Spanking Ministries Fail to Protect
It’s not what these ministries tell parents. It’s what they tell abused kids.
By M. Dolon Hickmon
Physical abuse survivors have complained for decades that religious spanking lessons held them in position to suffer abuse as securely as if their pastors had handcuffed them. Lawsuits have been presumed impossible, but landmark decisions in recent sex abuse cases involving youth-serving organizations may have opened the door for some adults who were brutalized with belts and paddles when they were youngsters to sue the ministries that facilitated their abuse by subjecting them to negligent spanking lessons during the period when they were being actively victimized.
Like Boy Scouts, religious family-improvement programs include formal events as well as behaviors that members commit to perform between meetings. That means that youth involvement — and organizational liability — doesn’t necessarily end when meetings are over and youth leave the property. Organizations can be held liable when young people are abused as a consequence of their involvement in the program, regardless of when and where the injuries occurred or who caused them. Organizations have been found liable for sexual abuse perpetrated by other youth participants, by parents of other youth participants, and by non-participant adults posing as members by simply wearing their uniform. Because of these expanding liabilities, youth serving organizations are now advised to implement wide-ranging steps both to protect youth from abuse and to warn them of the risks of being secretly victimized as a consequence of their involvement: schools publish on-campus rape and assault statistics; Scouts require new members and their parents to study and sign a pamphlet about the dangers of being sexually assaulted; and the Catholic Church has created an annual training program that includes age-appropriate abuse prevention information with reinforcement at home.
Meanwhile, religious spanking ministries teach physically abused children the benefits of so-called “biblical chastisement”, which most often involves being beaten on the back of the body with a potentially deadly weapon. These organizations have long been aware that children are often maimed, traumatized and killed as a result of such conduct but rather than protecting children, ministries have done their best to prevent children becoming aware of these risks. Their conduct may create liability in any number of ways, from simple product liability to breach of fiduciary trust, which obligates adult figures of authority to act in the best interests of children under their care. Ministries most likely can’t be sued every time a parent non-injuriously spanks their child, but they may be held liable when criminally abused children suffer additional and ongoing injury as a result of following negligent advice that victims received during church spanking lessons.
Nothing in this article is intended to suggest that warnings from pastors could make dangerous belt- whippings safer or that children could somehow be made responsible for protecting themselves from abuse. Rather the remainder of this discussion should highlight the countless ways that spanking ministries have failed to address a duty of prevention that courts apply to child abuse that is known to be likely to occur as a result of becoming involved in a youth-serving program. Spanking ministries must be sued for injuries that result from failing to take appropriate precautions and they must also be sued when their precautions — like Catholic “vacation therapy” for for pedophile priests — turns out to be grossly ineffective.
In the cultural war against all kinds of spanking, liability lawsuits over criminal physical abuse are a potential game-changer. These would allow advocates to shift the debate from the court of public opinion to courts of law, where decades of evidence against corporal punishment must be factually considered. A single judgment could see wealthy ministries in particular forced to scrub their websites of spanking materials that have devastated countless victims over generations — not by government agencies who are constitutionally prohibited from restricting religious speech, but by private insurance requirements which do not infringe on first amendment rights. With each win, the legal space upon which spanking ministries must perch is reduced.
This is a radical new approach to anti-spanking advocacy. Long before the first cases reach court, it will require a shift in the framework that anti-abuse advocates have been using to describe church- involved physical abuse cases. Because parents are responsible to know the law and follow it, it is unlikely that an effective theory of liability can be developed based on what churches tell parents. What ministries say to victims of physical abuse in their congregation is another matter. When ministries nominate themselves to the job of giving corporal punishment instructions to active victims of criminal child abuse, they have voluntarily taken on a huge responsibility.
