A Mandate from God: Religious Communities as Agents of Child Abuse Prevention

In all religious traditions, children hold a special place of honor.  The Christian tradition remembers that Jesus had a deep love for children and held them up as models of the realm of God and of the way to live and be in this world.  On one occasion when His disciples were arguing about which of them was the greatest, he took a child to his side and told them, “The one who is least among you is the greatest” (Luke 9:48).  He also taught, “whoever does not accept the realm of God like a child will not enter it” (Mark 10:15).  And further, identifying with children, he said “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me” (Mark 9:37). 

We recall that once the disciples of Jesus were preventing the children from approaching him, and were even scolding the mothers and fathers for bringing the children to be blessed by him.  Jesus, we are told, became angry when he noticed it and told them:  “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them.  The realm of God is a make up of just such as these.”  He then embraced and blessed them.  (Mark 10:13ff).

A fundamental ethical belief of the Jewish faith is a keen sense of justice that the defenseless and vulnerable should be defended and protected.  There is much warrant for this in the Hebrew Scriptures with frequent admonitions to care for the alien, the orphan and the widow (e.g. Exodus 22:21).  There are threats of serious punishments for those who abuse children, particularly for those who sacrifice them to idols. (cuff Isaiah 57:5-6).  (I wonder what Isaiah would say to us today about the ways we sacrifice children to our contemporary idols).

Children are to be cherished, loved and considered a great gift from God and a fulfillment of the commandment to be fertile and multiply (Genesis 1:28).  There is a particular stigma attached to barrenness, as for example, the mother of Samson (Judges 13:2), Sarah (Genesis 11:30), Rachel (Genesis 19:31), and Hannah (1 Sam 1:5).  We can see that God has a particular interest in children and is the one to whom those who abuse them will have to give an account.  God tells us explicitly, “You shall not wrong any orphan.  If you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry.  My wrath will flare up, and then your own children will become orphans” (Exodus 22:21).

People of faith should have a profound understanding that the child is the clearest and truest image or icon we have of God on earth.  Children remind us of the presence of God through their innocence, trust, simplicity, joyfulness, spontaneity, infectious laugher, and ability to attract and give love.  To look into the eyes of a child is to see God in a unique way.  It is hard to be gloomy around a child.  Their ability to attract loving attention is very much like God who comes to us as irresistible love and who wants to attract a loving response from us.  Their loyalty is absolute, even toward those who mistreat them, like the loyalty of God toward us.  While everyone is an image of God, we adults have sufficiently marred that image that is does not shine forth with the same clarity and purity as it does from children.  For that reason they are to be held as a sacred trust, and treated with special love and tender compassion.  St. Paul gives the teaching, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).

I do not intend here to be romanticizing children.  I know that they can be obnoxious and rebellious and at times try our patience to the limit.  They, as much as adults, are capable of rebellion and refusal to accept what is clearly in their best spiritual interest.  From the very first moment of life, the shadows of trouble are present.  Yet the point I want to make is that many divine qualities shine forth clearly from the child entitling them to special protection.

Jesus warns us against violating those divine qualities.  It is possible to put out the light of God in their eyes.  He says, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).

It is sin that defaces the image of God in us.  When Jesus says, “…causes one of these little ones to sin”, he means making a child the victim or object of someone’s sin, which can make them turn away from God.  When they are forced or enticed into the realm of sin and exposed to it whether that sin is violence or sexual abuse or neglect, which is a sin of omission, they lose their innocence.  When children are abused, battered, molested, or neglected, it is uniquely evil for it is acting against the source of innocence, God.  It is therefore, a religious duty to defend the rights of children.

Unfortunately, the religious community which has such a strong mandate from God to love and protect children, is rarely in the forefront of the children’s advocacy or child abuse prevention movement.  In some cases, religious partisans oppose children’s rights, seeing in them a threat to parental authority, as if the best interests of the child could ever be contrary to parents.  Representatives of the religious community are rarely seen at conferences dealing with children’s issues.  On the other hand, issues of child safety and abuse prevention are almost never part of the agenda of religious conferences.  There is such a great gulf between these two groups that most of the time they do not seem even to be aware of each other’s existence.

[National statistics on child abuse indicate:

  • A report of child abuse is made every ten seconds.
  • Almost five children die every day as a result of child abuse. More than three out of four are under the age of 4.
  • It is estimated that between 60-85% of child fatalities due to maltreatment are not recorded as such on death certificates.
  • 90% of child sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator in some way; 68% are abused by family members.]  Click here for more information about statistics.

The congregations, temples and churches of America must raise their voices on behalf of children.  We must speak against the scourge of abuse, develop creative prevention programs in partnership with public agencies, influence governmental policy, and devote their ministry to the spiritual healing of the victims and survivors of abuse.

Since children are so close to God, their abuse raises serious questions of faith.  In a child’s mind, God is all-powerful and all good and should be protecting them.  When that fails to happen, and God is seemingly absent, there is a deep crisis of faith.  That crisis endures for the rest of the survivor’s life.  Secular therapy cannot heal that wound since it does not deal adequately with the mystery of evil and sin or with questions of faith and divine providence.

The religious community has a twofold task based on a profound conviction that God is demanding that we become involved on behalf of children.  First, we need to advocate for children and give public witness on their behalf.  At the very least we should be giving homilies, sermons and teachings on the evils of child abuse.  We should join our efforts to the efforts of the larger child advocacy community in joint programs and showing support for those efforts.  Second, we should be offering our considerable experience for the spiritual healing of the survivors and victims of abuse.  They are frequently disillusioned with institutional religion which did not help or rescue them and which is still not speaking on their behalf.  They are also angry with God for permitting them to suffer the abuse.

 The times are filled with promise.  But like all times of promise there are many dangers and obstacles to overcome.  In some ways the tide of society seems to be running against us, yet we have the benefit of a greater public awareness of the problem than ever before.  Reading the signs of the times, it is our responsibility to listen to the voice of God, sometimes like a still small whisper (1 Kings 19:12) calling us to a profoundly sacred duty to protect and defend children and to develop a ministry of healing to those  who have been abused.

 by Father Bernard J. Bush, S.J. Ph.D.

Clergy Advisory Board, California Coalition to Prevent Child Abuse


Click on Session II: Definitions 

One Response to A Mandate from God: Religious Communities as Agents of Child Abuse Prevention

  1. Eras Cochran says:

    Session I was fantastic. It wasn’t at all what I had before. Mary Ellen Wilson and Elta A. Wheeler story was new to me and mesmerizing. Thank you.

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