“The Protected Faithful: Governmental Response to Religious Child Abuse”

CatholicChurchAbuseScandalGraffitiPortugal2011“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die. Punish them with the rod and save them from death.”

— Proverbs 23:13-14


Child abuse policy has been connected to many contentious issues in American politics, namely federal intervention in state affairs, parental prerogatives, and the rights of children. However, the relationship between child abuse policy and the constitutional mandates that Congress not establish a religion or prohibit its free exercise is particularly divisive. Religion has a consequential effect upon this recent discussion of child abuse policies.

When referring to its definitions and the statistics about its prevalence, according to Hopper (2009), the very notion of ‘child abuse’ is a controversial idea (Costin, Karger, & Stoesz, 1996). From the binding and attempted sacrificial slaying of Isaac by Abraham to the mauling of children by two bears at the request of Elijah to the mocking, lashing, and crucifixion of the ‘Son of God’ to the sexual misconduct by Catholic Priests in recent days, our communities of faith are riddled with imageries of child abuse. Society has nearly always seen acts of child abuse as a private matter to be handled by the family and the faith. Only the most rare, grotesque cases were considered by the state (Nelson, 1984). It is only in recent decades, however, that child abuse has come to be commonly known as a social problem necessitating government intervention.

The entrance of child abuse into the national agenda and its accepted status as a social problem by the U.S. government is more recent than one would imagine (Nelson, 1984). There was brief interest in child abuse as a social problem in the late 1800’s, particularly due to the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) and the famous “Mary Ellen” case. Moreover, the creation of the U.S. Children’s Bureau was a step in securing child abuse in the social conscious of the U.S. (Nelson, 1984). The onslaught of war in the 20th century, however, forced national attention to child rights onto other programs, effectively ending all progress. Attention to child abuse was nearly forgotten until the notion of equitable treatment slowly gained national attention under the umbrella of ‘child welfare’ in the New Deal and Great Society legislative eras (Nelson, 1984).

Over the past few decades, laws and policies concerning children have increased and become more focused on the safety and well-being of children (Young, 2001). For instance, in 1974 the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) was enacted. The legislation effectively solidified child abuse as a national agenda item, dispersing $86 million dollars for research. CAPTA was intended to curb child abuse and offer reasonable actions for treatment. This public law allowed for grants to states if they had procedures in place for dealing with child abuse. CAPTA gave minimum definitions for child abuse that the states were to follow (Stoltzfus, 2009). This law was revised in the 1988 Child Abuse Prevention, Adoption and Family Services Act, and again in the 1996 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act Amendments, and in the 2003 Keeping Children and Families Safe Act.

The federal government has determined minimum definitions of child abuse as a matter of federal law, most recently, in the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003. This legislation requires that states include minimum definitions of abuse in their statutes in order to receive federal monies, but the state may go further in how it defines child abuse.

However, the federal government has determined that definitions of abuse are not to be construed as a forceful mandate that prohibits religions from acting contrary to that religion’s proscriptions, particularly with regard to withholding medical treatment, offering spiritual prayer/healing as a means of healthcare, or neglecting to provide basic needs such as food (fasting) as well as engaging in corporal punishment. The federal law establishes a directive that permits the individual states to decide if they will allow for exemptions to the definitions of child abuse. Therefore, some state legislatures have enacted constitutional amendments that provide ‘religious’ exemptions to the definitions of child abuse. [1]

Ultimately, this project lays the groundwork for a more comprehensive book project that I am working on that discusses the interaction between religious expression and child abuse, particularly how and why Congress and the individual states assent to the idea that religious ideologies that are carried into practices are not understood as violating the federal or state enacted definitions of child abuse if and when the abuse occurs in accordance with the tenets of the religious faith, which could be argued essentially negates the importance of mitigating the child abuse this legislation intended to diminish.

There seems to be an ontological supposition that God’s law as dictated in religious texts has more authority than the law designed to protect children from abuse. The inclusion of religion into the discussion of child abuse policy creates a dramatic conflict of interests and alters child abuse policies and laws. The religious exemptions to U.S. child abuse policies create problems for children, their parents, and the states as well as the First Amendment. Completing this larger project would produce interesting results, given the importance of religion and politics in our political dialogue.

