THE abuse of children accused of being witches will not be solved by regulating churches, or by making it illegal to accuse a child of being a witch, the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) said after the trial of a couple found guilty of the torture and murder of a 15-year-old boy whom they had accused of witchcraft.
Kristy Bamu was murdered on Christmas Day in 2010, in a flat in east London. His sister, Magalie Bamu, and her partner, Eric Bikubi, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, were found guilty on 1 March, and were sentenced to life imprisonment on 5 March.
Kristy had received 130 internal and external injuries from a variety of implements, before being drowned in a bath full of water.
The charity Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (AFRUCA), renewed its call for the practice of branding children as witches to be criminalised. “The branding of children as witches is in itself a serious form of emotional abuse, which leads to untold anguish and suffering by victims.
“There is nowhere in UK law where the link between witchcraft branding and emotional abuse is explicitly made, despite the level of harm and devastation that can occur. This anomaly needs to be urgently corrected.”
AFRUCA has also expressed concern about the activities of “rogue faith leaders” who are “preying on people’s beliefs to brand children as witches for the sole purpose of extorting money from their parents to perform fake exorcism rites”.
It reports an increase in accusations of witchcraft in London, which it attributes in part to the economic downturn.
The founder of AFRUCA, Debbie Ariyo, told the BBC programme Newsnight, on Thursday of last week, that such leaders were operating in organisations that were “very dominant in our community” and “largely unregulated”.
“They are operating in people’s homes, in garages, in school halls and so on,” she said. “Nobody actually is bothered about doing anything to at least control them somehow; so they are growing, they are spreading, and of course people go there and they can actually be abused, exploited in different ways.”
A report on children accused of witchcraft in Africa, produced for UNICEF in 2010, warned that, in many countries, the phenomenon was being exploited by revivalist, Charismatic, or Pentecostal churches.
“Pastor‐prophets” identified witches through visions and dreams, and then offered treatment to the supposed witches. The persecution of witches had become a “lucrative business” for many pastor‐prophets, the report said.
Although there is no evidence that any church was implicated in the Bamu case, a Professor Emeritus at LSE, Jean la Fontaine, said that churches in London were “up to their eyes” in the problem. “They identify children as witches, and sometimes just point to child in the congregation and say ‘that child is a witch.’
“They also carry out deliverances and exorcisms. What varies is the violence of the deliverance; so it’s very common. It’s not only African, but other Pentecostal churches.” She called for church leaders to issue statements saying that it was wrong to accuse children of witchcraft.
Also on Newsnight, on Thursday of last week, Dr Richard Hoskins, of the University of Bath, said that it was “disturbing” that cases of abuse were taking place in the home. “The block is white middle-class people who don’t want to touch the liberal multicultural agenda,” he said. “John Sentamu said once that the ultimate no-no was for a white liberal to tell a black person that they’re wrong.” But it was only a matter of time “before there are more children that are abused — or indeed, horrendous though it would be, killed — because of this belief system”.
The chief executive of CCPAS, Simon Bass, however, said that legislating against accusations of witchcraft was not the right solution. “We need to remember that no faith or culture condones cruelty to children,” he said. “This is a horrific — but very rare — case.”
He argued that regulating churches would be “ineffective, expensive, and would compromise the fundamental freedom of religious belief we currently enjoy in the UK and — most importantly — would not make our children any safer”.
CCPAS argues that belief in possession “does not, in itself, in the vast majority of cases, result in abuse”. It argues that trying to make accusations of witchcraft a legal offence would be “impossible to enforce”. The solution, it says, is to educate churches and parents and develop policies and good practice.
CCPAS provides a national 24-hour helpline for churches, which provides support on safeguarding issues and provides training through seminars and DVDs.
Bishop Dr Joe Aldred, of Churches Together in England, advocates a similar approach to that promoted by CCPAS. He told Newsnight that he had “hardly ever” encountered instances of children being accused of being possessed. “The challenge is how we reach those who are operating largely on the boundaries of Christianity, and behaving in ways which are dangerous to children.”
He encourages pastors to be “wary” when parents approach them claiming that their child is possessed. “There is a part of my Christian
faith that seem to pander too much to evil-spirit possession and therefore the need to cast out or exorcise that demon,” he said. “I have been a Chris¬tian all my life. It is not something that is an everyday occurence.”
The Department for Education published a report by Eleanor Stobart in 2006, which concluded that belief in possession and witchcraft was widespread in the UK. About half the children in the cases were born in the UK, and, of the families where religion was reported, the majority decribed themselves as Christian.
Non-statutory guidance, published by the Government in 2007 (Safeguarding Children from Abuse Linked to a Belief in Spirit Possession), suggests that social workers may need to work with faith groups to aid their understanding of the reasons behind abuse.
CCPAS helpline: 0845 120 4550
Question of the week: Should accusing a child of witchcraft be a criminal offence?