Monday, December 1, 2008

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Zealot with a Rod

by Rocky G. Macy, MSW, LCSW

(Note: The following is a paper that I wrote while a graduate student working on an advanced degree in Social Work at the University of Missouri. It deals with the connection between religious zealotry and the (often abusive) corporal punishment of children, and offers advice to child abuse investigators who find themselves having to navigate the line that separates church and state while protecting children. This paper was written in 2001, and therefore the content may be somewhat dated in places.

Hell Hath No Fury like a Zealot with a Rod:
Special Considerations for Investigating Child Abuse in the Shadow of the Pulpit


Child abuse that presents itself in the guise of religion poses special concerns for investigators. The subject of corporal punishment, in particular, is emblematic of the great divide between those who seek to protect children from harm, and those who feel a religious right and duty to correct and control through the use of physical force.

This paper examines corporal punishment in the context of history, research, and religious belief. Recent cases from the popular press are presented, and guidelines for investigators of child abuse that occurs within a religious context are drawn from the vignettes.

Years ago Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart stated with certitude that although he did not have a definition for obscenity, he knew it when he saw it. That “eye of the beholder” standard is still often employed today as society grapples with defining the essence and scope of child abuse, especially when the abuse is presented and defended as legal and even divinely-inspired corporal punishment.
There should be a line someplace, a delineation that clearly separates “appropriate” punishment of children from that which is excessive, a standard that sets forth right from wrong in certain and unbending terms for all to see and for all to follow. The line needs to be there. Somewhere on the long continuum from a gentle pat on the bottom administered by a concerned grandmother to the ritualistic, sadistic, and perhaps even lethal treatment of an incarcerated teenager, there needs to be a line. But abuse, like obscenity, may be more readily observable than it is definable. There is no line. There is only a sense of a line, a blurred border that meanders like a serpent wending its way across a sandbox in the dying light of day.

Can it be any wonder that the investigation of child abuse is such a complicated and perilous task? Not only does the definition of child abuse shift from state to state, it also rises and falls with the focus of the press, the rhetoric of politicians, the passion of judges, and the desires of the public. Add to that mix a constitutional separation of church and state coupled with a fundamentalist religious conviction that children need to be kept in line with an unsparing rod, and the job of sifting abuse from “appropriate” and legal punishment becomes infinitely more complex.

This paper will examine corporal punishment in the context of history, research, and religious belief in order to provide a sense of the evolved creature that contemporary child abuse investigators must face. Several recent cases from the popular press will be presented as a way of fleshing out the creature and showing the horror that religious zealotry is capable of creating in the most pious of settings. The cases will be discussed, and a set of guidelines for investigators of religious child abuse will be extracted from that discussion.

Punishment vs. Discipline

A staple of the decades-long dialogue over corporal punishment is the constant struggle to show the act itself as either a negative or a positive event. Opponents of the use of physical reprimanding of children use terms like whipping, flogging, and beating, and they refer to it as punishment. Proponents are more apt to phrase things in a kinder, gentler manner. Corporal punishment administered by school officials, for instance, may be reported to the parents of the child as “swats”, a term that seems to lessen the sting of what the child may have actually gone through. The process, whether at school or at home, may also be made more acceptable and respectable when it is called “discipline”, an indication that something is being taught and learned. This paper will take the point-of-view that while something is undoubtedly being taught and learned through the infliction of corporal punishment, it is seldom what the instructor meant to teach, or what the child needed to learn. Physical discipline, defrocked of its educational and religious garb, is punishment, raw and simple. The terminology of punishment, therefore, will be pervasive throughout this paper.

A Brief Biography of the Rod

Historically, corporal punishment was not an overly controversial issue. Our European ancestors deemed children as property whose value increased as they grew older and were able to contribute economically to the family. Children as property could be treated or mistreated, as their parental proprietor deemed appropriate. The treatment of property was of no concern to those outside of the family. The abuse of children became newsworthy in the United States in the 1870’s with the case of Mary Ellen, a seriously brutalized child who was eventually removed from her guardians’ care by a decision of the New York Supreme Court. That case led to the formation of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1874, the first organization in the United States to focus on the legal protection of children. (Stevens & Eide, 1990)

