Physical Child Abuse in Sects

ICSA Today, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2011, 2-5

Physical Child Abuse in Sects

Lois Kendall, PhDExtremist Authoritarian Sects

Extremist Authoritarian Sects (hereafter referred to as sects) are also known as cults or High Demand Groups (HDGs). Sociologists often refer to them as New Religious Movements (NRMs) or New Religions. There is no universally agreed definition for what constitutes a sect. The word sect is not used here in the traditional sociological sense. This article uses the following definition, which defines sects as having three characteristics:

“Extremism, the tendency to reduce all situations to simple black-and-white decisions that reinforce the ‘rightness’ of the group’s leader and the ‘wrongness’ of dissent...

Authoritarianism, the tendency by members to depend solely upon the leader(s) for the data by which decisions are made, convictions are arrived at...

Sectarianism, the tendency of the leadership to exercise its considerable authority to isolate members from a wide variety of people whom that leadership may stigmatize as ‘unspiritual,’ ‘demonic,’ ‘backward thinking,’ ‘left brain,’ ‘Piscean,’ ‘reactionary,’ and other dismissive terms.” (Szurko, 2002)

Melton (2008), reports an upsurge in the number of sects in the 1950s with numbers of members of these groups increasing in the 1960s and 1970s, including through the birth of children to members. Over a million children are estimated to be currently raised in sects in the United States (Bardin, 2005). Children may be brought into sects by their parents, be sent to sect schools by their parents, or they may be born, adopted, or fostered into a sect where the parents are already members (Siegler, 1999). Some children join sects independently of their parents.

Levels of Child Abuse in Sects

In this section, research will be discussed to show that physical abuse of children occurs in some sects and at times a large proportion of the children in a sect will experience physical child abuse. The section that follows will discuss the suggestion that environmental hazards may contribute to that abuse. In Gaines, Wilson, Redican, and Baffi’s (1984), sample of seventy former sect members, 60 percent said their groups permitted physical punishment of children; 13 percent said that the children were sometimes physically disabled or hurt to teach them a lesson; 13 percent said that the punishment of children was sometimes life threatening or required physicians’ care.

Helfer (1983) conducted an unpublished study on the children raised in The House of Judah, following the beating to death of a child (John) in the sect. Despite having nutritionally healthy bodies, male children in the sect had at least a 75 percent chance of showing signs of severe physical abuse to their bodies by the time they reached adolescence. However, while the findings warrant further investigation, such extreme child physical abuse is not applicable to all sects.

Rochford (1998) examined child abuse in the Hare Krishna movement and documented cases of severe abuse for a period in excess of fifteen years, explaining how this abuse was justified and came to occur in parts of the group. Rochford showed that abuse directly and indirectly influenced the lives of a sizeable number of children in the Hare Krishnas (ISKCON), but did not provide quantitative data on the actual incidence of child abuse in the Hare Krishnas (Rochford, 1998). However, sects can change over time; Furnari (2005) reports “ISKCON has made significant changes in recent years to increase safety for children, though this does not diminish the negative impacts on those who were not protected for many years.”

In contrast to the studies above, a study by Lilliston (1997) examined children in the group known as The Family. Lilliston studied three Family homes and assessed fifty-two children aged six to twelve, including a clinical assessment of the children, using the DSMIV. Lilliston stated that the data he found was consistent ‘with a conclusion that children in these homes are well-adjusted and in some ways function at a higher level than children in the general population’ (1997). Lilliston found no evidence of physical abuse of children. However his findings differ from much of the written information available on The Family. In a child custody case involving The Family, Lord Justice Ward commented on Lilliston’s evidence as a witness on behalf of The Family: “the fact that Dr. Lilliston seems to have viewed The Family through his rose colored spectacles, reduces the weight I can place upon his opinions, but I do not discount them entirely” (1995).

Further, a study by Egholm (2005) with 116 second-generation former members found that over 98 percent of the sixty-five respondents answering the question considered that the discipline they experienced in the group was “much too severe” or “too severe.” Kent (2000) details some of the severe child physical abuse that occurred in this group.

