20 Jun 2011

Why Do Children Suffer?



If God is good, omnipotent, compassionate and loving, then why do children suffer?


by Perry Bulwer



This archive of news articles related to child abuse in religious environments demonstrates just how dangerous religion can be to children. The abuses, atrocities and crimes documented in these pages, committed against children in the name of God or gods, ought to give thinking people of faith serious doubts as to the legitimacy of religious or spiritual beliefs that cause or contribute in any way to the suffering of the most innocent, vulnerable humans. It ought to, but it usually doesn't. For example, I was recently contacted by a Christian who demanded that I remove the painting of Abraham sacrificing Isaac that appears in the left side-bar under the title Religious Child Abuse, which I think is an accurate description of what is happening in the painting. This anonymous person wrote to me in response to an article related to Catholic clergy crimes in Ireland:

You need to remove the Abraham Isaac image. It has nothing to do with what has been going on. Christ died for our sins and He has already said that anyone who harms children would be better off with a millstone round his neck and drowned in the bottom of sea. That is His outrage and I am baffled by the lack of connection with Christ in the church. And the lack of fear of God. Knowing of those heinious actions if you truly believed in God would strike terror in your heart.

What astounds me is the failure of believers to recognize that the defining moment of faith for Jews and Christians alike, and I assume Muslims, is Abraham's willingness to sacrifice, i.e., murder, his son because God commanded him to. His willingness to kill his own son is considered the ultimate test and expression of faith. Of course, God apparently changed his mind and commuted innocent Isaac's death penalty, so it is no wonder some fundamentalists today are willing to risk their children dying from medical neglect just to prove how faithful they are, believing that their faith alone is enough for God to intervene and save their child like Isaac was saved. Yet Abraham was guilty of attempted filicide, as are modern faith healing parents who allow their children to suffer needlessly without any professional medical care, sometimes unto death. The link between Abraham, the father of faith, and modern believers who neglect, harm or murder their children in the name of God is undeniable, so the painting stays as a symbol of all religiously motivated child abuse.

The suffering experienced by children from the misguided actions of religious adults is a specific subset of suffering that I have purposely focused on in this archive to help expose the dogma that God is good and faith is beneficial. What kind of god or God would allow innocent children to suffer or die at the hands of believers and do nothing to intervene and stop the suffering? It is certainly not a kind, loving, compassionate god or God, at least not by any reasonable standard of kindness, love or compassion.  No believer has any reasonable answer to that question of why a presumably good, all-powerful god allows innocent children to needlessly suffer. Neither does the Bible.

The broader question of suffering, any suffering of any human whether related to religion or not, is enough to invalidate the god of the Bible, who is the god of Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. That is the conclusion of Bart Ehrman who has a Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Princeton Theological Seminary. He was a life-long, devout and committed evangelical Christian, until he considered deeply the question of why humans suffer. In his 2008 book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer, he explains that the question of suffering is the reason he lost his faith. Rather than paraphrasing him, I provide here two brief excerpts from that book. The first is a description in chapter one of his personal history and why he came to write the book. The second is from the concluding chapter nine in which he discusses a passage from The Brothers Karamazov that considers the question of suffering children.


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Suffering and a Crisis of Faith - from Chapter One

If there is an all-powerful and loving God in this world, why is there so much excruciating pain and unspeakable suffering? The problem of suffering has haunted me for a very long time. It was what made me begin to think about religion when I was young, and it was what led me to question my faith when I was older. Ultimately, it was the reason I lost my faith. This book tries to explore some aspects of the problem, especially as they are reflected in the Bible, whose authors too grappled with the pain and misery in the world.

To explain why the problem matters so much to me, I need to give a bit of personal background. For most of my life I was a devout and committed Christian. I was baptized in a Congregational church and reared as an Episcopalian, becoming an altar boy when I was twelve and continuing all the way through high school. Early in my high school days I started attending a Youth for Christ club and had a "born-again" experience—which, looking back, seems a bit strange: I had been involved in church, believing in Christ, praying to God, confessing my sins, and so on for years. What exactly did I need to convert from? I think I was converting from hell—I didn't want to experience eternal torment with the poor souls who had not been "saved"; I much preferred the option of heaven. In any event, when I became born again it was like ratcheting my religion up a notch. I became very serious about my faith and chose to go off to a fundamentalist Bible college—Moody Bible Institute in Chicago—where I began training for ministry.

I worked hard at learning the Bible—some of it by heart. I could quote entire books of the New Testament, verse by verse, from memory. When I graduated from Moody with a diploma in Bible and Theology (at the time Moody did not offer a B.A. degree), I went off to finish my college work at Wheaton, an evangelical Christian college in Illinois (also Billy Graham's alma mater). There I learned Greek so that I could read the New Testament in its original language. From there I decided that I wanted to commit my life to studying the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, and chose to go to Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian school whose brilliant faculty included Bruce Metzger, the greatest textual scholar in the country. At Princeton I did both a master of divinity degree—training to be a minister—and, eventually, a Ph.D. in New Testament studies.

I'm giving this brief synopsis to show that I had solid Christian credentials and knew about the Christian faith from the inside out—in the years before I lost my faith.

During my time in college and seminary I was actively involved in a number of churches. At home, in Kansas, I had left the Episcopal church because, strange as this might sound, I didn't think it was serious enough about religion (I was pretty hard-core in my evangelical phase); instead I went a couple of times a week to a Plymouth Brethren Bible Chapel (among those who really believed!). When I was away from home, living in Chicago, I served as the youth pastor of an Evangelical Covenant church. During my seminary years in New Jersey I attended a conservative Presbyterian church and then an American Baptist church. When I graduated from seminary I was asked to fill the pulpit in the Baptist church while they looked for a full-time minister. And so for a year I was pastor of the Princeton Baptist Church, preaching every Sunday morning, holding prayer groups and Bible studies, visiting the sick in the hospital, and performing the regular pastoral duties for the community.