Maclean’s in 1932 highlighted a Canadian debate on the pros and cons of corporal punishment. The proponent of the policy, a judge from Toronto, argued that it was “essential that parental control should be able to enforce unquestioning obedience.” He added that sometimes “parental control can be most effectively established through the strap.” The opponent to corporal punishment, a child psychologist also from Toronto, stated his belief that it was “most unfair for any adult to take advantage of his superior strength to force his will on a child. Rather,” the psychologist reasoned, “he should make use of his superior intelligence to guide the child’s thoughts and actions.” ("'The discipline debate in 1932'", 2001)

Seventy years after that debate aired in Maclean’s, both viewpoints still garner adherents, and the divide between the two camps remains substantial. Things have been occurring, however, that have provided both sides with strengthened perspectives, causing the simmering rhetoric to occasionally boil over. New research, for example, has linked corporal punishment with several long-term, undesirable outcomes that speak strongly against its use. On the other hand, religious groups, especially conservative Protestants, have elevated the use of corporal punishment to the status of a family value that must be cherished and protected.

Today, with the exception of Minnesota, the parental use of corporal punishment for the correction or control of children is legal throughout the remainder of the United States, so long as it does not result in injury to the children being corrected or controlled. Interestingly, Minnesota does not explicitly prohibit parents from using corporal punishment through a single statute, but four related statues, when acted upon together, form a de facto legal prohibition of the physical punishment of children. Those statutes have been in effect for a long while, but their existence and collective impact are “not widely known by commentators, practitioners, or the general public.” (Bitensky, 1998)

Twenty-seven states have banned corporal punishment in their public schools, and, of the remaining 23 states that still permit its use, some of their larger cities (Albuquerque, New Orleans, and St. Louis, as examples) have eliminated the practice in their public school systems. (Block, 2001) Corporal punishment has also been banned throughout several countries, including Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Cyprus, and Italy (Bitensky, 1998), and at least one Congressional attempt has been made to eliminate its use in schools in the United States that receive federal funding. (Owens, 1991)

Research and Corporal Punishment

The body of professional research on the effects of corporal punishment extends back more than four decades and has been decidedly critical toward the practice. A study by Sears, Maccoby, and Levin (1957) as cited in Straus (1996) was the first to report that corporal punishment of preschool-age children is linked to the child having a less of a conscience and a higher propensity for being aggressive toward other children.

Murray A. Straus has done research in the area of family violence since the 1970’s and the corporal punishment of children since at least the early 1980’s. Straus, in the 2001 edition of his impressive work, Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and Its Effects on Children, cites research, much of it his own, that links corporal punishment to a variety of unintended outcomes.
Among those bleak possible eventualities cited in the Straus book are depression and suicide. In discussing the proposition that being attacked by one’s parent can cause psychological harm to the victim, Straus states that “…even when the attack is in the form of ordinary and legal corporal punishment, it may have serious and harmful psychological side effects, including an increased chance of being depressed or suicidal as an adult.” (Straus, 2001)

Murray A. Straus, in a speech presented to the World Congress of Sociology in 1998, cited findings by his group, the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, that demonstrate a link between frequency of corporal punishment and the later I.Q. scores of children. Children who had been spanked less during a four year period exhibited an average I.Q. score of 102, while their counterparts who had not been spared the rod averaged a score of 98. The researchers suggested that the results were not the result of injuries or of being hit, but rather people who did not spank their children were forced to use more reasoning and explanation while disciplining the child. (Gadd, 1998)

Straus (2001) also sees a connection, though not a conclusive one, between corporal punishment and more serious abuse by parents, the assumption that parents will go too far and lose control. (That phenomenon is clearly illustrated later in this paper with the vignette about a twelve-year-old girl who was beaten to death by her parents during a religious discipline session.) (O'Donnell, Mendieta, & Sweeny, 2001) Also as a carry-over into adulthood, people who had a history of being hit a great deal as teenagers showed about a one-in-four likelihood of becoming an abusive parent. The interesting counterpoint to that is, of course, that about three-in-four did not go on to become abusive parents. (Straus, 2001)

Straus (2001) shows that corporal punishment could be a precursor of family violence. “Children whose parents used corporal punishment are more than twice as likely to severely attack a brother or sister than children whose parents did not.” The connection is even stronger with regard to spouses. People who were hit often as adolescents are more than three times as likely to be abusive mates than those who were not routinely hit as adolescents. Again, the ratio of abused teens who went on to become spousal abusers is about one-in-four, meaning that three-in-four did not. There has also been shown to be an increase in both fantasizing about masochistic sex and participating in masochistic sex by adult males and females that corresponds to the amount of corporal punishment that they received in childhood. (Straus, 2001)

Other unintended outcomes of corporal punishment, according to Straus (2001), include a greater propensity for delinquency, and a higher likelihood that after the child becomes an adult he will engage in violence outside of the family. Straus argues that the use of corporal punishment causes alienation, and that alienation ultimately effects a person’s ability to achieve economically.

