Forgive but prosecute

From Janet Heimlich’s Religious Child Maltreatment website, a post about the abuse of forgiveness.

But the practice of forgiveness can be abused, and nowhere is this more apparent than in cases of religious child maltreatment. All too often, pious adults who learn that a child has been abused fail to do the right thing. That is, instead of reporting the incident or getting the victim counseling, they urge the child to forgive the perpetrator.

I did a post on this subject more than six years ago, about the Amish, via this article.

It is sinful for the Amish to withhold forgiveness—so sinful that anyone who refers to a past misdeed after the Amish penalty for it has ended can be punished in the same manner as the original sinner. “That’s a big thing in the Amish community,” Mary said. “You have to forgive and forgive.”

That horrible trap has stuck in my mind in a way that few things do.

More about life among the Amish.

What were the bad parts?

-The rape, incest and other sexual abuse that run rampant in the community

-Rudimentary education

-Physical and verbal abuse in the name of discipline

-Women (and children) have no rights

-Religion–and all its associated fear and brainwashing–as a means of control (and an extremely effective means at that)

-Animal abuse

Oh. Adds up, doesn’t it. And she hasn’t yet even gotten to the part about education.

I loved learning, and cried when I couldn’t go back to school the fall after graduating from Amish 8th grade. The Amish do not send their children to formal schooling past 8th grade. A Supreme Court case prevented forcing Amish children into high school on grounds of religious freedom.  I knew that, by US law, I wasn’t considered an adult until eighteen. I didn’t want to wait until then to go to high school.

For four years, I tried to come up with a way that I could leave before turning eighteen without my parents being able to take me back, so I could go to school.

Well done US Supreme Court – you made it impossible for that girl to go to school, by granting her “community” the right to take her out without granting her any right to say no thank you.

And there’s Chuck Phelps at that mad Baptist cult-church in New Hampshire.

A woman says she was sexually assaulted as a teen and that the pastor of her church told her to forgive and forget instead of doing what the law required: report it to authorities.

The woman’s allegation surfaced after a recent trial during which a prosecutor suggested the same pastor, the Rev. Chuck Phelps, didn’t do enough to help a rape victim.

That’s Tina Anderson, whom we read about a few days ago.

Too much forgiveness and not nearly enough accountability.


  1. Caudimordax says

    I think forgiveness is fine. It should just always be preceded by, “I’m really, REALLY sorry. Is there anything I can do to make up for what I did?” That’s my rule, anyway.

  2. Charles Sullivan says

    There’s clearly something wrong with coerced forgiveness. And there’s something misplaced in forgiving someone who isn’t genuinely repentant.

  3. David says

    I have no problem with forgiving people, but its for the victim to decide if they want to forgive or not without being pressured by others. But then there are things that are not a matter of forgiving or even punishment. Rape, murder, torture, when you do things like this it leaves the realm of “can you be forgiven”, sure you can, but you should never be given the opportunity to re-offend.

  4. says

    Independently of any forgiveness, when there is a serious criminal allegation, the decision to prosecute (and punish, if the allegation is proved) should properly be in the State’s/Crown’s hands.

    This may seem odd to modern liberals (of both the American and British variety), but one of the most important ways to achieve ‘justice under law’ is to take prosecution, punishment and forgiveness out of the hands of victims. Most people have heard of things like mafia ‘vendetta’ or the ‘banes’ and ‘sippenhaft’ that existed in some Norse and Germanic cultures, where people had a duty to avenge a wrong, sometimes multi-generationally. These are examples of what happens when justice is focussed on the victim, rather than on the crime and the perpetrator.

    Once again, it took the Romans and the English (independently of each other), to put the victim’s concerns to one side and state, clearly and unambiguously, that the power to pardon and punish is not in the victim’s hands, but the State’s, under proper authority and according to rules of due process. It has involved (slowly but inexorably) the abolition of things like marital privilege and the (later) passage of laws making spouses compellable against each other (so that women in serious domestic violence situations will have charges pressed against the alleged perpetrator over their objections, if necessary).

    Once again, too, the civilians are ahead of us, as the Romans saw marriage only as a social bond of affection (‘affectio maritalis’), not as something sacred or indissoluble; so spouses were (and are) compellable against each other in civilian systems.

    From this (admittedly rather black-letter) lawyer’s perspective, forgiveness is a greatly overrated virtue; as Ophelia points out, it undermines accountability (and, I would add, personal responsibility). An added weakness (one pointed out by pagan critics of the early Christians) is that it allows people who are chronic failures to provide moral guidance in areas where they are unable to live up to their own professed standards, on the grounds that they have been forgiven. We perceive this as mere hypocrisy, but to a Roman pagan, it was a fatal moral flaw that lost the hypocrite all rights to make claims as to how others ought to live their lives.

  5. Moewicus says

    What a horrible twisting of the notion of “religious freedom”– apparently now it’s the freedom to abuse and handicap one’s children. I suppose it is a logical consequence of the notion that parents have rights to their children rather than espousing the notion that children have rights to good parents. What about the religious freedom of the children, one might ask? Well, children can’t hire lawyers.