It might seem that victims of physical abuse are unlikely to be sitting through a sermon about
spanking, but by the time children reach the age of 18, the percentage that have experienced at least one confirmed incident of any form of maltreatment has climbed to 12.5%
. Even without accounting for the chasm between official, documented cases of confirmed child abuse and the number of adults who claim to have been maltreated, that figure means that if only eight children hear a pastor’s sermon about spanking, one of them is likely to eventually be confirmed as the victim in an official child abuse investigation. And if, like many pastors, you regularly give spanking lessons to a mixed-age crowd of hundreds or thousands of people, it is not merely probable that your advice will be taken to heart by youngsters who are actively grappling with the crisis of physical abuse; it is a near mathematical certainty.
On December 17, 2018 Pastor David O. Dykes of Green Acres Baptist Church, a 14,000-member congregation in Tyler, Texas, preached a sermon on spanking to an estimated audience of 4,700 people. Among them, experts expect to find approximately 600 souls who’d experienced at least one documented incident of confirmed child maltreatment in their lifetime. Of those 600, roughly half are projected to be children or teens and 52 of them —roughly 18%—were likely to be actively grappling with the crisis of physical abuse at that time or in the near future
After a brief preamble comparing discipline to sandpaper, Dykes assured his audience that there is “NEVER an excuse for child abuse.” The man’s tone was forceful. Unequivocal. But to the five-or nine-year-old wondering if he or she should make an outcry, what exactly does “child abuse” mean? Dykes described it as an angry assault from an out-of-control parent: “child abuse” occur“when a parent loses his or her temper” —while “loving discipline” is applied “calmly”. Though often repeated, this religious dogma is both dangerous and unsupported by any consensus of child protection experts.
When abused children hear that anger is the definitive sign of physical abuse, what they often absorb instead is a false and perilous corollary: that horrific assaults are not “child abuse” when administered calmly and with evident premeditation. This is significant, because a great many physical abusers do not express frustration or anger while inflicting injury on their victims. In fact, many are rather cold and unemotional.
It might be easy to imagine over-punishing your child in a heated moment. But while many parents have experienced a swell of anger that seemed destined to result in unrestrained violence, the majority would have an instant change of heart when confronted with their own child’s genuine expressions of agony or horror.
“Parents should vicariously experience some degree of the pain and distress of the child who is the object of the physical violence,” UCLA emeritus professor Norma Deitch Feshbach explains in a collaborative psychology text printed by the Cambridge University Press; “This empathic response should inhibit abusive behavior in the parent since the abuse, by virtue of empathy, pains the parent as well as the child.” Unfortunately, for a small number of parents this self-limiting response —known as empathy —never seems to kick in.
Lack of empathy “is not necessarily permanent, and may even be for only brief periods of time in very specific circumstances,” writes neuroscientist Jack Pemment in Psychology Today. Those circumstances could be a period of overwhelming rage, but anger is not the only —or even the most likely —explanation for temporary or situational empathy impairment. For instance, studies suggest that adults may be less empathetic towards —and more likely to abuse —children who are high-demand because of a disability or learning disorder. Adults are also more likely to abuse non-biological children, including stepchildren and those who are adopted. Empathy can also be reduced by an abuser’s beliefs: that severe beatings are justified under certain circumstances, for example; or that wounding punishments are not abusive when bracketed by biblical explanations or affirmations of love.
For other abusers, empathy for children seems totally non-existent. Some of these parents are domineering habitual spouse-and child batterers, who deploy extreme and premeditated violence to maintain vise-like control; others are cold-blooded torturers, who starve, cage and beat children for months or years while cocooned in the chill of emotional detachment; a few are literal sadists, who whip children because it makes them feel all-powerful or excites them sexually.
Rather than anger, victims may describe the sadist’s mannerisms as grandiose, egotistical or excited. “He was getting a kick out of it,” said Scott Morgan, who was subjected to sadistic abuse by church deacon Alan Morris over several years beginning at the age of eleven; “The longer he could drag it out the better.” Other victims may perceive their empathy-impaired tormentors not as enraged but rather oddly emotionally flat: Asked to describe his father’s reaction to drawing blood during a spanking, another ten-year-old abuse victim, adopted after meeting his married abusers at a summer Bible day camp, responded, “He said I ruined his belt.”