But then, for a variety of reasons that I'll mention in a moment, I started to lose my faith. I now have lost it altogether. I no longer go to church, no longer believe, no longer consider myself a Christian. The subject of this book is the reason why.




In an earlier book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, I have indicated that my strong commitment to the Bible began to wane the more I studied it. I began to realize that rather than being an inerrant revelation from God, inspired in its very words (the view I had at Moody Bible Institute), the Bible was a very human book with all the marks of having come from human hands: discrepancies, contradictions, errors, and different perspectives of different authors living at different times in different countries and writing for different reasons to different audiences with different needs. But the problems of the Bible are not what led me to leave the faith. These problems simply showed me that my evangelical beliefs about the Bible could not hold up, in my opinion, to critical scrutiny. I continued to be a Christian—a completely committed Christian—for many years after I left the evangelical fold.

Eventually, though, I felt compelled to leave Christianity altogether. I did not go easily. On the contrary, I left kicking and screaming, wanting desperately to hold on to the faith I had known since childhood and had come to know intimately from my teenaged years onward. But I came to a point where I could no longer believe. It's a very long story, but the short version is this: I realized that I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life. In particular, I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things. For many people who inhabit this planet, life is a cesspool of misery and suffering. I came to a point where I simply could not believe that there is a good and kindly disposed Ruler who is in charge of it.

The problem of suffering became for me the problem of faith. After many years of grappling with the problem, trying to explain it, thinking through the explanations that others have offered—some of them pat answers charming for their simplicity, others highly sophisticated and nuanced reflections of serious philosophers and theologians—after thinking about the alleged answers and continuing to wrestle with the problem, about nine or ten years ago I finally admitted defeat, came to realize that I could no longer believe in the God of my tradition, and acknowledged that I was an agnostic: I don't "know" if there is a God; but I think that if there is one, he certainly isn't the one proclaimed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, the one who is actively and powerfully involved in this world. And so I stopped going to church.

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Suffering - The Conclusion –  from Chapter 9


[Ehrman begins this chapter with a brief survey of  human suffering of all kinds around the world as reported in just the first section of one Sunday morning newspaper.]


What are we to make of this mess? I should say that I’m not one of those people who is all gloom and doom, who wakes up every morning depressed and despondent about the state of the world.

I’m actually very cheerful, with a good sense of humor, a zest for life, and a sense that there is an unbelievable amount of good in the world—some of which I personally enjoy, every day of my life. But what are we to make of all the tragedy in the world, all the misery, the pain, the suffering?

Just about every day I receive e-mails from people I don’t know; they have read something I’ve written and heard that because I have difficulty explaining the suffering in the world, I have become an agnostic. These e-mails are always well meaning and many of them are very thoughtful. I try to respond to all of them, if nothing else just to thank the person for sending along his or her thoughts.

It is a little surprising to me, though, that so many people have such a simple understanding of suffering and want to share it with me as if I hadn’t heard or thought of that one before. Still, it’s all kindhearted and innocent, and so I appreciate it. One of the most common explanations I get is that we have to understand that God is like a good parent, a heavenly father, and that he allows suffering into our lives as a way of building our character or teaching us lessons about how we should live. There is, of course, biblical precedent for this view:

My child, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves the one he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights. (Prov. 3:11–12)

I haven’t devoted an entire chapter to this view, because I don’t think it’s one of the most common explanations found in the Bible, but it is there on occasion, as we have already seen. In the book of Amos, for example, when God punishes the people for their sin, it is precisely as a kind of discipline, to teach them a lesson: they need to return to him and his ways. That is why, according to Amos, the nation has experienced famine, drought, pestilence, war, and death: God was trying to get his people to “return to me” (Amos 4:6–11).

This view would make sense to me if the punishment were not so severe, the discipline so harsh. Are we really to believe that God starves people to death in order to teach them a lesson? That he sends epidemics that destroy the body, mental diseases that destroy the mind, wars that destroy the nation, in order to teach people a lesson in theology? What kind of father is he if he maims, wounds, dismembers, tortures, torments, and kills his children—all in the interest of keeping discipline? What would we think of a human father who starved a child to death because she did something wrong, or who flogged a child nearly to death to help him see theerror of his ways? Is the heavenly father that much worse than the worst human father we can imagine? I don’t find this view very convincing.

From the e-mails I get, I realize that a lot of people think that the suffering experienced in this world is a mystery—that is, that it cannot be understood. As I’ve said before, this is a view that I resonate with. But many think, at the same time, that one day we will be able to understand and that it will make sense. In other words, God ultimately has a plan that we cannot, at present, discern. But in the end we will see that what happened, even the most horrendous suffering experienced by the most innocent of people, was in the best interests of God, the world, the human race, and even of ourselves.

This is a comforting thought for many people, a kind of affirmation that God really is in control and really does know what he’s doing. And if it’s true, I suppose we’ll never know, until the end of all things. But I’m not sure that it’s a convincing point of view. It is a view that reminds me very much of an episode in one of the greatest novels ever written, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The most famous chapter of this very long novel is entitled “The Grand Inquisitor.” It is a kind of parable, told by one of the book’s main characters, Ivan Karamazov, to his brother Alyosha, in which he imagines what would happen if Jesus were to return to earth as a human being. In his parable Ivan argues that the leaders of the Christian church would have to arrange to have Jesus killed again, since what people want is not the freedom that Christ brings but the authoritarian structures and answers that the church provides. I think the leaders of our world’s megachurches should sit up and take notice—leaders who much prefer providing the certainty of right answers to guiding people to ask difficult questions.