In a paper on “Alternative religions and their academic supporters,” Kent and Krebs (1998) state that information from former members as well as The Family’s own literature reveals the existence of “media homes,” where everything looks as perfect as possible and members have been briefed prior to the arrival of researchers. The XFamily website describes itself as a collaboratively edited encyclopaedia and it describes one of the beliefs of The Family in the following way:

Deceivers yet true refers to The Family International’s controversial belief that it is right to lie to non-members (or “unbelievers”) in order to protect God’s work….A comic magazine addressing this doctrine was published internally to educate Family children about the need to protect their families by lying to unbelievers if needed. This publication was a response by The Family International to inquiries by law enforcement and social workers about allegations of child abuse within the group. (Xfamily, 2008)

This is supportive of Goffman’s (1971) theory of impression management, which states that the members of a group work together as a team and do not allow information that may destroy confidence in the group to be obtained by those outside the group. Lilliston’s (1997) research could have included such media homes, which would have led to results that are not representative of the sect’s homes in general. Thus researchers must be aware and alert to how sects might try and influence research findings.

Some researchers in the field (Barker, 1989) argue that “children born into NRMs are usually brought up with at least as much love and care as are children in the rest of society” (Barker 1989). However, she does go on to mention the 260 children who died at Jonestown, which seems to be an acknowledgement that for at least some of those raised in sects the love and care is not that which we observe in mainstream society. Perhaps only certain sects place children at risk of abuse (e.g. isolated groups with authoritarian ideologies). Moreover, love and care may coexist with abuse and, as Kent and Krebs (1998) indicate, groups may use impression management to put forth a positive face. Hence it should not surprise us if observers do not all see signs of abuse in sects. That is why it is vital to conduct empirical studies that examine the risk for abuse in sects. Studying those who have left groups may mean that findings are less likely to be colored by a sect’s impression management strategies.

Bardin (2005) from a sample of fourteen respondents who had lived in polygamous Mormon communities as children found that 86 percent reported experiences of physical abuse as children under the age of sixteen. Kendall (2006) conducted a study in the United States with a help-seeking sample and a study in the United Kingdom found that adults reported significantly higher levels of physical abuse in childhood than those not raised in sects. In the United States sample, 44 percent of the second-generation sample reported physical child victimization leading to bruises, scars, broken bones or bleeding compared to 11 percent of the first generation. The United Kingdom sample reported a remarkably similar result, with 42 percent of the second-generation reporting physical child victimization leading to bruises, scars, broken bones or bleeding compared to 11 percent of the first generation and 13 percent of the comparison group. Caution should be noted regarding these findings as, like much of the research in the area, second-generation former member sample sizes were relatively small and came from a self-selected sample. These studies show the need for further systematic research of current and former second-generation sect members to ascertain levels of child physical abuse. 

Why Might There Be High Levels of Child Abuse in Sects?

A number of authors have examined the reasons why those raised in sects may be more vulnerable to abuse (Markowitz & Halperin, 1984; Langone & Eisenberg, 1993; Siskind, 2001) and argue that it is the sect environment which results in the high levels of child abuse in sects. Markowitz and Halperin (1984) state that the very structure of sects seems to predispose them toward abuse and neglect of children, although it does not mean that child abuse is necessarily a consequence of family involvement in a sect. The predisposing properties of a sect towards child abuse include the parents’ dependency on the leader or leadership, which means that his/her beliefs and ideas about childrearing, no matter how idiosyncratic, will influence the parents’ childrearing practices. Parents may become middle managers, and this may especially affect the children when a parent’s commitment to the leader is measured by their willingness to abuse the children at the leader’s order (Markowitz & Halperin, 1984; Landa, 1990; 1991). However, Kendall (2006) in her research found that some second-generation former members reported that, at times, parents served as protective factors—they were a buffer against the sect leader—but, support for parents being middle managers was also evident from her research.

Bardin citing Cartwright and Kent (1992) states that “such groups display traits that in families are conducive to violence: patriarchal leaders, intense involvement, closed systems, and extreme dependency on the leader.” Bardin (2005) in her study of those raised in polygamous Mormon communities states that those family members and professionals who should have reported suspected abuse, rather than carrying out their obligations to protect children placed their primary loyalty to the group.