Governmental involvement in how parents introduce their children to religious tenets, disciplinary actions, and child-rearing practices is now predicated on the legal notion of parens patriae. This concept refers to the government’s legal ability to intervene on the behalf of a child when the parents are not comporting themselves responsibly or are acting neglectfully and/or abusively towards the child—according government statutes. It is common knowledge that the federal and state governments have consistently and progressively intervened. The parameters for this intervention are set by federal and state legislative mandates and they are extensive.

Conversely, freedom to practice one’s religion has been a perceived component of American life since the beginning of the Republic. Moreover, the metaphoric wall of separation between the church (religion) and the state Jefferson so masterfully spoke of is often considered a fundamental element of American government. However, a brief study of case law indubitably proves that the United States has clearly struggled to define its complicated relationship with religious expression. This intersection of religion and politics in American public life is so often wrought with images of walls, discussions of accommodation, and notions of neutrality as well as a common opinion that there exists a freedom to exercise that religion. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the freedom of religious expression and the notion of a ban on government-established religion are not without clarifications. The interconnected and conflicting ideas of religious expression, law, and government policy are the paradigmatic example of this struggle; the relationship between child abuse policy and the constitutional mandates that Congress not establish a religion or prohibit its free exercise is particularly divisive.

Understanding why Congress and many states have decided that ‘religious’ exemptions to child abuse are necessary and do not act contrary to its mitigation will become clear through the overall assessment of how the inclusion of religion into the policy discussion engenders a dramatic conflict of interests and alters child abuse policies and laws. There has not been a study with a comprehensive, empirical approach to how religion shapes child abuse policy. Such a study brings attention to an issue that is often overlooked by policy-makers and the general public. Therefore, the purpose of this research will explain why, how, and to what extent religion impacts federal and state child abuse laws and policies.


A more quantitative version of the aforementioned research will be presented at the Annual Society for the Scientific Study of Religion Conference in Indianapolis, IN in October 2014.

I also sort of wrote about this a while ago for the State of Formation while the scandal at Penn State was taking place.

[1] Currently, there are 30 states — the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam — that offer state constitutional amendments that allow parents to practice faith-based medical care for their children without threat of prosecution. Three of the states_, however, provide a specific exemption for members of the Christian Science movement. Of the 30 states, 16 provide for the medical intervention by the courts if the child’s condition warrants it (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2010).

Flavored Water, Chemical Spills, and West Virginia

Yesterday, I facetiously thought that the West Virginia American Water Company was graciously offering free samples of flavored water through the tap at my home, as the water smelled like licorice, which is not my favorite. I secretly thought that they should have given us a choice of flavor; I would like strawberry or vanilla or maybe mango.

In reality, there was a massive chemical spill in Charleston, WV and the water supply to nearly 300,000 customers was contaminated to the extent that the community cannot drink it, bathe in it, cook with it, boil it, etc. The water can only be used for putting out fires and flushing the toilet.

I am trying to resist the temptation to write about the chemical company that had such disdain for the people of WV that they did not report the spill and still have not even spoken to the water company about it and took 24 hours before addressing the public. I am trying not to think about the fact that the threat to our water safety was not reported for nearly 10 hours after the initial leak transpired. I am also trying not to think about what the consequences (or lack there of) will be for the chemical company given their industry ties. I am trying not to think about this event politically, as I am a political scientist. I am trying not to think of the political responses and fallouts as each politician walks the tightrope of maintaining order and safety and protecting economic development. I am trying not to think about how every narrative is about the resilience of the people, which is true, instead of the outrage to those that have interrupted our state. There is a small policy window for those necessary discussions. Anyway, those thoughts will get lost in the noise of every talking head with an agenda, whether that is to promote the deregulation of companies who are supposed to self-report and regulate or those who will use this incident as a triggering event in the discussion of coal and energy.

I am trying not to think about some of the things I saw as I tried to obtain water for my family. There were physical confrontations at Walmart over access to bottled water. While at Sheetz in Hurricane, WV, I asked an employee if they had any water in the back because the case was empty. I only asked because as I looked in the refrigerated case, I could see numerous cases of water, unopened, in the back. The employee told me that they were out of water. The same thing happened at Save-a-Lot in Milton. The employee was, while still on the clock, buying all of the water for herself and telling other customers that the store was sold out of water. I saw places like Piggly Wiggly, using economic opportunity, raising the prices of their water as people rushed into the store in the hopes of getting water. There was one man in the store with two shopping carts full of bottled water. He was just standing there physically dominating the space and daring anyone to get near ‘his’ water. I saw women with children with no water frantically running up and down the aisle looking for water. The man with more than his fair share of water said ‘get the f*ck away from my water.’