In any event, even though the chapter on the Grand Inquisitor is the novel’s best-known chapter, it is the two chapters immediately before it that I have always found the most compelling. In these chapters it is again Ivan and Alyosha who are talking. Alyosha is a bright but inexperienced young novice at the local monastery; he is deeply religious but still displays some (at times delightful) naïveté. Ivan, his older brother, is an intellectual and a skeptic. Ivan admits that he thinks God exists (he is not an atheist, as interpreters have sometimes claimed), but he wants nothing to do with God. The pain and suffering in the world are too great, and ultimately God is at fault. Even if God were to reveal at the end of time the secret that made sense of all that had happened here on earth, it would not be enough. Ivan wants no part of it. As Ivan says: “It’s not God that I do not accept, you understand, it is this world of God’s, created by God, that I do not accept and cannot agree to accept” (page 235).

He does not accept the world because even if God were to reveal at the end the one thing that made sense of it all, Ivan would still find the suffering in the world too horrible. Ivan likens his rejection of the world to a mathematical problem. The ancient Greek mathematician Euclid indicated that two parallel lines cannot meet (otherwise they would not be parallel). But Ivan notes that there are “some geometers and philosophers” who think that this rule applies only in the realm of finite space, that somewhere in infinity in fact the two parallel lines do meet. Ivan doesn’t deny that this might be true, but he rejects it—his mind can’t grasp it and so he refuses to believe it. It is like that with suffering for him. If in the end God showed that it all served some greater, nobler purpose, it still would not be enough to justify it. As Ivan says:

I have a childlike conviction that the sufferings will be healed and smoothed over, and . . . that ultimately, at the world’s finale, in the moment of eternal harmony, there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all hearts, to allay all indignation, to redeem all human villainy, all bloodshed; it will suffice not only to make forgiveness possible, but also to justify everything that has happened. . . . Let all of this come true and be revealed, but I do not accept it and do not want to accept it! Let the parallel lines even meet before my own eyes: I shall look and say, yes, they meet, and still I will not accept it. (page 236)


This then launches Ivan into a discussion of his view of suffering, in the key chapter of the book, called “Rebellion.” In it he explains that, for him, the suffering of innocent children can not be explained, and that if an explanation from the Almighty ever is forthcoming, he simply won’t accept it (that’s why the chapter is called “Rebellion”—for his pious brother Alyosha, this kind of attitude toward God is rebellious).

Much of the chapter involves Ivan agonizing over the suffering of the innocent. He talks about the violence of Turkish soldiers in the wars in Bulgaria who “burn, kill, rape women and children, [and] nail prisoners by the ears to fences and leave them like that until morning, and in the morning they hang them.” He objects to anyone calling this animal behavior, because that “is terribly unjust and offensive to animals,” who could never behave with this kind of cruelty. He continues:

These Turks, among other things, have also taken a delight in torturing children, starting with cutting them out of their mothers’ wombs with a dagger, and ending with tossing nursing infants up in the air and catching them on their bayonets before their mothers’ eyes. The main delight comes from doing it before their mothers’ eyes. (page 238)

He then comes up with another horrible scenario:

Imagine a nursing infant in the arms of its trembling mother, surrounded by Turks. They’ve thought up an amusing trick: they fondle the baby, they laugh to make it laugh, and they succeed—the baby laughs. At that moment a Turk aims a pistol at it, four inches from its face. The baby laughs gleefully, reaches out its little hands to grab the pistol, and suddenly the artist pulls the trigger right in its face and shatters its little head. . . . Artistic, isn’t it? (pages 238–39)

Ivan’s stories are not just about wartime atrocities. They involve the everyday. And what is frightening is that they ring true to real-life experiences. He is obsessed with the torture of young children, even among well-educated, “civilized” people living in Europe:

They have a great love of torturing children, they even love children in that sense. It is precisely the defenselessness of these creatures that tempts the torturers, the angelic trustfulness of the child, who has nowhere to turn and no one to turn to—that is what enflames the vile blood of the torturer. (page 240)

He tells then the story of a five-year-old girl who was tormented by her parents and severely punished for wetting her bed (a story that Dostoevsky based on an actual court case):

These educated parents subjected the poor five-year-old girl to every possible torture. They beat her, flogged her, kicked her, not knowing why themselves, until her whole body was nothing but bruises; finally they attained the height of finesse: in the freezing cold, they locked her all night in the outhouse, because she wouldn’t ask to get up and go in the middle of the nights (as if a five-year-old child sleeping its sound angelic sleep could have learned to ask by that age)—for that they smeared her face with her excrement and made her eat the excrement, and it was her mother, her mother who made her! (page 242)

Ivan notes that some people have claimed that evil is necessary so that we human beings can recognize what is good. With the five year-old girl with excrement on her face in mind, he rejects this view. With some verve he asks Alyosha:

Can you understand such nonsense [i.e., such evil acts], my friend and my brother, my godly and humble novice, can you understand why this nonsense is needed and created? Without it, they say, man could not even have lived on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Who wants to know this damned good and evil at such a price? (page 242)