A relationship has also observed to exist between corporal punishment and the abuse of animals. Flynn (1999) reports findings that state in part, “…males who committed animal cruelty in childhood or adolescence were physically punished more frequently by their fathers, both as preteens and teenagers, than males who did not perpetrate animal abuse.” Flynn goes on to note that the same relationship did not hold true for males who were spanked by their mothers or for females who had been spanked by either parent.

When corporal punishment is taken outside of the family and placed in a school setting, other factors come into play that question its fairness. A study of data submitted to the U.S. Office of Civil Rights for the years 1971 through 1986 showed that African American students were overly represented among children who received corporal punishment at school by more than 70 percent. (Meier, Stewart, & England, 1989) (Owens, 1991) Not surprisingly, there are also indications that the use of corporal punishment may be more prevalent toward children from poorer economic situations than it is toward their classmates of more substantive means. (Owens, 1991)

As stated at the outset of this section, the research on corporal punishment basically argues against the practice. That is not to say that there is no extant literature promoting the use of corporal punishment, but most of what is available relates to its usefulness in securing short-term behaviors –correction and control. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a growing awareness that the practice of striking children to bring about change in their behavior is effective at best only in the short term and breeds resentment that can and does manifest itself in other ways. Congressman Major R. Owens of New York made that point well in remarks that he included in the Congressional Record on March 20, 1991:

“Corporal punishment simply does not work. All of the research tells us that it does not promote better discipline, result in more orderly classrooms, or more obedient children. An abundance of other disciplinary methods and means of regulating student behavior which do not require physically harming children have been shown to be far more powerful and effective than corporal punishment
in maintaining order in the classroom and changing the behavior of disruptive or uncooperative students.”

Religion and Corporal Punishment

When the terms “corporal punishment” and “religion” are linked in conversation, King Solomon’s admonition about “sparing the rod and spoiling the child” will almost certainly be interjected by someone at some point along the discourse. The adage seems to have transcended its religious roots and become a staple of the American historical and cultural experience. A query in one of the more popular Internet search engines for the phrase “spare the rod”, for instance, brought about over 111,000 hits. If one were to eliminate those that dealt with “fly-fishing”, many thousands of entries would still remain, and most of those would have some connection to the punishment of children. Indeed, the ancient biblical proverb is referenced almost continuously in some form or another by a plethora of writers and groups with varying perspectives on the issue of corporal punishment.

While the physical punishment of children is not the sole province of any one religion (examples to follow), it does seem to be particularly revered in certain Christian circles.

“Many fundamentalist, evangelical, and charismatic Protestants use scripture to justify their use of corporal punishment to develop obedience and character in children. Their position is that God wills and requires it in order to obtain his blessing and approval; to not physically punish children for misbehavior will incur God’s wrath.” (Block, 2000)

Aside from the “spare the rod” religious justification for beating children, some conservative Christians believe that children are born evil due to Original Sin, and
beatings provide a pathway for bringing them to righteousness. (Fortune, 1983) Another factor that plays into this situation and accommodates the use of physical punishment with children is the “quasi-religious teaching” that reinforces the hierarchy of power relationships in families. (Fortune, 1983)

“Because Conservative Protestants expect confrontations between parents and children, due to the innate tendencies of children to challenge parental authority, they tend to advocate ‘Bible-based’ child training, decisive parental leadership, and male headship of the family unit.” (Ellison, 1996)

An imbalance of power in a family, such as one where the father is to be revered as the authority and the mother and children are to be submissive, sets the stage for the abuse of power and can lead to the abuse and exploitation of children. (Fortune, 1983)

The stage is thus set for a bitter clash of religious and humanistic values. Are there limits to a parent’s control over a child? Is a child a person or simply an appendage of a family? At what point should the state wade through someone’s religious beliefs to rescue a child? These questions and others will be examined in the next section through the lens of actual occurrences.