    I remember reading some editorial a short time after that Amish school shooting (yes, that one, its wikipedia page is “amish school shooting”): according to the author, the Amish forgiveness of the shooter is a model for how the rest of us should act. Forgiving a dead murderer may or may not be psychologically beneficial to those affected by the person, but even then I thought “hell no”. The notion of forgiveness as a virtue distorts its healthy expression as something that is earned through restitution of some sort. Making earthly matters about supernatural third parties like the heavenly Christ gets in the way of a good life on earth.

  6. Hertta says

    The Laestadians (a Finnish/Swedish sect known for its large families) have a doctrine, that one can confess their sins to any fellow Laestadian and after that the sins go into the “sea of mercy”. If someone tries to take up the issue after that, they are fishing from the sea or mercy and will have to carry the sins that are already forgiven. Sounds a lot like the Amish.

    Here’s a comic that accompanied an article about child abuse in the Laestadian sect in a newspaper published by the Lutheran Church of Finland:

    “Dear sister, we’ve been worried about you.”
    “Our brothers have already humbly repented and are contending in the putting away of sin.”
    “It is unacceptable to remember the sins that have been drowned into the bottomless sea of mercy.”
    “We pray that you too will humbly repent and forvive our brothers their weaknesses.”

  7. raymoscow says

    Forgiveness, before an effort has been made to stop the abuse and right the wrongs, is a vice, not a virtue. Often the victims are told to ‘forgive’ instead of seeking help. And forget ‘justice’ — it’s crowded out by the supposed virtue of forgiveness.

    It’s best to ignore everything religion says about ‘forgiveness’, because most of it is self-serving BS, designed to make victims out of its members.

  8. Bruce Gorton says

    The requirement to forgive demonstrates what an utter evil asshole the Biblical Jesus was. (A fictional character can still be an asshole.)

    It is a maxim that takes the responsibility to make amends out of the hands of the transgressor and puts it into the hands of the trangressed against.

    It is a maxim made for dictators that allows perpetual abuse to pass in silence, or the victim gets condemned for not having “forgiveness” in his or her heart.

  9. says

    I remember reading the story about the Amish girl who escaped from her “community” when you discussed it last, Ophelia. I am a troubled about it now as I was then. It should not be possible for people to be trapped in this way, and the Supremes made a serious error. Is there no opportunity to revisit this decision? It’s mad that a family is able to choose whether to hold their child a hostage to community values (before they have reached the “age of reason”), and the child never gets a chance to consider these things from the standpoint of mature reflection after their secondary education is complete. Every child should be required to attend school and get an education of at least secondary school level. To have ruled that whether a child gets such an education or not is up to the parents, who can withdraw a child from school on the strength of “It’s our religion” is ludicrous. But to superadd to that that anything that happens within the community not only stays there, but cannot be mentioned after the mandatory words of forgiveness have been spoken is a bit like the CDF in the Roman Catholic Church which imposes a strict vow of silence on victims of sexual abuse.

    It’s the appearance of a peaceful, wholesome community that leads people to imagine that that is what it is really like. Drive out around Waterloo in Ontario and see all the huge Amish farms, all beautifully kept, obviously prosperous, and see the houses that have grown like Topsy as sons marry and bring their spouses to live with them in an annex to the old farm house, watch them in their buggys, the very picture of old time family life, and it’s easy to imagine that all is well within. But it is the very secretiveness, the silence that prevails over all the inner workings of these communities, the patriarchy, that makes it a certainty that all is not well within.

    When will we ever learn that religions are tribal, patriarchal (for the most part)and destructive of individual life and new thought? They are traps, no matter how wonderful they may look from the outside. Talk to anyone who has lived in a monastery or convent, and listen to their tales of petty vindictiveness, struggles for power, recognition or status; that should quickly put anyone’s idyllic ideas of communal religious life to rest.

    Parish life in churches is just the same. While there are some healthy relationships, to a large degree it is a constant struggle to keep the “community” from flying apart. As a priest it was my job to put out the fires of envy and anger and hurt feelings, trying to bring some semblance of order. Religious communities are no different than any other human community, and have the same kinds of dynamics — except that, in religious communities there is also the struggle to make the community life conform to religious norms having to do with forgiveness and acceptance. Forgiveness is a highly overrated virtue (if that is what it is), and where differences are not really resolved, and restitution of some kind made, it is just a way of papering over the cracks. Some parishes have serious dysfunctions which survive for generations, because there is no way, within the religious understanding of relationships, to face problems straight on, and poisonous people keep on spewing their poison and their children and children’s children do it too.

