safety above the protection of known child abusers.

There are plenty of reasons to criticize the groups that permit such abuse to occur, but they are not alone responsible. So are all of us. Children in the United States live in a society that selectively tunes in and out the needs of children. We become especially hard of hearing when the cries of help come from within a religious community. If children are to survive and thrive, that must change.

Marci Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and author of God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback.

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