Child Abuse in the Guise of Religion

The following vignettes have been taken from the popular press. They are horrendous, horrific, and bizarre to the point that it taxes the imagination to conceive of individuals who could be so depraved and savage as to do those awful things to children, especially people who trumpet their religion so loudly and proudly.

“Do you know how hard it is to kill a 12-year-old?”

The neighbors on the quiet Chicago street didn’t know much about 12-year-old Laree and her five siblings, but a few did know that the family was devout Jehovah’s
Witness. A neighbor did recall seeing the family as they left for church one Saturday and thought that they looked happy. The children were home-schooled and seldom ventured beyond the back yard that their father had surrounded with a large wooden fence. Laree’s father was a 350-pound machinist and her mother was a registered nurse at a children’s hospital.

The family’s self-imposed privacy came to a shattering end one Saturday night in November of 2001 as they were preparing to go out for dinner. During an unsuccessful search for the mother’s wallet, the father became angry and whipped Laree’s eight-year-old brother on the legs and buttocks four or five times with a thick electrical cable. He then turned on Laree and ordered her to “assume the position”. When Laree began squirming after four or five blows with the cable, her father decided that she needed to be restrained before the beating could continue. He tied her facedown to the metal frame of a futon and then administered 39 lashes to the girl’s back. The mother stepped in, took the cord, and gave the girl 20 more.

At some point Laree began to scream. The enraged father ordered his sons to bring him a towel that he stuffed into Laree’s mouth. He tied a scarf over the towel and used a stick to tighten it like a tourniquet. Her father cut Laree’s shirt off and ordered his two oldest sons to pull her pants off. Laree’s father then struck her bare body 39 more times with the electrical cable, and her mother came forward to apply 20 additional lashes. When Laree’s back began to bleed, her father untied her and turned her over. He then administered 39 lashes to her chest and stomach. The defenseless girl had been struck 160 times with brute force by the time the ordeal was over. She died later that night at a Chicago hospital. A horrified doctor who was in attendance at the death asked numbly, “Do you know how hard it is to kill a 12-year-old?”

Laree’s parents were arrested on charges of first-degree murder and the state may seek the death penalty due to the “torturous” nature of the murder. They told police that they had applied the biblical punishment of “40 lashes minus one, three times” to their daughter. The other children were all examined prior to being taken into foster care and placed with relatives. Each of the five showed signs of physical abuse. Neither the mother nor the father had any prior convictions or encounters with the law. The family had received only minor notice from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), a visit several years prior when the youngest child had wandered out into the street. They were just a quiet, devoutly religious family living securely behind a high wooden fence. (Scharnberg, Ferkenhoff, & Bush, 2001) (O'Donnell et al., 2001)

“A group of little men thinks they can stop God?”

Eleven boys at a Christian boarding school in rural Missouri didn’t die during their punishment ordeal in April of 2001, but some might have fleetingly considered the idea of death as preferable over what they were made to endure. The Associated Press quoted the local sheriff as saying, “The youngsters were forced to stand for up to two hours in manure, urine, and cattle afterbirths brimming with bacteria.” The sheriff said that he spoke with witnesses who said children were made to stand in a pit of manure up to chest deep. (Charton, 2001) The owner of the facility, a self-made millionaire with formidable political connections, denied that the children were doing anything more than shoveling manure as punishment, an activity he staunchly defended as not being abusive. Claiming to be disillusioned about “what America has become,” the owner who likes to be referred to as “pastor” turned his indignation on the child abuse investigators and asked, “A group of little men thinks they can stop God?” (Bragg, 2001)

The “pastor” quickly filed a suit against county and juvenile officials in federal court for conducting a “systematic, persistent and continuous campaign of harassment” against the faculty, staff, and school community. The suit further alleged that county officials have referred to the school as a “cult” and a “little Waco.” (Bragg, 2001)

“Joseph is burning in hell and you’re next.”

Joseph, Jacob, and Amy were triplets who had been adopted by a Texas couple in 1994 when they were two-years-old. They were “special needs” children who suffered from cerebral palsy and fetal alcohol syndrome. The adoptive parents also adopted a boy who was one year older than the triplets, a boy the age of the triplets, and a girl who was three years their junior. Two of these other three children had special needs as well: the nine-year-old boy suffered from dwarfism and spina bifida, and the five-year-old girl was vision impaired. The parents received $1,748 from the state of Texas each month to care for the children.

