Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Does religion make people cruel to children?

From the Catholic Herald 9 June 2005
Home Front

Why are people cruel to children?

In the case of the three East London adults found guilty last week of horrific cruelty to a little girl in their care, the reason was, on the surface, simple: they believed the child was possessed by evil spirits. The press seems to think that must be an end of it: they are driven to acts of unspeakable cruelty by their religion, and religion makes people do weird things, doesn’t it?

Yet this does not explain how the abusers had reasoned that starving, beating and torturing a child would affect the evil spirits supposedly living within her; or how they could fail to see that on the contrary, their own monstrous actions were driving them deeper and deeper into a pit of evil from which they could not hope to climb.

Nor does it explain why the media persistently describe the organisations which promote such actions as “churches” and casually link them with evangelical Christianity.

We have been here before, and will be here again. Which of us has not shuddered in the past 15 years at revelations of the abuse and cruelty to children by adults entrusted with their care - entrusted by the Catholic Church itself? And how often have we seen it glibly assumed that it is the religious nature of organisations such as the Christian Brothers which made their members behave abominably?

Not a single recorded word uttered by Christ could conceivably be used to justify any cruelty to children. What motivates cruelty to children, in my view, is something inherent in adult behaviour which Christianity is, in fact, ideally placed to defeat.

It is the inability to think outside oneself; the strange inhibition when it comes to recognising and understanding the feelings of others who are different from oneself. A child is so unlike an adult: smaller, weaker physically, therefore unable to fight back; also different mentally, emotionally.

A child is the perfect victim for the type of person whose warped inner self craves the justification that violence promises. An adult who is systematically abusing children may convince himself or herself that there are good reasons, whether “discipline”, demonic possession or the state of the child‘s immortal soul. But whatever the excuse, the inability to see the child as an equal, valid human being remains the same.

Another child cruelty story hit the headlines last week: the murky tale of a five year old allegedly “hanged from a tree” by a gang of older kids. For a few days the tabloids screamed in horror at the idea of these evil children. Then it emerged that it wasn’t at all clear what had really happened, and the story disappeared behind legal restrictions as quickly as it had appeared.

But it left an indelible impression of a public eager to demonise children, a public hungry for the satisfaction of pointing at a child and saying, look, there is the Devil incarnate!

Are the people who devour stories of evil children really so very different, in their imaginations, from the Hackney trio who convinced themselves that their little eight year old niece was a witch and must be drowned? Are the people who believe that the killers of Jamie Bulger should “rot in hell” and so on and so forth so very different in their inability to see the child as an equal human being from those who believed that constant beating was good for a child’s immortal soul?


We are relieved to discover that we should stop nagging the 15 year old to get up and go to bed early at weekends. An American study has shown that puberty affects the body’s production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, making it difficult to go to sleep early. On the other hand, teenagers need 10 hours sleep a day and accumulate “sleep debt” which they NEED to “pay off” by sleeping until lunchtime at weekends.

Well, I have always been glad of the Catholic tradition of flexible Mass times. But I had never dreamed that Saturday vigil and Sunday evening Masses would turn out to be the key to the faith of the next generation.

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