For Ivan, the price is too high. He rejects the idea that there can ever be a divine resolution that will make all the suffering worthwhile, a final answer given in the sky by-and-by that will justify the cruelty done to children (not to mention others; he restricts himself to children just to keep the argument simple): “Listen: if everyone must suffer, in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children to do with it?” (page 244). Ivan takes his stand in the here and now to say that whatever is revealed later, whatever can bring “ultimate harmony” to this chaotic world of evil and suffering, he rejects it, in solidarity with the suffering children:

While there’s still time, I hasten to defend myself against it, and therefore I absolutely renounce all higher harmony. It is not worth one little tear of even that one tormented child who beat her chest with her little fist and prayed to “dear God” in a stinking outhouse with her unredeemed tears! (page 245)

In a sense Ivan is reacting against the old Enlightenment view of Leibniz, that despite all its pain and misery, this is the “best of all possible worlds.” The only way one could recognize that this is the best world is if what happens in it is finally explained and justified. But for Ivan, nothing can justify it. He prefers to stand in solidarity with the suffering children rather than to be granted a divine resolution at the end that provides “harmony” to the world—that is, a sense of why all things worked together for the good purposes of God and all humanity.

I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and my unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong. Besides, they have put too high a price on harmony; we can’t afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket. And it is my duty, if only as an honest man, to return it as far ahead of time as possible. Which is what I am doing. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket. (page 245)

Here Ivan likens the final act of history, in which God reveals why all innocent suffering was “necessary” for the greater good—the harmony of all things—to a stage play, wherein the conflicts of the plot are resolved in the end. Ivan admits that the conflicts may be resolved, but he is not interested in seeing the play. The conflicts are too real and damning. And so he returns his ticket.

I first read The Brothers Karamazov more than twenty-five years ago when I was a graduate student (for years I read nothing but nineteenth-century novels, and this was one of my favorites). This passage has stayed with me all those years. I’m not sure I completely agree with Ivan. I think that if, in fact, God Almighty appeared to me and gave me an explanation that could make sense even of the torture, dismemberment, and slaughter of innocent children, and the explanation was so overpowering that I actually could understand, then I’d be the first to fall on my knees in humble submission and admiration. On the other hand, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Hoping that it will is probably just wishful thinking, a leap of faith made by those who are desperate both to remain faithful to God and to understand this world, all the while realizing that the two—their views of God and the realities of this world—are at odds with each other.

13 Jun 2011

Religious groups say proposed circumcision ban is attack on religious freedom, but ignore a child's right to be free from religion



Globe and Mail   -  Canada     June 10, 2011

Russell Crowe launches Twitter tirade: Circumcision is ‘barbaric’

DAVE MCGINN



Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe is not a fan of circumcision.

“Circumcision is barbaric and stupid. Who are you to correct nature?” Crowe tweeted on Thursday. “Is it real that God requires a donation of foreskin? Babies are perfect.”

Crowe went on the tirade after one of his Twitter followers asked whether he should get his son circumcised.

Then, Crowe appealed to his Jewish friends, including the director Eli Roth, to end the traditional practice of circumcising children.

“I love my Jewish friends, I love the apples and the honey and the funny little hats, but stop cutting your babies,” he wrote. “I will always stand for the perfection of babies. I will always believe in God, not man’s interpretation of what God requires,” he added. “Last of it, if you feel it is your right to cut things off your babies please unfollow and f--k off; I’ll take attentive parenting over barbarism.”

Not surprisingly, the messages have landed Crowe in hot water. His tweets have been deleted, and early Friday morning the actor apologized to anyone he may have offended.

“I have a deep and abiding love for all people of all nationalities. I’m very sorry that I have said things on here that have caused distress. My personal believes aside I realize that some will interpret this debate as me mocking the rituals and traditions of others. I am very sorry.”

Roth has been defending Crowe on his Twitter feed since the scandal broke, saying it was just a joke and that Crowe is “NOT antisemitic.”

This article was found at:


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CNN   June 10, 2011

San Francisco's proposed circumcision ban galvanizes religious opposition

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor


(CNN) - The nation’s largest evangelical Christian umbrella group has come out against San Francisco’s proposed circumcision ban, evidence that the voter initiative is beginning to galvanize national religious opposition.

Thursday’s announcement from the National Association of Evangelicals was noteworthy because unlike Jews and Muslims, Christians are not religiously mandated to practice circumcision.

“Jews, Muslims, and Christians all trace our spiritual heritage back to Abraham. Biblical circumcision begins with Abraham,” said National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson. “No American government should restrict this historic tradition. Essential religious liberties are at stake."

"The proposed ban violates the First Amendment’s guarantee to exercise one’s religious beliefs," Anderson said in a statement.

How much of a national issue the ban becomes is yet to be seen. An effort to put a circumcision ban on the ballot in Santa Monica, California was abandoned last week.

Many Jewish and Muslim groups have come out against San Francisco’s proposed ban on the procedure that removes the foreskins of infant boys.

Jewish groups have suggested anti-Semitic motives behind the ban. Here’s Nancy J. Appel, associate regional director for the Anti-Defamation League:


This is a sensitive, serious issue where good people can disagree and which the Jewish community feels is an assault on its values and traditions going back thousands of years and centered in the Hebrew Bible.

And here’s influential Los Angeles Rabbi David Wolpe:


Some involved are simply opposed to religion (there are after all some misguided Jews arguing for the ban as well), some wish to target both Muslims and Jews. But can anyone doubt that there are anti-circumcision advocates who seize on this as a chance to hurt Jews and the Jewish tradition?