Joseph died in the spring of 2000. At the time of his death doctors noted that he had “severe bruising from the middle of his back, across his buttocks, and down his legs.” The mother said that she had “swatted” Joseph three times that day, but had done nothing that could have caused such bruising. She stated that she had been the only adult who had access to Joseph on the day he died, and that she had stayed close to him because he wasn’t feeling well. Joseph, in fact, had been sitting in the mother’s lap when the end came. After looking at the photographs of the serious bruising, the mother stated that she had not noticed the bruises - in spite of the fact that he had been clad only in a diaper when he died.

The mother told police that she and her husband had at times used a “shabet” or “holy rod” to discipline the children. The couple’s attorney described them as “deeply religious Baptists who believed children must be physically disciplined occasionally.”

The five remaining children were taken into foster care the day after Joseph died. After completing medical examinations, a doctor said that three had “significant bruising, consistent with beatings.” Doctors said the children had been abused for so long that some of their muscles had atrophied. Jacob, another of the triplets, had an open wound on his buttocks and was unable to sit. The group was described as “malnourished,” and some asked their foster parents at mealtime if that would be the only meal that they would get that day. The children said they were often locked in their bedroom for long periods of time and had to relieve themselves on the floor. Some of them told of being beaten with belts and “bat-like” instruments. They informed caseworkers that Joseph had been beaten most of the day before he died, and their mother had warned them, “Joseph is burning in hell and you’re next.”

Texas Child Protective Services reported that the family had a history with their agency. Five reports had been received in the previous two-and-a-half years. There were no findings of abuse on the first three complaints, but neglect was found to have occurred in the final two. The couple had been cited for locking the children in their rooms at night, allowing four of the children, ages four to seven, to sleep in one crib, removing the children from school to be home-schooled, and keeping an unclean home. (Horswell, 2000)

“We’ll never experience childhood again.”

Greg was placed in a Hare Krishna school in Dallas at the age of four. By the time he was nine he was attending a Hare Krishna boarding school in India, a young American abroad. It was at that boarding school that the young Greg made a significant mistake. He found money on the street and used it to buy chocolate for himself and his classmates. Greg’s punishment was to be locked in a room for three days without meals, all the while being regularly beaten by a Krishna minister. Today, Greg is an embittered young man who grieves for the loss of innocence that he and other children of the Krishna’s were forced to endure. “We’ll never experience childhood again,” he laments solemnly.

Greg and more than three dozen other former students at Hare Krishna schools, or “ashrams”, filed a federal lawsuit against the religious organization alleging many different types of physical and emotional torture. One charge is that students were made to stand in dark closets that they thought were crawling with rats. The lawsuit also alleges that students did not receive proper medical care or basic clothing during winter months, children went without food or were forced to eat spoiled food, and, in some schools, children who threw up spoiled food were forced to lick up their vomit. ("'Hare Krishna organization sued for alleged child abuse,'" 2000)


Mary Poland, a supervisor with the Missouri Division of Family Services in a rural county, has spent a quarter of a century conducting child abuse investigations and supervising other investigators. Poland’s work in investigations has led her to become an astute student of human nature. She cautions her investigators that while changes can be made in some family situations that will increase the protection of children, parents who discipline as a religious duty are devout in their beliefs and very unlikely to make any changes that would contradict their faith. Poland says flatly, “They believe they are right, and they are not going to change.” (Poland, 2001)

As the abuse stories that were highlighted in the previous section indicate, change is not likely to occur in an abusive religious setting until someone steps in from the outside or until there is a tragedy. Some religious families appear to be particularly closed systems, and, as such, control the information that enters and leaves the household. Laree and her siblings were home-schooled, and they were not active with other children or households in the neighborhood. The children, in fact, were seldom even seen by neighbors. Joseph and his siblings were also home-schooled, and their disabilities were instrumental in keeping them inside of the house and out of public view. Joseph’s parents went so far as to remove their children from school and relocate when their local school district began to question their home-schooling practices.

Inhumanity can breed and flourish in social isolation. If the cases of Laree and Joseph aren’t enough to substantiate that statement, a reading, or rereading, of Joseph Conrad’s stellar novella, Heart of Darkness, certainly should. Social isolation is a significant and recurring theme throughout many news accounts of child abuse in the guise of religion.


