Brutalising children -Peniel again

call me evilAfter writing something about the dynamic of marriages at Peniel under Michael Reid, I ordered the book written by Caroline Green, Call me evil, let me go. She was the individual who successfully escaped from Peniel in around 1997 and also obtained a financial settlement from the church a few years later. Harper Collins published her account of her trial and traumas but the edition published in this country has had all the names changed for legal reasons. But it is quite clear that all the events recorded in her book are describing Peniel in the 80s and 90s. There are many things to be noted from the book which appalled me, but one particular theme which hit home was the treatment of very young children at the church. It was in fact witnessing the beating of her children at the school that provided the motivation and stirred the will of Caroline finally to break free. With her four children, it was no easy matter starting a new life outside the cage that represented Peniel Church.

Before we discuss the medieval treatment of children which was the norm at Peniel in the past, (now thankfully deemed to be criminal even in private establishments), I want to draw attention to the way Caroline describes the extraordinary hold that Reid had over those under his power. Described in a detached way, we can glimpse some of his methods through her descriptions. They could be said to be a combining of terror and charm. While a teenager in the church, Caroline was subject to a concerted attack on her self-esteem by Reid and others. Her parents had sent her to be a boarder at the school because they felt that the discipline would be good for her. As part of his effort to ‘break her will’, Reid would stand her on a stage during a service and pray for her loudly so everyone present could hear. His loud prayer would include a reference to the casting out of a ‘rebellious spirit’ that was deemed to be responsible for some minor breaking of a rule. Humiliation and embarrassment were all part of the church’s attempt to bring her under its control. She was constantly threatened with hell. Reid would also tell her that this was where her parents were going because they were not part of his church. It would be better for her to forget them and focus on her new ‘family’. Eventually she was so used to accepting what MR was telling her to do, she allowed herself to enter an ‘arranged’ marriage at the early age of 18. The groom ‘Peter’ was the son of one of the founding members of Peniel and thus used to having his life organised for him. The relationship with Peter was initially successful but for Caroline, ideas of university or proper choice of career were not able to be pursued. Because her own parents had been marginalised by the church, they had little or no input into helping Caroline on the path into adulthood or really supporting her when marriage came along.

The marriage which as Caroline put it, was ‘micromanaged by Reid’ down to the choice of date and bridesmaids, was not at first unhappy. Tensions rose when it became clear that her husband, Peter was far more dedicated to serving the church than the family. In addition to his full-time work, he was always putting endless hours working in and around the church and school in a maintenance capacity. Being a second generation adult in Peniel, he also seemed not to have a mind of his own. Every time there was a problem between them, it seemed that the issue got straight back to Reid and those in charge. Marital privacy was not something that Peter expected or sought and Caroline felt that their marriage relationship was being scrutinised by large numbers of church members.

The part of the story that aroused a strong reaction in me was Caroline’s description of the toddler group attached to the church. Everyone who used it was expected to help out with its running and the care of the children. This ‘care’ was against the background of Reid’s ideas about how children should be reared. They needed to be ‘brought under control’ by the age of 2 and under ‘firm control’ by the age of five. This form of ‘love’ was expressed through regular chastisement. When toddlers refused their food in the nursery, they were to be force fed. This would be done by holding the nose of the child so that the mouth would open and food could be pushed in. When the babies spat out the food, they were then smacked on the hand to combat their ‘rebellion’. Sometimes the process of feeding the children would take as long as 40 minutes while the other children went out to play. Caroline admits that this smacking of children over food became so common that she became more and more desensitised to its occurrence. The principle at work was the Biblical idea that beating was in some way making them obedient Christian children. One particular child in the pre-school group was inconsolable after his mother dropped him off. The ‘teacher’ took him into the toilet and beat him on the behind to the point of bruising. This particular case was raised by Caroline with the Head. All that happened was that she was taken out of the pre-school and sent off to work on an allotment. But the school ‘philosophy’ about how children should be reared spilt over into Caroline’s own home. Peter, her husband, administered smacking on her own children from the age of nine months. When her parents came to visit, they noticed the bruises on the child’s behind and thought of reporting it to the police. Nothing was in fact done for fear of causing disruption to the family.

One of the main issues that caused Caroline to break free from Peniel was the violence meted out to her own children at the church school. Both older children started to suffer from stress related symptoms, headaches, stomach aches, bedwetting etc. To make things worse, the beatings at school were repeated at home, as Peter, her husband, was unable to see anything wrong with the treatment of his children by the school and felt the need to re-emphasise the punishment. Even Caroline found herself sometimes smacking her own children, as she could not completely overcome the power that Reid had over her and his constant refrain of the wickedness of children and the need to save them from hell.

