THE shame and guilt felt by people who were sexually abused within religious institutions were among the main reasons preventing these survivors’ reporting the abuse at the time, new research from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has found.
The research, published in a report on Thursday, is based on a survey of 1697 survivors of child sexual abuse in the UK, of whom 183 said that they had been abused within religious institutions, or by clerics or church-related staff elsewhere. Most were Christian, including the C of E (28 per cent), Roman Catholic Church (25 per cent), and Jehovah’s Witnesses (11 per cent).
A small proportion were Muslim (two per cent), and Jewish (one per cent).
Two-thirds (69 per cent) of survivors of abuse in a religious context said that they had not reported the abuse at the time it was carried out. This was compared with more than half (54 per cent) of 1514 survivors of abuse within other institutions. Of the survivors in a religious context who did not report it, half said that this was due to feelings of shame (37 per cent) and guilt (18 per cent).
The report states: “The types of sexual abuse reported by participants in religious contexts typically involved fondling [62 per cent] or other forms of sexual abuse involving non-penetrative contact, rather than penetrative abuse [32 per cent].”
The survey found that sexual abuse was perpetrated more frequently by individuals in a position of authority (specifically people with an “official” religious title, such as priest, vicar, imam, or elder) than other individuals in a religious setting. Most participants “firmly believed” that other people had been aware of the behaviour of the perpetrator — but did nothing.
The report states: “Participants described male-dominated, closed and insular religious institutions with considerable influence on the community and the lives of their congregants. They described self-governing institutions with little or no external contact or supervision.”
Almost half of survivors of abuse in a religious context (48 per cent) said that they had known of other people being abused by the same perpetrator, and one fifth (18 per cent) reported a loss of faith as a direct consequence of the abuse.
“The spiritual impact of the abuse upon victims and survivors is evident in these accounts of sexual abuse that occurred within religious contexts,” it says. “This can have a particularly damaging impact on victims and survivors, particularly where their religion provided the foundation to their morality, beliefs, social relationships and the way they lived their daily lives.”
The principal researcher, Dr Sophia King, said on Thursday: “It is clear that feelings of shame and embarrassment created a huge barrier to children disclosing abuse, as did the power and authority bestowed upon their abusers.”
The survey was conducted from June 2016 to November 2018 as part of the IICSA Truth Project, which is encouraging survivors of child sexual abuse to report their experiences and make recommendations for change within the relevant institutions.
Men were more likely to have been abused in religious institutions than other institutions (61 per cent to 34 per cent), it suggests. The reported abuse took place between the 1940s and ’90s. The most common individual decade of abuse was the 1970s. “However, 42 per cent of participants sexually abused in religious contexts reported abuse that commenced prior to the 1970s, compared to 30 per cent of participants who were abused in other contexts.”
The most common age of survivors when the abuse started was between eight and 14 years: slightly older on average than for people abused in non-religious contexts.
Of the survivors within a religious context, 12 also offered testimonies of their experience to the inquiry. One survivor, Angharad, who is 43 and lives in Dorset, told the inquiry that she was abused when she was 12 and 13 by a chaplain who was later convicted of rape against another girl.
“He was a dominant person, a bully. My dad wasn’t around; so I didn’t know if what he was doing was normal. . . He’d make me masturbate him, and then would take my knickers off and watch me go to the toilet.”
Angharad, who is now a mother of four children, said: “The abuse has impacted all aspects of my life. I didn’t like going to school, I’ve been bullied, became homeless, felt victimised, and fallen into abusive relationships. . .
“The Truth Project was very good. It was almost like being granted freedom to talk openly to people without being criticised, judged, or facing unnecessary questions. As a survivor, my experience is unique, and I believe that, by talking out, I may be able to help others in a similar situation.”
About 3200 survivors have told their stories to the Truth Project in person, by phone, in writing, through drawings, creative writing, and audio recordings, since it was founded in 2015. The majority were from white backgrounds.
The material is being analysed and presented in a series of “thematic” reports on the nature of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts, including what survivors said about what could, or might, have been done at the time of abuse; their experiences of disclosure and the response of the authorities; the impacts of the abuse; and suggestions for improving child protection in religious institutions.
The Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, who is the lead bishop on safeguarding, welcomed the report. “We would urge anyone who wants to report abuse and find support to come forward and we promise they will be heard,” he said in a statement on Thursday.
“IICSA continues to shine a light on the safeguarding practices of religious institutions, including the Church of England, and we are working constructively with the Inquiry as we approach our wider Church hearing on July 1.
“We commend those survivors who have had the courage to come forward to share their experiences to the Inquiry and in particular to the Truth Project, knowing how difficult this would have been.”