13 Nov 2008

The Five Religion-Related Issues that Should Most Concern the Future Obama Administration

FindLaw - November 13, 2008

by Marci Hamilton

[Note: Two of the five issues are excerpted here. Read the entire article here.]

The Third Key Issue: Support State Measures to Prevent and Prosecute Child Sex Abuse, Even When It Occurs Within Religious Communities

There is now incontrovertible evidence that religious communities hide child sex abuse. Too often, they seek to protect the perpetrator and the religious institution's public image at the expense of children suffering abuse. This is not just a Catholic problem, or a Latter-Day Saints problem, or a Jehovah's Witnesses problem. We also now know that it is also an Orthodox Jewish problem, among others; it spans all beliefs and creeds. Abuse is wholly nondenominational. Wherever it appears, whether in a religious or secular context or community, it must be stopped.

Tragically, American culture is structured to make it harder to identify perpetrators within these communities, as prosecutors and other powerful figures frequently either defer to religious leaders, or simply lack the courage to rock the boat of their own religious group. We learned recently, due to the brave reporting of Hella Winston at Jewish Week, that Assemblyman Dov Hikind of the New York General Assembly has been keeping records of known abusers within the Orthodox community - but has failed to alert the police, and that this was true even when Hikind knew that one perpetrator, in particular, had abused a child in the very recent past. This pattern of cover-up is not unusual; it happens all the time, in both religious and secular organizations. Hikind's behavior is comparable to that of Fr. Andrew Greeley -who has bragged publicly that he knows who many perpetrators are in the Catholic Church, but has refused to name them publicly, as I discuss in a previous column.

The net result of such religious leaders' abdication of responsibility is that all of our children might as well wear "Come and Get Me" T-shirts, because these predators do not necessarily stick to victims within their own communities. They want children for sex, period. So when the fellow believer keeps the identity of the predator from police, he or she puts all children at potential risk.

The evidence cannot be more clear: Many entities, both secular and religious, cover up the identities of perpetrators within their ranks. With state-level solutions falling woefully short, the federal government needs to step in to encourage the states to make it easier for victims themselves to name perpetrators when religious leaders won't.

There is only one route that works on this score: letting victims go to court whenever they are ready. Right now, in most states, the statutes of limitations bar most victims from testifying by the time they are psychologically ready to do so, and thus allow perpetrators to expand their search-and-destroy missions. As I suggest in my book Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children, the federal government can do a great deal to help children by creating financial incentives (or disincentives) for states to open their courts to child sex abuse victims.

The Fourth Key Issue: Offer Federal Resources to Investigate the Abuses - Including Child Abuse -- that Typically Arise from Polygamy.

Polygamy is a crime rooted in male domination, and too often, it results in spousal and child abuse. Most recently, eleven men were indicted from the small community of Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) living on the Yearning for Zion Ranch compound in Eldorado, Texas, for child abuse or failing to notify authorities of known abuse. That is a lot of men engaged in child sex or covering it up for such a small community. Texas deserves a lot of credit for protecting the children in their state, despite the FLDS's public relations machine. States like Utah and Arizona, though, where there are far more fundamentalist polygamists, have been both inept and shameless in fostering polygamy despite its plain prohibition under the criminal law.

There is no question that children are transported across state lines, in violation of the federal Mann Act, for "spiritual marriage" purposes, which is one of the reasons that Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints leader Warren Jeffs is facing serial trials on both state and federal charges. An Obama Department of Justice should put significant resources into FBI investigations to halt the illegal practices in these groups, which are creating such risks for children. There also needs to be a well-thought-out plan for dealing with those entering the United States who engage in polygamy -- which, for instance, is accepted in some Muslim communities around the world.

This article was found at:


Marci Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008). A review of Justice Denied appeared on this site on June 25, 2008. Her previous book is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback.

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