I can barely contain my emotions and temper when I think about this devastating event for so many West Virginians, for my state, and how some people behaved at the beginning. I love my state, my neighbors, and transform into an overprotective animal when I feel they are threatened. We are a great state and an essential part of the Union. We were birthed during an American tragedy, out of the necessity for more good in the world, and have always contributed our part and produced people that are of the utmost character and altruistic disposition. We work hard and equally deserve all that others deserve. Therefore, I am trying to focus upon, during this tragedy, those companies and hotels that are offering free showers to those persons without access to water, discounts for rooms, and those persons setting up free water stations for those without water. I have to think about Mister Rogers, who said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ’Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping’.” Well, I have to say that you will find a plethora of helpers in the Mountain State. We understand that we have a responsibility to our families, our neighbors, our community, and our state. As we are on the national stage again, lets show who we truly are as West Virginians.

It is a Shame for Women to Speak in the Church?

I understand the Church’s stance against the ordination of women as an example of blatant gender oppression by a male-dominant Church that participates in the perpetuation of inequality. The Church of England’s recent decision to not ordain women to the bishopric is a last-ditch effort at an antiquated and dehumanizing view of half of the human race, despite the fact that it is a flawed system of voting. Our Orthodox Tradition, with its statute against female ordination, implies that women are not inherently equipped with the natural qualities, from G-d, that would enable them to perform the duties associated with ordination. To manifest the consecration of the elements, which is essential for salvation, one must naturally be a male? Such a position has been the tradition for nearly 2000 years. As I am thinking about this, I am nearing tears and laughter simultaneously. Either this is a ridiculous, ill-thought concept or it is a profoundly brilliant, yet oppressive, tactic to establish male dominance.

I have determined that bureaucracy has influenced the Church’s position on the ordination of women to the Holy Priesthood and Bishopric. According to Weber’s characterization of Bureaucracy, “full-time, appointed, career employees who labor in a hierarchy under a regime of specialization and rules,” the Church is the personification of the idealized bureaucratic organization. In the Bureaucratic Structure and Personality (1940), Robert Merton opines that bureaucratic organizations possess principal traits of the bureaucratic personality, namely the inability to adapt to a changing situation, an inappropriate need to over-stress the rules, a tendency to remain with what has always been, and a dehumanizing element of the intended clients. Merton’s thesis makes sense when seen through the eyes of the Church, which shows us the nature and truthfulness of the bureaucratic personality and how it applies to the ordination of women.

Merton’s observation is that the organization, because of the particularized characteristics of the work, is incapable of adapting readily to changing situations. The work of a priest or a bishop, among other endeavors, is to take care of the congregation’s spiritual needs. One way to do this, according to the Church, is to prepare the Eucharist for consumption. Whether one agrees or not, the Church maintains that this preparation is a mystical endeavor, only to be undertaken by someone with the Church’s imprimatur. Traditionally, this particularized characteristic of the organization’s work has been carried out by males. Herein lies the problem or rather a question that needs to be answered.

Are the skills that are required to sanctify the elements only possessed by members of the male gender? The answer may have been a ‘yes’ in centuries past. Many ancient philosophers and church fathers believed that the intrinsic nature of a women’s soul was different than that of a man’s, despite doctrine stating otherwise. Christ took the nature of a man, which led them to believe that it must be somehow better. This led to unspeakable injustices in the past, and, apparently, in the present. However, such ideation prevented the Church from allowing women into the priesthood. Today we undoubtedly know that the obvious and truthful answer to whether or not women are capable of such work is an emphatic ‘no.’ The reality, however, is that this organization has been incapable of adapting to the changing cultural perception, namely that women are just as capable, if not more so, to function in this capacity. An explanation that prevents this from occurring is definitely the ‘red-tape’ of bureaucracy. The way the organization functions plays a large role in the way in which it handles problems such as the previously mentioned atrocity.

The Church leadership is definitely comfortable in their position and believes that what they are doing is the best thing for the Church. The concept of risk is not in their agenda any longer. Tradition is the way of leaders. The Church does not want some innovative idea such as the ordination of women to taint their Tradition. The fear must stem from the notion of progress. If the Church allows this to happen, who is to say that it will not create a massive influx of social concerns that will inundate them, as if this is a negative thing?