Many Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, alleged that a comic book called “Foreskin Man,” created by the proposed San Francisco ban’s author,draws on centuries-old stereotypes about Jews. [see related articles links below]

Just as the National Association of Evangelicals did Thursday, some Muslim groups have called the ban an attack on religious freedom:


A ban that specifically targets a religious practice of Muslims and that has been proven to be medically beneficial is a violation of First Amendment rights that guarantees all Americans the right to religious freedom.

The proposed ban would make it "unlawful to circumcise, excise, cut, or mutilate the whole or any part of the foreskin, testicles, or penis" of anyone 17 or younger in San Francisco.

Violators could be jailed for a year or fined up to $1,000.

The group that drafted the ban's language says the procedure has adverse physical and psychological effects and likens it to female genital mutilation, a claim that doctors generally reject.

In November 2010, CNN reported that medical evidence had shown mixed risks and benefits of circumcision:


Apart from the San Francisco proposal, circumcisions are under scientific scrutiny.
While widespread in the United States, circumcision rates could be falling, according to recent surveys. About 65 percent of American male infants born in hospitals were circumcised in 1999, according to latest data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While nationally the circumcision rate has remained steady, the most dramatic decline occurred in the West, where it fell from 64 percent in 1974 to 37 percent in 1999.
Earlier this year, there were unconfirmed estimates that the circumcision rate had fallen to fewer than half for boys born in U.S. hospitals, The New York Times reported last summer, citing a federal report at the International AIDS Conference.
The American Academy of Pediatrics task force on circumcision has been reviewing recent research before it issues an official new position on the issue, probably next year, one panel member said.
"In the past, we've said newborn circumcision has benefits and risks," Dr. Douglas Diekema, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, told CNN last year. "Given the fact that neither the risks nor benefits are particularly compelling, this is a decision to be made by parents."

This article was found at:


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TIME  -  June 13, 2011

San Francisco's Circumcision Ban: An Attack on Religious Freedom?

By Adam Cohen




In the 1960s and '70s, the San Francisco Bay Area was where the counterculture really started — the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury, gay rights in the Castro. Today, the Bay Area is challenging the larger culture in a new and controversial way: there will be a referendum on the ballot in November that would make it the first major city in the U.S. to outlaw circumcision.

The San Francisco debate over circumcision initially centered on the value of the procedure itself — opponents call it barbaric, supporters point to its long tradition and say it prevents disease. But increasingly the debate is becoming one about religion, in which critics accuse backers of the referendum of bigotry and insist a ban would violate the First Amendment's religious freedoms.

There is plenty of reason to oppose the ban on its own merits. There is no need for a law: if people do not believe in circumcision, they should not have it done to themselves or their children. And even if there were to be a circumcision ban, this one is poorly constructed because of the well-founded religious objections that are being raised.

The anticircumcision debate began in April when a group of self-proclaimed "intactivists" — people who believe strongly that infant boys have a right to keep their foreskins intact — submitted enough signatures to put a circumcision ban on the ballot. The intactivists have taken up the language of international human rights: they are fighting, they say, for "genital autonomy" and "male-genital-integrity rights." Framed this way, it seemed like an appropriately earnest next step for a city that last year banned any kind of Happy Meal that paired toy giveaways with fast food.

The intactivists argue that circumcision needlessly inflicts pain on newborns, and they compare it to female genital mutilation — which is, in fact, a far more serious procedure. (Female genital mutilation can produce severe harm, including infertility and an increased risk of newborn deaths.)

Supporters of circumcision argue that there is a long tradition behind it, both religious and nonreligious, and that the pain involved is fleeting. They also say circumcision has proven health benefits. Removal of the foreskin has been found to help prevent the spread of HIV and other infections. In clinical trials in Africa, the incidence of HIV infection was 60% lower in circumcised men. The World Health Organization has said circumcision is an important component in fighting HIV infection.

Still, the drafters of the San Francisco referendum could have avoided the religious issue — and kept the focus on the harms and benefits of circumcision — if they had included an exception for circumcisions done for religious reasons. Jews, whose religious traditions require male children to be circumcised eight days after birth, and Muslims, who also practice circumcision, are a small part of the city's population.

Instead, the referendum expressly states that the ban would apply equally to religious circumcisions. If it passes, Jewish parents in San Francisco who hold a traditional bris, or circumcision ritual, could be sentenced to a year in jail.

This strict policy certainly seems insensitive. Jews who circumcise their sons trace the tradition back thousands of years. It is a sign, they believe, of a covenant with God, and an affirmation that the Jewish people will survive. There are accounts of circumcisions performed in the direst of circumstances, including in concentration camps. The intactivists aren't swayed by such arguments and insist it's gone on long enough.

Claims of insensitivity, however, have recently turned into charges of outright anti-Semitism. One of the referendum's key supporters has written a comic book, Foreskin Man, that portrays a blond, Aryan-looking superhero doing battle with "Monster Mohel." (Mohels are people trained to perform ritual Jewish circumcisions.) The bearded, prayer-shawl-wearing mohel leers manically at defenseless infants. As one rabbi blogger put it, "Hey San Francisco, 1930's Germany Called — They Want Their Anti-Semitic Propaganda Back!"

Jews and Muslims are not the only religious groups opposing the ban. The National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 45,000 churches, declared last week that while their faith neither requires nor forbids circumcision, "Jews, Muslims and Christians all trace our spiritual heritage back to Abraham. Circumcision begins with Abraham. No American government should restrict this historic tradition."

