"Children in New Religions": Seminal New Book Discusses the Precarious Balance between Freedom of Religion and the Best Interest of the Child

Susan Palmer (Dawson College, Montreal) and Charlotte Hardman (University of Newcastle) edit an important book on a subject rarely examined systematically by scholars of new religious movements: the situation of children born into these religions and raised with a very different orientation toward the larger society. The 254-page book (Children in New Religions, published by the authoritative Rutgers University Press - New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London, 1999) explore two main questions: (1) What impact does the presence of children have on a new religion's lifestyle and chance of surviving into the future; and (2) Is child abuse more likely to occur in unconventional religions, or are these allegations a new way of limiting the freedom of religious minorities?

The first part of the book includes ethnographic studies on children in different movements: the Wiccan - neo-pagan community (Helen A. Berger), the Hare Krishna movement (E. Burke Rochford), the Sullivan Institute (Amy Siskind), the World of Life charismatic movement (Simon Coleman), the Osho Ko Hsuan School maintained by the Rajneesh movement in Devon, England (Elizabeth Puttick), Sahaja Yoga (Judith Coney), In Search of Truth (ISOT: Gretchen Siegler), the Italian magical community of Damanhur (Massimo Introvigne), the Messianic Communities (including Island Pond in Vermont and Tabitha's Place, now The Farm, in France: Susan Palmer).

In the second part of the book a British law professor (Anthony Bradney) and a U.S. attorney (Michael W. Homer) discuss relevant legal issues. James T. Richardson bridges the gap between sociological and legal papers, noting that the anti-cult movements have used more frequently child sex abuse accusations in recent years, when faced with an increasing difficulty of asserting brainwashing claims in court, particularly in the U.S. Charlotte Hardman draws some conclusions by comparing children in The Family (formerly the Children of God), Transcendental Meditation and the New Age Findhorn Community.

The title of Michael Homer's chapter - "The Precarious Balance Between Freedom of Religion and the Best Interests of the Child" - captures the core of the problem. There is little doubt that sex abuse, and other forms of child abuse, have occurred in a handful of new religious movements. They should be investigated and prosecuted regardless of any religious motivation of the perpetrators. While it is possible that closed-knit communities may make child abuse more difficult to detect, there is no evidence, as James Richardson reports, that child abuse is more prevalent in new religious movements than in mainline religious organizations (often plagued by scandals involving pedophile priests and pastors) or other social settings. Problems also exist about the definition, both legal and sociological, of child abuse. Apart from obvious (and obviously intolerable) cases of abuse, the question is whether intentional communities and new religious movements have a right to involve children in their experiments in radically alternative lifestyles. For example, radical poverty practised by celibate adults in some Catholic religious orders or by Hindu or Buddhist monks is normally applauded, but what if radical poverty includes children in non-celibate communities? What about education, schooling, health care, separation of the children raised communally from their biological parents? As on other issues, the ethnographic studies prove that answers vary from country to country, and are linked to the general approach to religious liberty and "cults". Control-oriented countries such as France will use the children issue as still another tool for repression. Other countries, such as Italy (in the case of Damanhur), the UK or the U.S. will try to mediate, asking the communities to provide their children with the minimum level, regarded as non-negotiable by their national legislation, of health care, schooling and interaction with children outside the movement, while recognizing that minority communities have a right to raise their children preserving their unique lifestyle and beliefs. Once the normal curriculum is taught according to the law, communities (as recognized many years ago for the Amish in the U.S. and more recently for Damanhur in Italy) have a right to transmit to their children their unique heritage of belief, no matter how bizarre the latter is considered by the mainline society. They have also a right to experiment with alternative methods of child-rearing and health care, provided - again - that the minimum level of health care requested by the law is provided. (National laws differ widely on issues such as compulsory vaccination, and some communities have moved from one country to another in order to avoid harsher statutes.) Under this minimum level, the state can and should intervene in order to protect the best interest of the child. Above this level, claims by the authorities that children are "abused" are simply, as most chapters of the book conclude, another strategy to curb religious liberty through what Richardson calls "a new social control tactic".

(Reviewed by the staff at CESNUR Library, Torino, Italy)

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