    As for Jesus having been an evil asshole. Well, yes, in many ways he was. But you do have to see it from the religious point of view. There is an idea that talking about love and forgiveness and such like virtues defines ideal community. It doesn’t. Communities are groups of people, individuals, with all their faults and foibles. So, talk of love doesn’t create love. What it does is either to force everyone to pretend, or, when pretence is impossible, to cover up the fissures in the community, and this allows the real trouble makers to cause even more trouble. Religious communities enable evil, by their reluctance to punish it. You can see this in the clergy sex abuse scandals. The reflex is to protect the community, and its leaders. Let it be known that religious community is like this, and the reason for perpetuating it disappears. They are not, as they seem, harmless gatherings of people. They are people who have an ideal of loving, forgiving relationships. These are never instantiated, but the obligation to instantiate them is strong, and therefore things are covered up, lids are put on volcanoes of ill-will, jealousy and hurt. The leaders of the community often are thought to represent God, and so favour from the leader is assiduously sought and jealously guarded. Envy is often rife, and anger is never very far away. Those who think that vicars and the like do not earn their pay should just try keeping all this bubbling boiling sea of resentment, envy, anger and carefully guarded privilege on an even keel for a day or two. It’s a fulltime job.

  10. Tim Harris says

    Ophelia, I just want to say that I think you are doing a splendid job in this and other recent posts in throwing light on places that need to have light thrown on them. You spoke in an earlier post of being made to recognise the unhappiness that pervades these closed communities, whereas before you had assumed that people were more or less happy in their little religious bubbles; and, yes, what you have been chronicling has opened my eyes, too. What desperately unhappy and often ignorant and foolish people, trapped in their unhappiness, ignorance and foolishness by their beliefs! And you are absolutely right about what amounts to the emotional blackmail of ‘forgiveness’, and (what amounts to) being forced to forgive. I am not a Christian, but was brought up as one, and despite never being particularly fervent in my beliefs, which all fell away in adolescence, directly after being confirmed,I suppose I was inculcated with ideas about how important it was to forgive, and this has made it even now extremely difficult to come to terms with an extremely unpleasant childhood experience. In cases of child abuse, and in cases of the abuse of women, the insistence on forgiveness serves merely to perpetuate confusion and pain, and not to grow beyond it.

  11. Svlad Cjelli says

    There’s clearly something wrong with coerced forgiveness. And there’s something misplaced in forgiving someone who isn’t genuinely repentant.

    I’ve been on both sides. As in someone forcing me to apologise, and someone forcing me to listen to superfluous apologies. 😛

    It was a bit sickening in that they only got more desperate after I initially told them to think nothing of it. They were in it for the grovelling from the start.

  12. Ophelia Benson says

    Thank you, Tim.

    The way “forgiveness” works with the Amish is particularly bad because it permits the perp to go on perpetrating. The victim is required to forgive not just once but over and over again, and the perp isn’t made to stop. (Naturally; there’s no one to make him stop; he’s the top of his own particular pyramid and, as it’s a farming community, the neighbors are all at a distance.)

  13. daveau says

    We used to spend the occasional Saturday down in the Amish communities in Indiana. They seemed a nice friendly people, but now they just seem creepy. I recall having lunch at an Amish run restaurant, and our server was an Amish girl about 15 or 16. I engaged her in light conversation about her culture, and she seemed to buy into the whole thing. All I could see was how brainwashed she was and how her life was going to be wasted as a subservient baby factory. I was depressed for weeks over it. I felt so powerless. We hardly go there anymore. They do make nice furniture, though. Or is that stereotyping?

  14. Vicki, running low on patience says

    I realize it doesn’t generally work this way, but: what would happen if, instead of complaining to someone, the victim were to hit the perpetrator over the head with a rock? And then go confess to someone and ask forgiveness.

    Would the community be telling the man, and his family, that she had repented and been forgiven, and they should accept that and not blame her?

    How about some billboards saying “If you kill a rapist, you must ask forgiveness”? or “Beating up your pastor can be forgiven too.”

  15. Brownian says

    So, talk of love doesn’t create love. What it does is either to force everyone to pretend, or, when pretence is impossible, to cover up the fissures in the community, and this allows the real trouble makers to cause even more trouble.

    I was raised Catholic, and in my community, exhortations to ‘forgive’ were always code for “I don’t want to experience the cognitive dissonance of thinking of my child/my parent/my sibling/my friend/my priest/the Pope as someone who’s capable of committing such a transgression, so let’s all pretend it never happened.” It’s self-serving selfishness, couched as a pious attempt to help.

    Of course, it’s not at all difficult to find the limit beyond which forgiveness stops being a virtue, even especially among the most pious—borrow money from them.

  16. Ophelia Benson says

    Dave – I’m probably distantly related to some of those people you used to visit. My great-great-grandfather was a Mennonite bishop, I think in Indiana. Mennonite isn’t Amish but they’re pretty closely related.

  17. No Light says

    Thanks for speaking out.

    This exact situation is playing out in Orthodox Jewish communities all over the world. Rapists and child molesters are told to simply do teshuva (repentance) and the victim is told “See he’s done teshuva, he’s a good man, no need to involve the authorities”.

    The children are also being denied a proper education, just like kids in Amish communities.

    If you google “Failed Messiah” you’ll see some truly heartbreaking stuff.

  18. Julia F says

    All I could think about in reading this was Alice Miller’s work with abused children and the toxic implications of “forgiving” those who abused them.

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