It is not ministries’ job to rehabilitate pathologically motivated child batterers, any more than it is the job of the Boy Scouts to cure pedophiles. But being unable to exclude or control abusers doesn’t mean that organizations have no duty to protect children from being secretly victimized as a result of their participation. Organizations are now routinely held liable for sexual abuse that occurred off of their premises and outside of formally organized group activities. Because of these lawsuits, groups including the Boy Scouts have acknowledged a duty to forewarn children about the possibility of experiencing attempted sexual assault as a result of participating in the program—a precaution that is proven to diminish the incidence and severity of abuse. Unfortunately, teaching children personal safety in regards to physical abuse has lagged far behind.
Much of the blame for this lapse may fall on churches, where zeal to promote the putative benefits of spanking has long taken precedence over providing physically abused children with effective safety information. Ministries have attempted to sidestep their duty towards children by instead directing cautions towards well-meaning adults: equating physical abuse with exasperation and then attempting to ever more emphatically teach the “biblical” method of giving “calm”, “measured”, and “loving” spankings. But young children cannot deduce the information that they need to know from what they hear ministries telling parents. They need honest and straightforward information about staying safe from abuse of all types, including physical.
American children do typically realize that a spanking should not resemble a fistfight: there should be no punching, kicking, cutting, burning or shoving. But children often mistake physical abuse for a spanking. In fact, most survivors of physical abuse are well into adulthood before realizing that their own parents’ use of corporal punishment crossed a line. Many had nothing to compare abusive corporal punishment to; others were primed by their abusers to misunderstand normative spanking and the associated passages of Scripture. Few recognized their own abuser in the shallow stereotype of the explosively violent child batterer.
Looking over the faces of roughly four dozen children whose lives would be interrupted by the horror of injurious punishments, Pastor Dykes used the following words to draw a picture of Christian discipline: He told them that his father took off his belt, folded it in half and started “whaling away on me.”
Dykes told abuse victims that he was usually beaten by one parent and then the other. “I usually got a double portion,” he said. “We would go around in a circle and I would usually be yelling, ‘I’ll be good, daddy. I’ll be good!’”In some versions of the sermon, Dykes said that he was beaten in this fashion three or four times per day. On this occasion, Dykes told a crowd that likely included at least four dozen mistreated youngsters that beatings were so frequent that they might as well have been doled out hourly. Dykes described his cries of pain as so emotionally pitched that one might have thought he was being murdered.
“I thought he was killing me,” Dykes said.
Dykes brushed upon the critical role that parental empathy plays in moderating physical discipline when he described his father as saying, “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you”. But rather than warning abused children of the dangers of being whipped by a parent who demonstrates no reluctance when inflicting agony or injury, Dykes concluded his comments with an insensitive joke: “I wanted to say, ‘Dad, don’t hurt yourself so much.’”
Many in Dykes’ audience joined him in a laugh. But for battered children present in the audience that day —most projected to be aged ten or younger
—Dyke’s description of corporal punishment likely differed little from actual abuse they’d suffered. Dykes anecdote touched on a long list of physical abuse warning signs, but the pastor normalized all of them by concluding that he’d “deserved” all of it. Dykes’ description of a “loving” whipping could have been copied from a probable cause affidavit, but he told abuse victims, “My parents never abused me.”
The children of Mark and Cheryl Layne, arrested on child abuse charges September 17, 2019, might have been among Dykes’ audience that day. News reports
allege that following a recent flare-up, two of the Layne’s seven children, adopted twin boys, sought a school resource officer and reported being beaten with a belt and other objects. Police found evidence of blood at the scene, and photos showed bruises and looped belt marks along with injuries to arms and faces. A search of the couple’s social media profiles turned up photos of the Laynes and their children sitting in the back row of Green Acres Baptist, where other posts indicate that the family attended services as early as 2016. Probable cause affidavits confirm that CPS had been to the home prior to Cheryl and Mark’s arrests.
