RECENTLY, THERE was the death, allegedly after two hours of spanking, of a 23-month-old infant who "refused" to apologize for the crime of having struck a playmate. The parents of the child, Leslie and Stuart Green, have been charged with administering the fatal beating, one holding the child, the other paddling. They are members of a religious commune in West Virginia, where child-whipping -- with instruments ranging from a wooden spoon to a foot-long, inch-thick board--is a routine matter. The practice is seen as a way to teach children to obey the will of God.

This method of early childhood instruction is not confined to West Virginia. In the northernmost reaches of Vermont, Newsweek reported not long ago, another religious community makes child- whipping a frequent part of its "quiet, godly life." Although the Vermonters reportedly use wooden rods for the lengthy child-thrashings, no one has yet been killed -- although three babies who suffered from problems unrelated to the whippings may have died from inadequate medical care.

What strikes us about these horrors -- and comparable events that occur with disturbing frequency in individual families -- is not just the immediate effect on the child victims, or even the likely future effects -- although it is known that prolonged infliction of pain can stunt mental development and that children who are abused are fairly likely to become child-beaters as adults themselves. What is equally disturbing is that the society seems powerless -- or, at least, unwilling -- to do anything to stop these atrocities.

The Greens, it is true, have been indicted by a grand jury on a charge of involuntary manslaughter. But what is involuntary, we wonder, about holding down and beating a child for two hours? No doubt they didn't mean to kill him. But what did they think would happen? That a 23-month-old child would suddenly be blessed with the full power of adult reason and that, still less likely, he would then beg their pardon and acknowledge their wisdom? The law has also put the Greens' one-year-old daughter under protective custody. But who is protecting the other children of the commune, including the Greens' newborn baby, whose birth is taken as a sign that God approves of Joey's death?

If the children of the West Virginia or Vermont communes were animals, the SPCA would long since have intervened. If the perpetrators of the whippings were governments, world opinion would be one of outrage. But in dealing with families, both legal and social institutions are curiously reluctant to act. Can no one but God protect a child from his parents?