As with any type of investigation there are general precautions that all workers need to take, e.g. always telling someone at the office where you are going and how long you expect to be gone; or carrying a two-way radio or cell phone. While the eight guidelines listed below have been drawn from religious child abuse cases and hopefully will be of benefit to investigators in that realm, most, if not all, can apply in other types of investigations as well.

Investigative Guideline # 1: Gain entry into the house.

Do not be deterred by any claims of religious sovereignty in the home or threats and intimidation. If it comes down to “trampling religious freedom” or ensuring the safety and well being of a child, is there really any choice? If the alleged victim is “presented” on the front porch or at the investigator’s office a great deal of collateral information about the child is lost. How does the child fit and function within the family? Is the household a healthy and safe environment? Is the child relaxed within the family setting, or is he fearful or withdrawn? Seeing the child outside of the family is seeing the child out of context.

Investigative Guideline # 2: Learn it all, know it all.

It’s a smart practice to enter any investigative process with as much information about the family as possible, time and situation permitting. This is especially true with regard to overtly religious homes in which the culture may be foreign to the investigator. By the time the investigator exits the case he or she should have enough information to teach a course on the family. Every thing has the potential to be important. In the case of Joseph, it might be important to know why he and his siblings were removed from school. The most complete answer to that question would probably require a synthesis of information from the parents, the siblings, and the former school district. Another interesting and possibly significant aspect of Joseph’s case revolves around the adoption subsidy. What percentage of the total family income came from the subsidy? Was there a possibility, or likelihood, that the children were in the home to generate income for the parents? Were the children regarded as a family blessing or an occupational burden? Ask the hard questions, watch for inconsistencies, probe for more details, and be aware of everything.

Investigative Guideline # 3: Don’t automatically assume the innocence of anyone based upon their occupation or status in the community.

There are no automatic “passes” for anyone when it comes to child abuse. As illustrated with Laree’s mother, even a health professional working at a hospital for children could have the hidden capacity to assist in beating her own daughter to death.

As another case in point, a recipient of a Congressionally authorized “Parent of the Year” award in Colorado voluntarily returned his award after it was learned that he had been an indoctrination camp leader for the Children of God cult. That organization has been linked to child pornography in South America, and to the physical abuse of members’ children. The cult has also been accused of having female members work as “happy hookers for Jesus.” ("'Parent of year' returns award," 1999)

Investigative Guideline # 4: Don’t automatically assume the innocence of anyone based upon his or her religious beliefs.

Greg was beaten and starved by those gentle souls who line the downtown city streets selling religious books and banging their tambourines. As another example, Buddhists can also demonstrate a propensity toward the physical maltreatment of children. An eight-year-old girl in Phoenix was found dead in her family’s Buddhist prayer room. Near her body was a note praying for “compassion, love, and kindness.” The note was written in blood. The little girl had been struck 17 times with a belt leaving injuries that matched belt buckles in the residence. The police report stated that the injuries were so severe that the child was unable to speak or walk under her own power prior to her death. ("'Police arrest parents of girl found dead in prayer room,'" 1999)

Investigative Guideline # 5: Avoid expressing personal opinions or making other statements that would be hard to defend in a courtroom setting.

In most investigations, the eyes and ears will serve the investigator better than the mouth. Observe and listen. Information needs to flow toward the investigator, and not the other way around. The county officials in Missouri who used the terms “cult” and “little Waco,” to describe the Christian boarding school, if indeed those words were used, gave the rich and powerfully connected “pastor” a sharp barb on which to hang his lawsuit.

Investigative Guideline # 6: Never shy away from asking about what types of discipline are employed with the children.

That one question may be all that it takes to unleash the torrent of religious belief that is simmering just below the surface of the interview. Ask the question and get the philosophy out on the table where it can be observed and studied. When a parent mentions a “holy rod” or any other potential instrument of harm, ask to see it, make descriptive notes or even a drawing, and record where it is kept. If children are present, observe and record their reactions to the sight of the implement.

Investigative Guideline # 7: Take the heat; stay in the kitchen.

Investigators quickly become aware of the defenses that alleged perpetrators will employ in order to divert attention from the facts of the case. One that seems to be common within religious child abuse cases is the use of threats and intimidation. Buoyed by the thought that the Constitution is finally acting in their behalf, it is not uncommon for those seeking to derail an investigation to sling the phrase “separation of church and state” about as if it were baked beans at a church social.

