Monday, June 13, 2011

Valuable New Website: Janet Heimlich's Religious Child Maltreatment Site

An outstanding new blog has just come to my attention.  I'd like to recommend it highly to readers.  The blog is Janet Heimlich's Religious Child Maltreatment site.  Heimlich has had a prestigious career as a journalist, and in recent years, has turned her considerable talents to issues of religion-fueled abuse of children.  She's just published a book on this subject entitled Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, about which information is found at her website.

In a recent posting entitled "A Call to Faith Leaders," Heimlich tackles the guidelines the Vatican issued in May to address (yet again) the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church.  In her view, these guidelines are designed more to give the appearance that Catholic leaders are addressing the abuse situation proactively, than to put any real teeth into procedures designed to curb clerical abuse of children. 

Heimlich finds the Vatican guidelines lacking in two key respects.  First, they do not require--no wiggle room allowed, unambiguous this-must-be-in-all-cases--that bishops report each and every credible allegation of clergy misconduct with minors to legal authorities.  Think, for a moment, of what such a policy might have meant in the case of Bishop Robert Finn and Father Shawn Ratigan in the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese.

With a Vatican policy in place requiring bishops to report credible allegations of clerical misconduct with minors to criminal and legal authorities, Ratigan would not have been given free rein to continue interacting with children for months after Finn knew that Ratigan had child pornography on his computer.  Children and their right to be protected from abuse by an adult religious authority figure--children and their safety--would have been put first in this case, and not the church's need to shield its reputation or a priest's (and bishop's) need to hold up clerical side against the laity.

Second, Heimlich points out that the new Vatican guidelines contain no penalties for bishops found to have sheltered and protected priests abusing minors.  One of the most glaring--one of the most shocking, for many lay Catholics--revelations of the abuse crisis has been that, when bishop after bishop has been discovered to have done what Finn has recently done, those bishops go absolutely without punishment by the Vatican.

While the Vatican acts inexorably to remove Bishop Morris in Australia when he suggests that the question of ordaining women remains open to discussion, and it shoves Fr. Roy Bourgeois out of his religious community for supporting women's ordination, and it sponsors an expensive and humiliating inquisition of faithful religious women in the U.S. with insinuations that these women have abandoned orthodoxy.  

And while the U.S. bishops, many of whom have been found to have protected and shifted about priests abusing children, are permitted with impunity to skewer the work of Sister Elizabeth Johnson on entirely specious grounds, and the bishop of Phoenix, Olmsted, is allowed to excommunicate Sister Margaret McBride for agreeing with the decision of the ethics committee of her Catholic hospital to save the life of a mother by terminating a pregnancy that is endangering her life and will not result in a viable birth.  And while the cardinal archbishop of Cologne, Joachim Meisner, is permitted to remove teaching faculties from a Catholic theologian, David Berger, solely because Berger has stated publicly that he is gay.

Where does this shocking insensitivity to the needs of children endangered by abusive adults come from in religious institutions that are, at the same time, hypersensitive to the prerogatives of the male-dominated power structure that rules their church?  Heimlich follows the lead of historian Philip Greven, whose book Spare the Child demonstrates that abuse of children has long been taken for granted and even encouraged in Western Christian culture precisely because many people imagine that the bible dictates adult domination (and abuse) of children.  For the sake of the children.

Break the will of children, use the rod to chasten them and set them on the path to righteousness: these have been core dictates of many religious traditions in the Christian West for centuries, Greven notes.  And these dictates, and the misappropriation of scripture on which they rely, have led to a grievous lack of concern for what Swiss psychotherapist Alice Miller, who writes in a similar vein, has called the "soul murder" of children through adult abuse.

Heimlich is building on Greven and Miller and seeking to bring their ideas into the discussion of issues of child abuse in the U.S. at present.  This is a much-needed discussion, not merely because of the abuse situation in the Catholic church (and in other institutions throughout the culture at large).  It's also needed because large sectors of the American public, particularly in the bible belt of the U.S., continue to support the "right" and obligation of parents and schools to administer corporal punishment to children.

In my own state of Arkansas, this remains a live issue, as reports of continued beating of children in public schools continue to roll in from district after district around the state--with strong cries from many citizens to continue such punishment, since it's what God commands of us if we want to raise righteous children.  Until we address the religious roots of callousness and cruelty towards children, we won't move far down the road in dealing with problems of child abuse in many cultures with a Judaeo-Christian foundation.

And so Heimlich's website offers us a valuable service and much-needed resources for continuing this discussion.  I'm happy to recommend it to readers.

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