If the referendum passes, it is unclear whether it would survive a constitutional challenge. The First Amendment protects people against laws that unduly interfere with their religious rituals. The question is, How would the courts see this particular interference? In 1972, the Supreme Court upheld the right of Amish parents to not send their children to school past the eighth grade. Yet more recently, it held that the "free exercise" clause does not protect Native Americans who want to engage in ritual use of peyote, an illegal drug. Under the logic of the peyote case, the ban could well survive. The ban could also be challenged under California's state constitution, which might contain broader religious protections than the U.S. Constitution.

On one level, the stakes in the San Francisco vote are small. If the referendum passes, parents can easily take their children out of the city to be circumcised. The danger, though, is that intactivism could spread — and that more localities, and eventually states, will enact bans.

On the other hand, the intactivist movement could come to a quick end. Last week, an activist who had been collecting signatures to put a similar referendum on the ballot in Santa Monica, Calif., announced that she was halting her effort because, she said, a cause that was not intended to be about religion had become a religious issue.

Cohen, a former TIME writer and a former member of the New York Times editorial board, is a lawyer who teaches at Yale Law School. Case Study, his legal column for TIME.com, appears every Monday.

This article was found at:



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12 Jun 2011

Nigerian police rescue 32 pregnant teens locked up and forced to produce babies for witchcraft rituals



BBC News  -  June 1, 2011

Nigeria 'baby farm' girls rescued by Abia state police




Nigerian police have raided a hospital in the south-eastern city of Aba, rescuing 32 pregnant girls allegedly held by a human-trafficking ring.

Aged between 15 and 17 years, the girls were locked up and used to produce babies, said Abia state's police chief.

These were then allegedly sold for ritual witchcraft purposes or adoption.

But the hospital's owner denied running a "baby farm", saying it was a foundation to help teenagers with unwanted pregnancies.

The UN organisation for the welfare of children, Unicef, estimates that at least 10 children are sold daily across Nigeria, where human-trafficking is ranked the third most common crime after economic fraud and drug-trafficking.

But the BBC's Fidelis Mbah in the southern city of Port Harcourt says it is very rare for traffickers to be caught and prosecuted.Male babies prized

Abia state Police Commissioner Bala Hassan said four babies, already sold in an alleged human-trafficking deal but not yet collected, were also recovered in the raid on The Cross Foundation hospital.

The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (Naptip), the organisation charged with fighting human-trafficking in Nigeria, says their investigations show that babies are sold for up to $6,400 (£3,900) each, depending on the sex of the baby.

Male babies are more prized, our correspondent says.

In some parts of the country, babies killed as part of witchcraft rituals are believed to make the charms more powerful, he says.

Human traffickers also put the children up for illegal adoption.

Poor, unmarried women face tough choices if they get pregnant in Nigeria, often facing exclusion from society, correspondents say.

Natip says desperate teenagers with unplanned pregnancies are sometimes lured to clinics and then forced to turn over their babies.

Some of the girls rescued in Aba told the police that after their new-born babies were sold, they were given $170 by the hospital owner.

The police said the proprietor of The Cross Foundation, Dr Hyacinth Orikara, is likely to face charges of child abuse and human trafficking.

Our correspondent says the buying or selling of babies is illegal in Nigeria and can carry a 14-year jail term.

The police carried out similar raids on such clinics in neighbouring Enugu state in 2008.

Three years ago, a Nigerian woman was jailed in the UK for trying to smuggle a baby into the country in order to get on the list for a council flat.

This article was found at:



***************************************************************************
AlterNet - June 10, 2011

Teens Locked Up and Forced to Give Birth to Kids Sold into Slavery -- How Can This Happen, and What Can We Do About It?


By Jessica Mack, AlterNet



Last week, BBC broke the story of what has been dubbed a “baby farm” in southern Nigeria. Nigerian police raided the grounds, “rescuing” more than 30 poor teenagers who had reportedly been locked up and forced to bring their unwanted pregnancies to term, only to relinquish their babies to human traffickers or purveyors of body parts for witchcraft. It’s the stuff of a horror film, and, oddly enough, it is.

Except this is really happening, to real women, in real time. BBC first reported a “baby farm”raid in a nearby Nigerian city back in 2008. Clearly, there is something very wrong here – both in what’s happening to these women in Nigeria, but also in the way that these issues are being conveyed in the global media.

Human trafficking remains an outstanding problem in Nigeria, despite earning the US State Department’s “stamp of approval” on its anti-trafficking efforts. Since 2009, the annualTrafficking in Persons Report has ranked Nigeria as a Tier 1 country, signifying the government’s full compliance with the US’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Though “compliance” doesn’t necessarily mean effective prevention of or protection from trafficking. With this “baby farm” situation, we see the tenuous value that such rankings have for reality on the ground. While the Nigerian government has stepped up its anti-trafficking efforts in recent years, increasing prison sentences and fines still won’t address precipitating factors.

To start, women in Nigeria, and especially young women, are undervalued. There is a dearth of ready access to affordable and high quality reproductive health care services, and moreover social and cultural taboos about accessing such services. Early marriage and early pregnancy remain common, and you can guess that maternal mortality is also quite high. Abortion is restricted almost entirely, and highly stigmatized beyond that.

BBC writes, “Desperate teenagers with unplanned pregnancies are sometimes lured to clinics and then forced to turn over their babies.” Horrible, and it gets worse. Desperate teenagers with unwanted pregnancies also seek fatal care from quack abortion providers. Women regularly play Russian roulette with concoctions (bleach and ground glass) and gruesome instruments (knitting needles) just to preserve some semblance of reproductive choice.