Space does not permit me to recount the circumstances of her ‘escape’ from Peniel. She was prepared to continue her marriage but Peter’s conditioning was such that he chose Peniel rather than his family. In escaping, Caroline received help from a number of organisations, helping her both legally and practically. It was extremely costly emotionally and financially. The book of her adventures came out in 2011 but not without a threat of lawsuits etc which tried to prevent its publication. Only the American edition ascribes the book to her. The English edition calls her Sarah Jones.

There are many things that I could have drawn out of Caroline’s story but I have chosen one main theme, the mistreatment of children, because it is at the heart of her story. The violence meted out to children in the name of ‘godly’ discipline is a theme that resonates back over the centuries in Protestant households and the fact that we find practised right at the end of the 20th century is something that all Christians should feel thoroughly appalled at. But as a final encouraging thought, Caroline’s children, while none of them now practising Christians, have recovered from their stressful traumatising childhoods sufficiently to live good and useful lives in the community. All now hold down responsible jobs and, in spite of their early schooling, have all gone through higher education.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

19 thoughts on “Brutalising children -Peniel again

  1. This is an evil in the name of Christ beyond words. Many of us live with the burden of knowing that this is still happening (To a greater or lesser extent) in this country.
    Those genuine seekers who get caught up in this mind game are helpless.
    In the same way that the elderly in this country are suffering unseen behind closed doors, so too the members of these inverted secretive abusing cults.
    Is it possible that Stephen and the contributors to this blog are the only people offering hope?
    ‘Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer’
    Please someone, come on the blog and tell me that He will?

    Chris

  2. Doesn’t the Bible say “Spare the rod, spoil the child?”
    What happened to Caroline Green’s children are undoubtedly OTT and utterly appalling.

  3. Our young child was given a “diagnosis” from a teacher who was not even qualified, let alone medically qualified. As a consequence, we had to beat our child at home to make our child conform at school.

    Another young child was also given a “diagnosis” and as a consequence, was not allowed to attend Peniel Academy. When the child was enrolled into a local states school, there was nothing wrong with the child!

    What a loada…hogwash.

    1. It was political, of course. Perhaps Reid did not consider that the parents’ faces fit his club if it was not for some other arbitrary reasons??? Perhaps Reid got out the wrong side of his bed the morning your child happened to start school? God knows.

  4. It is worth mentioning that the Bible does not say ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child’ but some of the quotations extracted from the bible are still pretty chilling. Reid’s ideas fit with a profoundly pessimistic view of human nature which says, in essence, that humankind is utterly depraved. This applies to children so there is this constant emphasis on physical punishment which in most countries is now banned by law. Calvin has a lot to answer for but there is in anyone who encourages this kind of behaviour a form of sick depravity. Do not people know that hitting nine month old children is sub-human whatver your belief system? Children are creatures to be nurtured and protected, not cruelly beaten and brutalised. I have written on this subject before and it hurts even to think about it!

  5. When Corporal punishment was legal in schools in this country, it produced a generation of perverts hooked on kinky sex. This is clearly evidenced in the pedophile scandal that brought the Catholic Church to its knees.

    I am pig sick of people who say; “Does not the Bible say” this or that.
    It justifies anything you want if you cherry pick it. The last English hangman/executioner believed it to be, ‘The word of God’. Not much good to Ruth Ellis and her family now is it?

    Reid and his acolytes were (Are) little men with big ideas. This type of individual ruined my life.
    I hope they rot.

    Chris

  6. In the face of such horror, it is perhaps banal to point out that beating children does not work. Very young children don’t understand the relationship between the punishment and what it is they have done or are supposed to do. How can you reason with a child who does not yet have language? And who has not had the experience of their child smacking them? It simply teaches the child to communicate in this way. It produces adults who don’t know any other way to communicate. These are desperate stories.
    Chris, to put it in a slightly odd way perhaps, we do inhabit a fallen world. I don’t take the story of the Fall as literal, by the way, but you will understand the symbolic language. There are always going to be people who behave badly, for whatever reason. We don’t need to try cod psychology on them, it just is that way sometimes. For some crimes and sins, we can even find some of it in ourselves. That some of these people claim to be people of faith is intensely disturbing. And, as you say, they do enormous harm to “seekers” who find their way into the wrong church. But people who do evil always do harm. And harm can be done also by those who do not intend to hurt, and by those who say or do nothing. Evil is never God’s will. But he gave us the choice. We cannot altogether prevent some people abusing our free will. But we can act when we see it. Which I feel sure many people who read this blog will do.

  7. The NIV translation of Proverbs 13:24 is “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.” I would like to make four points.
    1. A careful reading of this verse will included an understanding of the parallelism found in verses of this kind in Proverbs, which in this case suggests that ‘rod’ and ‘discipline’, while not necessarily being identical, overlap a good deal (think of a Venn diagram).
    2. I believe that self-discipline is a great thing to have and that having my indiscipline challenged when I was young helped me to achieve this, insofar as I have.
    3. Note the word ‘his’. The only person authorised by this verse to use the rod on a boy is the boy’s own father, to my mind. I am suspicious of the notion of another adult being in loco parentis regarding this matter.
    4. Note the importance of love and the taking of care in the one giving the correction.

  8. Thank you David, Your comment is most welcome. I am still of the opinion that this scripture attempts to justify beating a person whether a young adult or child.
    Such a practice has no place in the Church of Christ. We have after all had two thousand years of The Holy Spirit leading us into ‘All truth’. If it has not taught us that beating people is wrong, what then has It taught?

    If the standard of Christ was that even thoughts of adultery are sinful, what would he think of us even considering beating a child?

    Chris

  9. David, In 2008 I retired after 36 years working in mental health. During that time I met many patients who had been beaten by their parents. The long stay wards in psychiatric hospitals were full of people traumatised by ‘discipline in their homes’.
    In a lot of those cases the act of discipline had a sexual dynamic. As you know from reading my book; ‘The Caring Game,” I was bullied at school so I don’t have any sympathy for bullies. It may be true to say that a bully will never change till he has similar treatment dished out to him/her. However, the ‘dishing out’ has been seen to be very addictive and attached itself to our culture in negative ways.

    My friend Keith at school received beatings and it destroyed his life (It possibly resulted in his suicide).
    Any one who has heard Mad Frankie Fraser (The Krays gang member) talk about the birching he witnessed in prison, will know the hatred that was generated towards the ‘Screws’ was terminal and irrevocable.
    I reject the argument if favour of physical punishment utterly and with contempt.

    Chris

  10. Chris. I agree with you. All the evidence I have seen supports the idea that violence begets violence. The child who is beaten has to supress his or her anger and it comes out later displaced from the parents who did the deed to other people. The government has made all but a gentle slap on the leg made without anger, a criminal act. Having read how children brought in violence have had their lives totally ruined by the ‘Christian’ treatment I have no truck with violence against children. A book I recommend is ‘Spare the Child’ by Philip Greven. It looks not just at the shameful history of Christian violent abuse against children, but also summarises all the modern psychological consensus that says that it is a very bad idea indeed. Violence against children goes deep into the psyche and the pain suffered is far deeper than the physical smarting. On this topic I fully support the government and its advisors to overule anyone who says from the 50s ‘it never did us any harm’. Yes it did do and still does an enormous amount of harm.

  11. Thanks Stephen, I Hope that mercy and love will win the day.Love begets hope. Although David disagrees with us, I know him to be a merciful person who has done great work with the homeless. I hope he will reconsider his position prayerfully.
    Chris

  12. I suppose that a person who has been threatened by someone holding a knife to their throat might want to ban all knives. I would be against that, personally, as I find knives very useful in the kitchen. I say this despite having cut myself with the breadknife in the last twenty-four hours!
    Discipline does not have to be physical. When I stole money from my parents and used it to buy fireworks, aged 6, 5the punishment was that I was not allowed to come through for a wake-up story the following morning. I have never forgotten this lesson.
    Returning to knives, we have attempted to control their use by banning them being carried in the street. While on one level this seems sensible, on another it means that anyone who buys a kitchen knife in a shop and carries it home in their shopping is committing an offence.
    Personally, I don’t think that banning all physical punishment is necessarily the correct re4sponse to the fact that beatings can be abusive. Also, what about harsh words These can be terribly damaging over time. Should we outlaw speech to prevent it?

  13. If In ‘Perfect love there is no fear’ David, then I think we must live that sacrificial love where fear is eliminated. In the past the (So Called) Christian Church has governed its devote’s by fear, so the question is for me, does God want fear ‘Cast out,’ if you believe yes, He does, then
    let us look at the life of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and celebrate this Love.

    Chris

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