For how long did the Layne children submit to being abused with a belt and other objects, before the violence escalated to the semblance of a fistfight that their pastor taught them to recognize as problematic? How much worse might their lifetime injuries be because opportunities for rescue went wasted, while they tried to learn the promised lessons about respect from their parents’ entirely destructive actions?
“There is a huge difference between child abuse and loving, caring biblical discipline,” Pastor David Dykes has said. But he never put children on the lookout for physical and emotional injuries caused by unreasonable punishment; never suggested that children report injuries to him or another trusted adult; never told anybody that the proper response to child abuse should be to call the authorities.
In America, almost five children
die from child abuse and neglect every day. Nearly half of those deaths involve physical abuse that most often began as an attempt at corporal punishment
. The risk of discipline escalating to abuse is nine times higher when an object is used, and most victims are not well-muscled teenagers but children younger than age ten
. Victims who are not killed may be maimed or permanently disfigured, and all face significant emotional challenges that can worsen without treatment even years after the abuse has ended. They are more likely to become chemically dependent, to experience or perpetrate intimate partner violence, to be arrested, to commit suicide and to eventually abuse their own children.
For abused children spankings are agonizing, terrifying and degrading. Aside from obvious wounds like bruises, cuts and bone fractures, symptoms of emotional injury include recurring nightmares about spanking or stress reactions like crying, shaking, and feeling weak or nauseated when thinking about future punishments or those that are long past. Victims may feel depressed, damaged, anxious or hopeless. Even victims far below the age of ten may connect their experiences of being “spanked” to feelings of such intense shame, hatred and anger that they have contemplated running away from home
, committing suicide
or murdering their parent
. Incidents of child abuse are frequently marked by significant efforts at self-defense: these include children earnestly kicking, biting and scratching, serious efforts to evade punishment by effective hiding or fleeing; or crying and screaming at disturbing volume or emotional pitch.
Dykes message to an audience that likely included children who experienced punishment like this was: “don’t resist. Don’t pull away. Submit”.
In my opinion, it ought to be a criminal offense to send children into such danger without a reasonable caution. I suspect that it actually is a tort, and I hope that within my lifetime we will see ministries like Green Acres Baptist held to account by their many victims. In virtually all historic cases where churched children were injured by abusive corporal punishment, ministries functioned as witting and unwitting accomplices. The number of potential victims is truly staggering.
I believe that when Dykes acknowledged physical abuse victims of prior generations, it was an unintentional confession: like all pastors, Dykes has surely heard credible testimony from adults who submitted to years of physical abuse because they trusted the advice of a religious ministry. These survivors have been denied recognition of the harm that these ministries piled on top of already horrific abuse, because everyone has been looking at the wrong end of the problem: ministries might not be liable for the risky advice that they’ve given to parents, but from now on, discussions will increasingly be focused on ministries’ obligation to protect children from being secretly victimized as a result of their participation.
Tell ministries that they have been getting physical child abuse wrong for decades. Simply reminding adults that they are not supposed to abuse children is not effective. Churched children must be put on the lookout for the physical and emotional injuries that inappropriate spanking causes; they must be invited to bring concerns about injurious spanking to a trusted adult; and both children and adults should be made aware that the only proper response to significant injury during corporal punishment should be to immediately call the authorities.
It is time to solidify a commitment to remedy this situation for the next generation. Share this story on social media. If a religious ministry served as an indispensable accomplice to damaging corporal punishment endured by yourself or someone you know, then add the hashtag #unchristianspanking. Tell ministries that they have been getting physical child abuse wrong for decades. Simply reminding adults that they are not supposed to abuse children is not effective. We must stop allowing churched children to approach this terrible danger without a reasonable caution.
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