World Magazine Minimizes the Twelve Tribes’ Abuse

I grew up on World Magazine. It’s evangelical and conservative, but it really was fairly moderate compared to much of the other things I was exposed to. When the video of brutal caning of children came out and even Michael Farris admitted that what was going on in the Twelve Tribes sect in Germany was abuse, I fully expected World Magazine to jump solidly on the “we don’t condone this, this is abuse” bandwagon. And then . . . they didn’t.

Let’s first review what we have on video, what we know about the Twelve Tribes’ beliefs about child discipline, and a bit of testimony from former members, all helpfully laid out in the Independent article:

The little blonde-haired boy is about four years old. He simpers as a middle aged woman drags him downstairs into a dimly-lit cellar and orders the child to bend over and touch the stone floor with his hands. Another little boy watches as the woman pulls down the first boy’s pants and then draws out a willow cane.

“Say you are tired!” commands the woman in an emotionless voice. The swoosh of the willow cane is audible as it strikes the screaming child’s bottom three times. The little boy refuses to say he is tired so he is hit again and again – a total of ten times – until, in floods of tears, he finally says “I am tired.”

Within the space of a few hours, six adults are filmed in the cellar and in an underground school central heating room beating six children with a total of 83 strokes of the cane. The graphic and disturbing scenes were shown on Germany’s RTL television channel last night.

They were filmed by Wolfram Kuhnigk, an RTL journalist equipped with hidden video cameras and microphones, who infiltrated a 100-strong religious community run by the fundamentalist “Twelve Tribes” sect in Bavaria earlier this year. Kuhnigk claimed to be a lost soul to gain entry. “Seeing this systematic beatings made me want to weep, it made me think of my own two children,” he said. He collected 50 beating scenes on camera.

. . .

Its members consider the Old and New Testaments to be God’s direct word. The sect says it openly believes in “spanking” disobedient children to “drive out the Devil”. Its website insists: “We know that some people consider this aspect of our life controversial, but we have seen from experience that discipline keeps a child from becoming mean-spirited and disrespectful of authority.”

. . .

Sven, a 19-year-old former Twelve Tribes members who ran away at the age of 14 recalls how he was beaten for imitating an aeroplane. In the hands of one of the sect’s “educators”, he was beaten for days at 2 o’clock in the morning because he kept wetting his bed. “They said I had lost control of myself”, he says in an interview.

“I was told I would die if I tried to escape,” he tells Kuhnigk, “I was a child who was not allowed to be a child,” he added.

Interviews with former members are highly instructive as to the extent of the child abuse that took place in the Twelve Tribes commune in Germany and that has long taken place in Twelve Tribes communes across the world. This abuse stems from both the authoritarian structure of the group and their strict and unrelenting adherence to severe corporal punishment stemming from their belief in beating the devil out of children, which they hold as central to their identity. This isn’t the first time the Twelve Tribes has been caught abusing children. Since its founding in the 1970s, Twelve Tribes communes have been stormed in places as far apart as Vermont and California on charges of child abuse, kidnapping, child labor violations, and suspicious infant deaths. All of this has been common knowledge for years. All of it.

So how did World Magazine respond to the Independent article and the release of the video? Did they admit that this is a sect with endemic child abuse problems that has had multiple run-ins with the law, or that the beatings caught on video clearly crossed the line into horrific child abuse? No. Instead, they responded like this:

Twelve Tribes Raid Sparked by Secret Video

An undercover video recording prompted police to stage last week’s raid of The Twelve Tribes sect in Germany, in which they took custody of 40 children, including a girl who was just visiting. Earlier this year, an investigative journalist from RTL infiltrated the Christian communal group by pretending to be spiritually lost, then secretly recorded 50 spanking episodes, according to The Independent.

In one video, a middle-aged woman leads a boy about 4 years old into a cellar and demands, “Say you are tired!” When he refuses, she proceeds to spank him 10 times with a willow cane, until he says, through tears, “I am tired.” Within a few hours, five other children are also spanked.

One German official described the punishment in the recordings as “cold and systematic.” Germany outlawed corporal punishment of children in 2000. After viewing the secret recordings, officials decided to launch an investigation and take custody of the children.

The RTL journalist interviewed a 19-year-old former Twelve Tribes member named Sven who ran away from the community at 14. Sven said he was spanked for imitating an airplane and for wetting the bed: “They said I had lost control of myself. I was told I would die if I tried to escape. … I was a child who was not allowed to be a child.”

The picture of an abusive and repressive community contrasts with statements The Twelve Tribes has posted to its website, including one from woman who was a childhood friend of a community member.

“The children and young people in the community were quiet and balanced, no restless TV children,” she wrote. “They live very close to nature with their own garden, own animals, they play musical instruments, handcrafts, weaving, pottery, carpentry, home theater and so on. … The parents respond to their children calmly and deliberately, never [have I] seen them in anger. … There is a stable relationship between parents and children, which is marked by the affection, kindness, and caresses of the younger children.”

A neighbor to the community said the children seemed friendly, happy, and healthy. She sometimes saw the children taking walks or heard them playing volleyball. “You can see that the children are playing, they are happy and free, and nobody who has his senses together would have the idea to call this an isolated ‘cult.’ There is not even a fence.”

The Twelve Tribes also posted two eyewitness accounts of the raids.

World calls these brutal beatings “spankings” and leaves out the children’s screams and sobs. What the Independent makes clear were brutal beatings are reduced in World’s telling to mere “spankings.” Then World proceeds to quote from neighbors who said the kids seemed happy. What is this? Look, we have the beatings on video. We know they happened. Children dragged into a basement, held down, and, screaming, brutally beaten with rods. Whether the kids “seemed” happy is irrelevant to whether or not they were being beaten. We know they were being beaten.

This article is nothing short of a blatant minimization of child abuse. The author describes the beatings as merely “spankings” and then quotes neighbors saying they saw the kids all the time and they always “seemed” healthy and happy—the implication, of course, is: Was what was going on really all that bad? Personally, I’m feeling really, really done with the entire evangelical world right now. They claim that they are compassionate and care about the weak and defenseless, but when the rubber hits the road they sure don’t show it.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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