Furnari (2005) identifies the unpredictability of sect parents’ lives, meaning that their behavior toward their child may also be unpredictable in terms of support, neglect, or anger, thus impeding the child’s ability to develop a sense of safety in their environment. Langone and Eisenberg (1993) suggest that the parents’ experience of the sect may result in suppressed anger and frustration, which they may vent onto their children. This may lead to physical abuse if the sect’s doctrine emphasises harsh physical discipline. Rochford (1998) reports that there was a lack of parental involvement with the children in the Hare Krishna sect, who lived more or less separate lives from their parents in boarding houses. Furthermore, Siskind (2003) in her study of The Sullivan Institute/Fourth Wall Community reports that children as young as three years of age were sent to boarding schools. In this particular group, “It was believed that as long as a parent provided his or her children with good child care, education, clothing, and enough money to buy or do anything they wished, it was preferable that they spend as little time with them as possible.” Rochford suggested that the ideology of the Hare Krishna (ISKCON) group “became justifications used by the leadership to dismiss the gurukula (Sanskrit for the ‘school of the guru’), the children and their responsibility toward both” (Rochford, 1998). Thus, the group invested very few resources in the children. Untrained teachers were solely responsible for large numbers of children. At times, older boys were coerced to physically abuse younger boys. They reported that had they refused, they themselves would have been abused (Rochford, 1998). Kendall’s (2006) qualitative research identifies further reasons why those raised in sects might be more vulnerable to physical abuse than those in wider society. In a qualitative study of two sects, one of which had a large number of children born into the group, she reported finding a high level of control and dominance. This links into broader social and political factors of gender and power, which are thought to be associated with child abuse (Irenyi, Bromfield, Beyer & Higgins, 2006). Kendall found that members of the sect had a negative view of self. Cognitive distortions and the lack of worth reflected to children by other members may mean that children are more likely to tolerate and accept abuse. Further, she argues that the moral restructuring of psychological abuse as “for their own good” means that abuse might be justified or not recognized as abuse by parents, who may collaborate instead of protecting their children from abuse.

This concurs with Bardin’s (2005) study of fourteen people who spent their childhood in polygamous Mormon communities and with regard to physical abuse, found that thirteen respondents (93 percent) stated that the community generally deems those behaviors “appropriate” or “acceptable.” Kendall’s study also reported that in one of the sects studied, there was a lack of relationship with other people, either within or outside of the sect. The lack of relationships with others, coupled with the general fear and anxiety levels of the children, may mean that children would have had extremely limited opportunities to talk to others about abuse experienced, thus limiting the chances of abuse being dealt with appropriately. The children also appeared to lack various types of specific knowledge and thus may have no awareness of the existence of agencies such as social services and Citizens Advice Bureau. Children not born in, but brought into the sect in childhood may have this knowledge.

Siskind (2001) states that one of the key issues separating sects from the wider society is the lack of external and internal balances and checks that serve to limit child abuse. While the presence of such checks and balances in the wider society does not rule out abuse, it does mean that there is greater protection for children and that child abuse is more likely to be detected and dealt with appropriately. Bardin (2005) found that of six respondents who had either reported abuse themselves or who had someone report it on their behalf to child protection services a total of 11 times, only on two occasions did this result in an improvement. On four occasions respondents reported no change and on five occasions there was a change for the worse. 


In some sects, physical child abuse is widespread, the pain and suffering of children is horrendous, and sometimes results in the death of children at the hands of those who should be caring for and protecting them. Physical child abuse extensively affects people, both in their childhood, adolescence, and on into adulthood (Barnett, Miller-Perrin & Perrin, 1997).

Some of the information on child abuse in sects is highly disturbing, and it is clear from the review of literature in this paper that physical abuse does occur in some sects and sometimes at an extreme level to most children in that sect. In other sects, it is likely that little if any physical child abuse occurs. In still other sects, there may be differences between branches of the sects or between families in the sect (Kendall, 2006). Further, sects can and some do change over time (Furnari, 2005).

Further research is needed to ascertain whether or not child abuse is more common in sects than in mainstream religions. However, the concentration of power in a sect leader and the lack of internal and external accountability suggest that it would not be unreasonable to expect a higher prevalence of abuse in sects. Where a power differential exists in others, it sometimes leads to abuse.

What Can Be Done to Help Victims and Prevent Future Abuse?

Mental health therapists should learn about the dynamics occurring in sects in their training and should be taught to inquire into clients’ religious background, particularly focusing on the possibility of a high control group. This might increase the probability of finding out about abuse.

Mental health therapists should also learn about the special needs of people, especially young people abused in sects, e.g., the notion of repetitive trauma.

Law enforcement and child protection authorities need training so that they will feel more confident about when to act when abuse is associated with a religious group. Bardin (2005) found that child protection services investigations were hampered by concerns about religious bias and fear of the group’s political power.

All groups working with children including religious groups and all sects, including those not based around a religion (such as therapy sects), should be encouraged or required to have child protection policies, and should train their staff about the dangers of power-differentials.

About the Author

Dr. Lois Kendall’s doctoral research examined the psychological effects of former sect membership with a specific focus on those raised in such groups. She has developed workshop curricular for those raised in sects. Dr. Kendall was born and raised in an English sect, which she left when she was seventeen. Dr. Kendall may be contacted by email


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Reprinted from Vol. 15(3) Summer 2010 by permission of Paradigm magazine, Richardson, TX - (214) 295-6332).