Child Abuse

Church Law and Tax 1989-03-01 Recent Developments Child Abuse Richard R. Hammar, J.D., LL.M., CPA

Church Law and Tax 1989-03-01 Recent Developments

Child Abuse

Should courts consider religious conversions in deciding whether or not to terminate parental rights to children on the basis of child abuse or neglect? No, concluded a New York state court. A county social services agency sought to terminate the parental rights of a couple to their 5-year-old son on the basis of alleged incestuous acts. The couple adamantly denied that they had molested their son, and stressed that their conversion to “biblical Christianity” proved that they would be “fit parents”. In rejecting the couple’s claim, the court observed: “Although some might have been tempted to reject, out of hand, the significance of their religious fervor, this court sees it as having a most positive potential. Religion can and does serve as a means to pray, to enrich and strengthen family life, to inspire commitment, to still anger, to foster understanding, to encourage compassion and good deeds, and to sooth the piercing edge of pain following a loss. To many people these are everyday human miracles which naturally flow from a sincere belief in a Supreme Being, and a tender relationship between themselves and a caring pastor …. However, the court is most reluctant to allow its decision to be influenced by testimony that the [parents’] newfound discoveries of religious morality and the ‘word of God’ are themselves guarantees of [their son’s] safety …. [W]hile it may tempt a court’s inclination to resolve a matter by placing complete trust in a party’s religious faith and enthusiasm, the facts of this case, together with the testimony and experience of six experts, outweighs such considerations. Indeed, such inclinations do not relieve the court of the obligation to consider a demonstrable, unresolved, and existing risk to this child.” In particular, the court was impressed with the following testimony of one expert witness: “In the years that I have been doing this work, I probably have treated people from every religious denomination. We have seen priests, ministers, rabbis who have engaged in pedophilic [i.e., child molestation] behavior, so attendance at a church or being high up in a religious hierarchy doesn’t contraindicate that a person is a [pedophile] …. They tell us that they have repented, that they have found the Lord and no longer have the problem they were accused of having. So we don’t see religiosity as solving the problem.” The court also emphasized that the couple adamantly refused to admit that they had abused their son, despite compelling evidence to the contrary. Citing the “overwhelming view of professionals” that “an admission is critical to successful treatment, the court concluded that the parents’ “piety could have played a major role in their rehabilitation, but only if they first admitted, addressed, and confronted the behavioral problems that they both have. Since the parents refused to admit the acts of abuse, the court felt compelled to reject the relevance of religion in their lives and to terminate their parental rights to their son. Dutchess County Department of Social Services v. G., 534 N.Y.S.2d 64 (N.Y. 1988).

See Confidential communications, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. Superior Court, 764 P.2d 759 (Ariz. App. 1988); Personal injuries occurring on church premises or during church activities, J. v. Victory Baptist Church, 372 S.E.2d 391 (Va. 1988).

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