Jaime J. Romo, Ph.D.
An Interview with Janet Heimlich
Several months ago, Victor Vieth, director of the National Child Protection Training Center, recommended me for nomination as a board member for Child-Friendly Faith Project, a new non-profit. The more I learned about its mission and leadership team, the more I saw this as an extension of my purpose as Commissioned Minister for Healing and Healthy Environments. I would like to introduce you to the founder of the Child-Friendly Faith Project, Janet Heimlich.
In an upcoming article, I will discuss some initiatives that the Child-Friendly Faith Project will be leading, in order to promote healing and healthy environments across the country in churches, temples, mosques, civic groups and values-driven organizations.
JJR: I have come to know you as a passionate advocate for all children. Please tell us a little about what led you to launch the Child-Friendly Faith Project.
In 2011, I authored Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment. It looks at child abuse and neglect that occurs in authoritarian faith communities in the U.S. While many have appreciated the book exposing problems related to certain ideologies and child maltreatment, I felt that the next step was a solutions-oriented approach. I have long thought that those who are in the best position to protect children from this kind of harm are properly trained people of faith, both religious leaders and congregants.
JJR: Thank you. Would you summarize CFFP’s mission and vision and how readers, especially churchgoers, might support it from a distance?
I first want to make clear the CFFP fully supports an individual’s right to worship as he or she chooses. We firmly believe that all adults, including parents, have the right to religious freedom and the right to engage children in their faith. But I think we all can agree that no one has the right to harm a child psychologically or physically. The problem is, there are folks out there who are not educated about just what defines child abuse and neglect, and so they can unwittingly be promoting harmful childrearing practices and justifying those behaviors with scripture or doctrine.
We want to educate faith communities about child abuse and neglect, but we take it further than the kind of abuse prevention that is currently being talked about in churches, synagogues, and mosques. First, we don’t only discuss sexual abuse but cover the other three forms of maltreatment: physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. Second, we ask faith communities to look at their own practices and teachings to make sure they are child-friendly.
JJR: CFF held its inaugural conference this past November. What were some of the highlights?
The conference hosted some of the country’s most renowned experts in abuse prevention, the law, and child advocacy. What was interesting was that we had people from many disciplines attend, including clergy, social workers, and attorneys. Even individuals who work with abused children (who thought they had seen it all) were pretty astounded by what they learned. Next year’s conference will be even more comprehensive. We are talking about having two breakout sessions, one for clergy and church administrators, one for professionals such as social workers and attorneys, and another for survivors of ideologically driven abuse. Attendees will not just learn about problems but how to reduce the likelihood of cases of abuse arising in their organizations.
JJR: I understand that there is a major project CFFP is developing. What is it and what do you hope to accomplish with the project?
The CFFP is developing a unique designation program that will allow a place of worship to be deemed a Child-Friendly Faith Community. The program provides a path for religious organizations to begin discussing these issues, get valuable training, and develop new and exciting programs that will benefit their youngest congregants. You know, many families are looking for a place to worship but parents are wary of joining a church that doesn’t understand the needs of children. With this program, churches can become beacons for those parents by being designated a Child-Friendly Faith Community.
JJR: Ever since the clergy abuse scandals have been exposed, and now that pope Francis seems to be calling for change, isn’t that enough? What would you say to readers who take that view?
I believe that Pope Francis has taken a huge and important step – an unprecedented one for the Catholic Church – in calling for change throughout the organization. However, as survivors have pointed out, real change will only come after the church makes policy changes, including: 1) immediately reporting suspected cases of child abuse to governmental authorities, 2) opening up records of all pedophiles who have been employed by the church, and 3) mandating that religious authorities report such crimes, even if they hear about them in the confessional box. But mind you, this reluctance (and refusal) to report abuse occurs in many faith communities. What often happens is that the faith community essentially serves as an intermediary between the victim and outside authorities or they do not involve the authorities. It may be an attempt to help the victim, but in most cases, it damages investigators’ ability to make perpetrators accountable and help victims heal. While some states allow religious authorities to avoid reporting abuse through what I call the “confessional loophole” — in which reporting is not required when clergy hear about the crime during confession — it is unethical in my view for faith communities to take advantage of this exemption, one that has been put in place through the lobbying of powerful religious organizations. All in all, I think that many religious organizations should pay more attention to the needs of victims and worry less about, say, saving the souls of perpetrators or protecting the image of the organization. A child-friendly faith community puts the victim’s needs first.
JJR: I imagine that working with these reports and actions can be emotionally toxic or depressing or difficult on a daily basis. How do you process this or maintain balance while working with this material?
Researching my book and writing about cases was extremely difficult. I continue to get emails from survivors who tell me about the pain they are continuing to deal with. The members of our Child-Friendly Faith Facebook group talk about how they continue to struggle psychologically after having been raised in oppressive religious situations. But on the other hand, all those working on behalf of children also hear what good can come from learning and talking about these issues. I often am thanked, for example, for giving religious child maltreatment a name. There are more therapists and healing centers working with survivors. And many clergy have come forward to learn about spiritual abuse and make their places of worship more child-friendly. So I am heartened by what is going on to help survivors and protect children in the future.
JJR: What do you wish for, for those who identify with religious institutions/ groups?
I would like them to first understand that this is not a battle over religious rights. There is no faith that cannot function simply by having members learn about abuse and perhaps choosing to alter their childrearing practices a bit. Second, I would like more faith communities to work with child development experts in developing their curricula for children as well as parents. And finally, this is a partnership. The CFFP cannot do our work without the help of religious leaders and other people of faith, so I look forward to working with them as we develop our educational programs.
JJR: Thank you for your commitment to promote healing and end all forms of abuse.
Please see www.childfriendlyfaith.org for more information. I will share more about the CFFP designation project and Charter for Child Friendly Faith as their launch dates approach.
Reprinted from: http://www.scncucc.org/voices/2014/02/perspectives/child-friendly-faith-project/