With the situation transpiring in the Church in mind, Merton’s point could not be exemplified any more truthfully. The Church thinks that women, in general, are not spiritually or mystically capable of functioning within the priesthood or the bishopric. I concur with Merton that such a general belief is dehumanizing to women. The Church does not take into consideration the humanity or individuality of every female to which it denies ordination. Women have suffered terribly because of the bureaucratic personality of the Church.

The Church has refused to allow them to exist as they are and participate in the life of the Church. They inappropriately make demands that dehumanize women in order to remain within their Tradition. Anthony Downs’s avows that bureaucracy avoids change and grows comfortable within its antiquated claims to power and legitimacy. The Church has grown accustomed to its power over who they allow into their midst. Allowing the full participation of women would shake the settled foundations.

The bureaucratic personality denies women the right to act as themselves and forces them into bureaucratic roles wherein they have to perform as the hierarchy dictates. Kathy Ferguson states that women are frequently taught by the Church to be the ‘weaker sex’ by learning to be a subordinate to the ‘stronger sex.’ She calls this the process of “feminization.” It occurs in bureaucracy and the Church. Undergoing this process forces women to possess the traditional qualities attributed to women—“supportive, nonassertive, dependent, attendant to others, and expressive.” This process, she avers, allows the pinnacle of the hierarchy to remain in power by creating an atmosphere of normalcy. There is no conflict in the power differential, which leads to the continuation of the pattern.

Those within bureaucratic Church are expected to fulfill a particular role and to present a specific image. These people begin to take on certain character traits that are not indicative of who they truly are, which perpetuates the notion that the ordination of women is not an Orthodox problem. This is where the concepts of dignity and autonomy are repressed in order to present the overall image that the hierarchy desires. The problem, however, is that this process continues for so long that women eventually lose sight of their own personhood and systematically conform to the needs and desires of the bureaucracy, thus dehumanizing them. This is blatant dehumanization.

I must confess that I previously thought such a practice of rejecting the ordination of women could be justified by simply reducing the problem to the fact that it was a lingering effect of historical circumstances and socio-political influences inherent within the early Church. Given time change would come, I have always postulated. Until recently, I have honestly never contemplated the notion that it could be the very personification of evil. Had I, in all my theological education, ever given sufficient thought to the very essence of evil? Certainly it is not gender oppression? It has to be more dramatic?

I have spent years studying all the philosophical and theological arguments for the nature of evil in relation to humanity. Gregory of Nyssa, a patristic writer, argues that evil is non-being. It cannot exist in and of itself. It is simply a privation of the good. All who embrace virtue and the renunciation of the passions will, in fact, experience only the good, which is deprived of all forms of evil.

Gregory, however, would also say that evil does exist in the absence of the good. Christ’s incarnation, opines Nyssa, is the only reason we are able to escape from evil’s black hole of non-existence. His poetic explanation is not quite as satisfying an argument at this juncture as it has previously been. The question still stands – what is evil? I finally asked myself, what is the good that Nyssa vehemently defends? The good, for me, is the nature of humanity, which is in the liberty of expression and freedom of essence. Therefore, the privation of the good would, in fact, constitute a limitation or constraint of human freedom and expression. Evil is the unwarranted restraint of humanity’s essence.

Such an explanation of the essence of evil should radically alter anyone’s personal theology, or so I would certainly hope. I would avow that gender oppression, as well as any other restriction on the freedom of humanity, is undoubtedly a personification of evil and cannot be simplistically reduced to an historical anomaly that is inadvertently the result of prior dominance. The Church has had time and opportunity to change; it has refused to do so. The Church’s current practice must be reformed so that the good can force evil into non-being.

How can this gender oppression and discrimination be changed when it is so ingrained in our culture, our religion, and our thinking? The addition of women priests and bishops into the bureaucratic system will allow the deficiencies inherent in bureaucratic organization to be revealed, only if they do not assimilate into the system. Women priests and bishops will bring to the conversation the knowledge of dominance and subordinance within the interactions of the Church and will help to illuminate the notions of power and control in this bureaucratic organization. A female presence in the priesthood and bishopric can allow for serious steps to be made towards completely understanding domination and subordination in the existing bureaucratic system. This bureaucratic organizational reality of roles (men and women) imposed onto all the participants of the Church must be transformed by the insertion of women priests and bishops.

Image taken from Wikimedia Commons, a “media file repository making available public domain and freely-licensed educational media content.” The photograph is of author, activist and Zen Priest, angel Kyodo williams.

The link to this image can be found at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Angelkyodowilliams.jpg