The operative issue here is “desperate teenagers with unwanted pregnancies.” Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation, no small claim, and almost 45% of the population is under the age of 15. This is not some measly minority; young people comprise the mitochondria of the nation and are the future of this emerging country. Yet their health and rights needs are so often cast aside.

In a 2009 report, the Guttmacher Institute maintained that national policies to protect the reproductive health and rights of young people have not been sufficiently implemented or enacted. Why hasn’t there been more done to address the unique health and rights needs of this set?

Perhaps it’s a little like national anti-trafficking efforts: there on paper, mysteriously absent or positively ineffective on the ground. This vast divide between vision and reality is what local and global advocates should push the government to reconcile. The recent presidential election, for example, might have been an opportune time to raise these neglected issues. Sure there’s a lot else going on, but there always is. The sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people are chronically marginalized, so perhaps it’s time to force the issue.

There are amazing national and international reproductive health advocates and providers doing work to counteract the heaps of risks and vulnerabilities which too often complicate women’s lives in Nigeria, but the battle is uphill. It is past due that the government put some muscle behind this. The US should hold more accountability, too, than simply superficial compliance on trafficking. They should urge the Nigerian government to examine the intersection of healthcare system failures and trafficking vulnerabilities.

These might have been salient points for the BBC to touch upon in its coverage of this issue, especially since four years after they first reported on baby farms, here we are with no discernible change. Alas.

Given rightful sensitivities about how Africa and Africans are portrayed by almost everyone else in the world and/or especially the global media, the BBC needs to check the caliber of their coverage. For starters, the 2011 article on “baby farms,” includes at least one typo, and a sentence cribbed verbatim from the 2008 piece. It’s not clear where or when the awful phrase “baby farm” was coined, but I must say that’s macabre marketing genius right there. BBC’s use of the term in its title is sensationalistic – link baiting even – and distracts from the complexity and gravity of the issue.

Human trafficking, human rights abuses, false imprisonment, reproductive choice, I mean there’s a lot to take in here. This is a highly disturbing scenario, but only further perverted by the use of this phrase. While there are human rights and human lives at stake here, the term caricatures a complex set of issues, and objectifies those involved – the babies, the young women, and even Nigeria itself.

For some readers perusing this eye-catching article (also covered in the New York Daily News, natch), this may be their first introduction to social justice or health issues in Nigeria. Let’s see what they’ll get: baby farm, witchcraft, desperate, poverty, corruption, crime, and savagery. The article “otherizes” these issues, painting Nigeria as a horrid place where such a ghastly things occur.

Yet, this notion of using pregnancy as a fulcrum for manipulating women is not so “other,” not so savage and foreign after all. It happens all over the world, and it happens right here in the US. For instance, increased discussion and examination of crisis pregnancy centers is revealing just how manipulative and coercive their tactics can be. Who do they often target? Poor, desperate young women with unwanted pregnancies. In addition, one could argue that, in fact, no one is more immersed in finding ways to manipulate women via reproductive rights than the US Congress.

BBC states the obvious: “poor, unmarried women face tough choices if they get pregnant in Nigeria.” Um, yes. I think we can safely substitute any country in the world in that sentence and it would read just as true. In fact, we can say that young women face tremendous reproductive health challenges all over the world. Now that we know this, what are we going to do about it?


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Huffington Post   -   June 11, 2011

Churches Use 'Free Exercise' Defense To Block Abuse Cases

By Cecile S. Holmes  |  Religion News Service




(RNS) Jeremiah Scott was 11 when the abuse and molestation began in 1990 at the hands of an elder in his Mormon church in Portland, Ore. After the man died in 1995, Scott's mother sued the church in 1998 for putting her son at risk.

His mother said when she reported the abuse of Brother Frank Curtis to church authorities, she was told they already knew about it. Digging deeper, her attorneys discovered molestation claims against Curtis that stretched across state lines and went back decades.

But the church employed a unique legal defense: As a religious institution, church leaders said they were protected by the First Amendment's separation of church and state from having to surrender personnel files, victims' complaints or other documents.

Attorneys representing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints argued its records were protected by clergy-penitent privilege and the First Amendment's protection of the "free exercise" of religion.

Though the case was eventually settled in 2001, journalist Lisa Davis says the case represents a profound misuse -- and misunderstanding -- of the freedoms afforded to religious institutions under the Constitution.

And while a $3 million settlement may have ended the case for Scott and Curtis, it did not resolve the sticky First Amendment issues, Davis argues in her recent book, "The Sins of Brother Curtis."

"Everything was a fight in the case," said Davis, who teaches journalism at Santa Clara University and who has written for media outlets in Phoenix and San Francisco.

"Most states have a provision for clergy confidentiality. The idea being that we want to allow people to unburden themselves to their religious leader. It's designed for a confessional situation. It's not designed for a person coming to any church leader saying I'm worried about my child."

Legal scholars say that nearly 10 years after the Catholic abuse scandal highlighted the depth and breadth of the abuse of minors, the lines of authority between church and state remain murky when it comes to criminal acts.

"As important as the constitutional grounding is, there is rarely a complete prohibition for wrongs committed within the four corners of the church," says Brent Walker, an attorney and head of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

Legal scholars say church bodies -- from Catholic dioceses to entire denominations -- often try to use the First Amendment to block victims' attorneys from accessing internal documents. In a case now headed for the U.S. Supreme Court, a religious school has tried to use the First Amendment to stave off an employment discrimination suit filed by a teacher.

"There hasn't been much written about these First Amendment issues because the focus has been on the victims and the abuse," said Marci Hamilton, legal scholar at New York's Benjamin Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.