The “pastor” in the rural Missouri Christian boarding school filed a lawsuit in federal court against county officials. Whether that case makes it to court is less important as the fact that it actually exists. Not only does the lawsuit represent a financial threat to poorly paid government employees and their families, it also boldly states that the pastor will not be pushed around. He, in fact, will be doing the pushing.

The investigation and resolution of child abuse requires a wealth of talents, not the least of which is standing up to bullies. The focus needs to stay firmly fixed on the protection of children and not be drawn to extraneous matters.

Investigative Guideline # 8: Don’t challenge religious beliefs.

An investigator’s job is to investigate. It may be necessary to ask for clarification with regard to a religious belief (What is a shabet? Why 39 lashes?), but trying to educate true believers with an investigator’s own view of religion serves no purpose and has the potential to spoil the case.


Investigating child abuse that occurs in the guise of religion is as treacherous as it is necessary. The treacherous aspect lies in the blurred boundary that slithers between unlawful child abuse and accepted religious disciplinary practices. Any questioning of punishment based in religious practice has the potential to be presented publicly as an individual worker’s, or an agency’s, personal assault on God. For that reason alone it is essential that workers enter these situations well prepared to face unique realities.

The necessary aspect entails the need to protect children. A child in a religious home who suffers painful corrections is not bereft of rights. Child abuse and neglect laws do not pick and choose those for whom they are written. It is up to investigators to view each child in each case through a lens of objectivity and caring, a lens that will see abuse for what it is – harmful to children.

(August 5, 1999). 'Parent of year' returns award: Man linked to cult accused of child abuse. Associated Press.

(1999). Police arrest parents of girl found dead in prayer room. Associated Press.

(2000). Hare Krishna organization sued for alleged child abuse. Dallas Morning News.

(September 10, 2001). The discipline debate in 1932. Maclean's, 114, 20.

Bitensky, S. H. (1998). Spare the rod, embrace our humanity: Toward a new legal regime prohibiting corporal punishment of children. University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, 31(2), 353-474.

Block, N. (2000, March/April, 2000). Abandon the rod and save the child. Humanist, 60, 5-8.

Block, N. (May 11, 2001). U.S. progress in ending physical punishment of children in schools, institutions, foster care, day care and families, [Internet]. The Center for Effective Discipline. Available: November 15, 2001].

Bragg, R. (July 5, 2001). Christian school questioned over discipline for wayward. New York Times.

Charton, S. (July 16, 2001). Abuse charges disputed in manure shoveling 'discipline'. Jefferson City News Tribune, pp. Online Edition.

Ellison, C. G. (1996). Conservative Protestantism and the corporal punishment of children: Clarifying the issues. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 35(1), 1-16.

Fortune, R. M. M. (Fall, 1983). "Christian" child abuse. Working Together.

Gadd, J. (July 30, 1998). Spanked children suffer intellectually. Toronto Globe and Mail.

Horswell, C. (April 4, 2000). "Deeply religious" Baptist mom admits using 'holy rod' on kids: Death of 8-year-old under investigation.". Houston Chronicle.

Meier, K. J., Stewart, J., Jr., & England, R. E. (1989). Race, class, and education: The politics of second-generation discrimination. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

O'Donnell, M., Mendieta, A., & Sweeny, A. (November 13, 2001). Biblical beating kills girl: Cops. Chicago Sun-Times.

Owens, R. M. R. (March 20, 1991). Outlaw corporal punishment. Congressional Record.

Scharnberg, K., Ferkenhoff, E., & Bush, R. (November 14, 2001). Girl died after parents hit her 160 times, court told. Chicago Tribune.

Sears, R. R., Maccoby, E. C., & Levin, H. (1957). Patterns of child rearing. New York, NY: Rowe, Peterson.

Stevens, P., & Eide, M. (July/August, 1990). The first chapter of children's rights. American Heritage, 84-91.

Straus, M. A. (2001). Beating the devil out of them: Corporal punishment in American families and its effects on children. (2nd ed.). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Straus, M. A., & Yodanis, C. L. (1996). Corporal punishment in adolescence and physical assaults on spouses in later life: What accounts for the link? Journal of Marriage & the Family, 58(4), 825-842.

No comments: