Should "the government" crack down on religious counselors?

Sarah Pulliam Bailey of the Washington Post reports that leaders of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, an evangelical homeschooling ministry, were sued by women for failing to report sexual abuse of women and girls to law enforcement or the Dept. of Children & Family Services.

Over a period of years, former IBLP ministry leader, author and Duggar mentor, Bill Gothard, has been accused of sexually harassing or molesting more than 30 women and girls.

It’s true that religious counselors can and do counsel abuse victims, including children, according to religious doctrine. They sometimes emphasize moral duties and “spirit” over the safety of an abuse victim.

Religious counseling organization also sometimes require participants to agree to privately arbitrate disputes under “Holy Scripture” instead of civil law.

Has deference to religious organizations gone too far? :crying_cat_face: Should government start limiting religious freedom — especially if spouses and children face a risk of abuse?


i don’t think advocating that psychological counselors of all stripes should be held to the same standards is cracking down on religious freedom at all. If you want to be a counselor, religious or not, get the same training, certifications, and ongoing education as the dude i see at my docs office. Then if you want to bring FSM into the conversation, that is between the patient and you.


Thank you for responding on this issue which has been on my mind for years and has, I think, gotten worse since the 90s.

A problem comes up in the context of unlicensed counseling which is also more affordable. So clients may want to do family counseling through their church as part of “saving the marriage” and keeping faith with their values, extended family members and vows.

If the counselor isn’t credentialed, then there’s no licensing authority to discipline them if, for example, the counselor has an affair with one of the spouses being marriage counseled. Or if the counselor acts with an abusive spouse to circumvent a reporting requirement.

And even in cases of licensed counselors, if the counselor urges an abuse victim who wants to leave to save the marriage, then maybe a higher standard of liability and/or penalty is appropriate.


That was always my (admittedly Locke-infused) interpretation of how the resolution on church/state matters was intended to be handled:

You can’t generate nominally ‘secular compelling interests’ conveniently tailored just to mess with the theological peculiarities of a given sect; but if a regulation has a suitably compelling secular state objective, the fact that your objections are ‘religious’ rather than financial, personal, or other is irrelevant.

Given the job categories that tend to end up classified as ‘mandated reporters’, I would be hard pressed to see why someone offering counseling in some religious flavor, rather than ‘psychodynamic’ or ‘CBT’ or similar should be exempt, no matter how much that gets their Jesus in a twist.

I couldn’t justify additional restrictions just because they peddle dubious nonsense(not that that standard would necessarily exclude a great many attempts at secular psychology…); but they certainly wouldn’t enjoy an exclusion from what the rest of the industry adheres to in terms of regulation.


What about additional liability applied to cases of religious doctrine or church-family relationships used to delay escape from an abuser? Or a criminal investigation?

I’m not seeing additional liabiltiy; but that’s because what you describe sounds like behavior that makes you either an accessory to or a conspirator in a crime, regardless of whether you do it because jesus or because you happen to be golf buddies with somebody involved.


There’s a standard of care in counseling and psychology. If any counselor doesn’t at the very least meet the standard of care without a good reason based in evidence and logic, then they should get the hammer dropped on them. Not reporting abuse is failing the standard of care, and has nothing to do with religious values unless the religion requires abuse.

The counselor’s religious liberty ends where mom’s black eye begins.


There’s actually not as much law supporting this conclusion as you and I might expect.

Violation of a mandatory reporting statute is also different from the duty to provide therapy according to a reasonable standard of care.

Violating the first can be a misdemeanor, depending on the statute. It may also be evidence of the standard of care.

But another problem is which standard of care? Clinical psychologists are held to the standard of care of a reasonable clinical psychologist, as generally established through testimony of one or more clinical psychologists.

What’s the standard of care for an (unlicensed) pastoral counselor?

I know, right? But not so much. The evidence is tougher to gather than you’d expect. The normal behavior of the religious counselor and the abusive spouse is often made to seem, well … normal, partly because law enforcement defers so much to “privacy” — churches and families — in intimate partner violence cases.

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I think this depends on the state. Let’s discuss…

I suppose DCFS is the department name in IL, where the suit was brought.

Unless I miscount, counseling is a regulated profession in all US states. However, the details of that regulation matters, as there are some jurisdictions where you can’t call yourself a “counselor” or what you do “counselling” without a license.

The Idaho reg board reads more like that

Counseling for the general public is a regulated practice in Idaho. Practitioners are required to hold an Idaho license.

The Illinois reg is a bit more…overlawyered

“Licensed professional counselor” and “professional counselor” means a person who holds a license authorizing the practice of professional counseling as defined in this Act.

This Act does not prohibit any persons legally regulated in this State by any other Act from engaging in the practice for which they are authorized as long as they do not represent themselves by the title of “professional counselor”, “licensed professional counselor”, “clinical professional counselor”, or “licensed clinical professional counselor”.

To my non-legally-retained eyes, this scans to me like IL might have a loophole to allow some people to hold themselves out as counselors, without having a license. I’ve got a bad feeling about that.

To be sure, regulatory boards are just as interested in whether a person engages in a regulated practice as whether a person presents themselves to the public as a regulated professional. However, as a practical matter, it’s much easier to catch unlicensed charliatians who claim to be counselors or therapists or analysts than it is to get proper evidence that what they did in a private confidential session can be proven as practicing healthcare without a license.

This is a big problem now with coach. Most various and sundry state regulations don’t cover the more nebulous “life coach” term, which is what many grifters have been drifting to.

True, but at least these scum seem to have clearly missed their mandated reporting responsibilities. Serially.

325 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. § 5/4
Any member of the clergy having reasonable cause to believe that a child known to that member of the clergy in his or her professional capacity may be an abused child as defined by law shall immediately report or cause a report to be made to the Department of Children and Family Services.


Undoubtedly. But given that these organisations should technically still be held to the same standard of lawfulness as any other organisation or individual, that deference seems always to take the form of unofficial, under the counter, behind closed doors, back room deals and handshakes undertaken by friends or even members of said organisations.

That’s a far cry from your first question concerning deference isn’t it? Did you mean to imply one would follow naturally from the other? Do we really need more laws limiting freedom when in reality just abiding by the laws that already exist would seem to, ideally, produce the desired effect?

Religious organisations may be exercising a more repugnant and overwhelming power over their enthralled practitioners and the sometimes fully in-the-know family members than non-religious criminals, but ultimately they are still just criminals. Committing crimes and silencing the victims and witnesses with criminal intent and practice.


From my experience with religious folks, I suspect many would simply continue to sweep abuse under the rug, illegally or not. The limit with laws prohibiting this type of abuse is that they rely on someone reporting the abuse. Which is not to say that the abuse should be accepted, but that laws alone don’t fix the problem. Look at the relationship between heroin pushers and their customers. Neither are inclined to report the crime, so heroin rings pretty much thrive despite being illegal as hell, all the while funding international gang violence and wasting government revenue on thuggish drug enforcement, as pushers continue to destroy their customers lives and the lives around them.

The only way you make headway on a problem like this is by making it socially normative to report abuse, and not blaming the victim. But most of the time when religious folks report abuse at the hands of other religious folks, they’re greeted with indifference, condescension or even distrust by non-religious folks, while at the same time being ostracized by the very communities they grew up in. This generates a very real incentive for victim silence. So when all non-religious folks have to offer are more laws and harsher penalties for what is already criminal conduct, as opposed to real support for victims, it probably rings pretty hollow with the communities these abusers prey upon.



Secular humanists at the ready, with a hotline even for people who have been negatively impacted by religion. RFR isn’t out to deconvert people. It’s out to offer whatever help people need whether they’re trying to leave religion, have doubts, or have suffered at the hands of religious abuse. It’s not about making people turn away from the church. It’s about helping people who need a safe place to talk.


That’s exactly the kind of thing of which more is needed. Now call me a pinko, but if we’re going to spend taxes on victim services (which I’m in favor of), I’d like to see it go to victim services and not ineffectual law enforcement.


There’s also the Foundation Beyond Belief, who are running a network of disaster recovery teams. The point is when people say “well I don’t see the atheists pitching in” when there’s a landslide, or a hurricane or an earthquake or something the answer should be, “that’s because they’re busy, fucking helping, instead of preying on the vulnerable, the weak, and the traumatized. You know, the thing religious missionaries do. Except we do it better and more efficiently.”


Hmm…I’m a atheist, so I’m biased. But most of the folks I (anecdotally, which isn’t the same as statistically) personally know, both humanists and religious, are pitch-in kind of people. Obviously, I think the motives of fellow humanists are bit more ontologically pragmatic, but we don’t have a monopoly on helping others. I’ll work toward a secular world, but I’ll work alongside people who believe in the supernatural if the work helps someone. So if xtians want xtian counselors, I’ll work for a world where they can do so in safety and confidence that they can report xtian counselors who abuse their customers/patients.

Anyway, my point above was only that abuse is already illegal, obviously we shouldn’t coddle law-breakers who hide behind religion, and organizations like RFR and FBB that make more difference than crack downs on specifically religious counselors.




Bless His noodly appendage.

Praise Jibbers!


There may be specific issues in religious communities that make it more likely that they will not report abuse, but this is similar to many other tight knit groups - whether joined by ethnic, religious, political or other identities that they perceive as different from the wider society. This does present particular challenges to authorities, but I don’t think crack downs are going to be that effective (depending on what you mean by “crack down”). I’d say more consistent regulation is certainly appropriate as well as working to integrate different groups into the wider society while allowing them to keep their particular identities and some degree of autonomy. Religious freedom is important, but there are many responsibilities that individuals and groups have to promote society in general, regardless of their personal belief and identity.


Hey OP, yes you @hello_friends. :wave:

I’ve noticed an increased frequency of new accounts posting topics which propose, or at least propose to debate, religiously centred questions.

Do you perhaps come from a college class or a reddit thread or something where a bunch of people proposed signing up to boingboing to interrogate the Zeitgeist here? Particularly in relation to the views on religious topics?
Maybe not limited to boingboing in particular but there definitely seems to be an upswing in what was previously a practically non-existent trend.

Probably just coincidence.


Surely Jerry Sandusky was just an edge-case!