Church attorneys tried to use the First Amendment to block prosecutors in several ways as the Catholic clergy sex abuse web unwound, said Leslie Griffin, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Houston.

"There were claims that a lot of the documents were protected and then we go into litigation," Griffin said. "Their reading of the First Amendment is that it allows no government interference of religion, no government intrusion, no government review."

In the Curtis case, other legal arguments emerged around the idea of redemption -- an idea that is as central to religious teaching as private confessions made between a priest and his bishop.

"Frank Curtis had been found out (as a molester) in the 1980s and had been excommunicated by the church when it was found out," Davis said. "But he went through a process of repentance and was re-baptized."

That redemption process again gave Curtis access to children as a Sunday school teacher and Scout leader. In court, LDS lawyers said the church had a constitutionally protected right to believe in Curtis' redemption.

"This became known as the clean slate argument. The idea was he had emerged after baptism with a clean slate," Davis said.

Citizens are free to believe whatever they like, Davis said, but actions are governed by the law. And while the Constitution protects belief, and sometimes practice, it does not protect criminal actions.

One question that courts will have to wrestle with, scholars say, is whether putting someone in a position of authority is an extension of belief. Up until about 20 years ago, most states assumed the First Amendment barred anyone from bringing a claim against clergy, said Hamilton, the New York scholar.

"That theory was ... you could not go after the church because of one bad apple," she said. "But the more we've learned about clergy abuse cases, the more we're learning about the role the churches have played in covering up abuse and furthering that abuse."

"As the courts have become more educated, they have come to understand that religious institutions have to be held liable, and that the First Amendment was never intended as a protection for this kind of behavior."

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USA Today - June 10, 2011

Catholic bishops to take second look at abuse reforms

By Daniel Burke, Religion News Service




(RNS) A review of church sex abuse guidelines will top the agenda when the nation's Roman Catholic bishops meet in Seattle next week (June 15-17). But no major changes have been proposed, according to church leaders, even after several recent reports have raised questions about the rules' power to remove abusive priests.

The stakes at the Seattle meeting will be high, as the bishops struggle to recover their moral authority and end the worst crisis in modern church history.

The U.S. church has spent more than $2 billion on sex abuse settlements, "safe environment" training for staff, and two sweeping studies that sought to explain the causes and context of a scandal that has claimed 15,700 victims since 1950.

The Seattle assembly will also provide a leadership test for Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who will guide nearly 200 U.S. bishops in his first meeting as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In addition to reviewing the sexual abuse guidelines, the bishops will vote on a document that denounces physician-assisted suicide and hear a report on Anglicans who wish to convert to Catholicism using a new church structure.

The sex abuse guidelines, however, are expected to dominate public sessions and private conversations during the three-day meeting.

Even as the bishops attempt to move past the scandal, advocates for victims of sexual abuse and some lay Catholics say recent reports of lapses by bishops in Pennsylvania, Missouri and New Mexico prove that serious gaps mar church rules.

"In three dioceses now, there appear to be loopholes that are being exploited by bishops who appear to be gaming the system," said Nicholas Cafardi, a leading expert on canon law and former adviser to the bishops.

Cafardi and others hope the bishops close those loopholes in Seattle, but a draft proposal provided by the bishops' conference contains no such revisions.

In Philadelphia, a grand jury report released in February accused church officials of keeping 37 priests in active ministry, despite accusations of improper sexual acts with minors. The archdiocese later suspended 26 priests and has mounted an internal investigation.

Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn has apologized for failing to remove a priest from ministry despite a warning from church officials. The priest was arrested in May on child pornography charges. The diocese appointed a former U.S. attorney on Thursday to investigate its sexual abuse policies.

In Gallup, N.M., a lay review board has never met with Bishop James S. Wall during his two years in the diocese, according to the Gallup Independent, a local newspaper.

Together, the U.S. bishops passed two sets of guidelines in 2002, as the clergy sexual abuse scandal erupted in Boston and spread to nearly every diocese in the country.

The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People is essentially a set of promises from the bishops to their church. The "Essential Norms" for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy are Vatican-approved rules that have the force of church law.

Neither requires substantial revisions at this time, said Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash., chairman of the bishops' Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People.

"The charter is working," Cupich said. "We had seven (sexual abuse) allegations that were deemed credible in 2010, out of a church of 65 million Catholics. I think it's working."

Cupich also said it would be rash to revise church rules before the internal investigation in Philadelphia is complete.

"The charter has an iconic status for us. We want to protect its integrity. We are going to be very slow in changing it without having the full picture in a given situation," the bishop said.

Cafardi agreed that the charter and norms have been effective.

"I think they have done a wonderful service to the church in greatly reducing the number of instances of child sexual abuse by priests," he said. "But we know by instances in three dioceses that there are some gaps that it would not hurt to close."

According to a draft of proposed revisions that will be debated in Seattle, the bishops plan to change the policies to bring them into accord with Vatican norms issued in 2010. Those norms equate abusing persons with mental disabilities with child abuse, and make the acquisition, possession, or distribution of child pornography a church crime.

Victims' advocates and canon law experts say the bishops should go further, arguing that church rules will remain ineffective unless they contain penalties for breaking them.

"This isn't a real set of laws, these are procedures that are honored more in the breach than in the observance," said Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, a watchdog website.

"If I was a bishop, I would treat Philadelphia as an alarm. This is one of the largest, most significant dioceses in the country, which clearly ignored the policy," he said.

Church rules also suggest that bishops report all abuse accusations to diocesan review boards composed of lay Catholics. Board members in Philadelphia and Kansas City have said they did not learn of accusations until they were published in the media.


This article was found at:



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