RELIGIOUS organisations demonstrate “blatant hypocrisy and moral failings” in purporting to teach right from wrong yet failing to prevent or respond to child sexual abuse, the latest report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) says.
The report, Child Protection in religious organisations and settings, published on Thursday, examined evidence from 38 religious organisations with a presence in England and Wales, after 16 days of public hearings in 2020. The Anglican Church had its own dedicated IICSA investigation, and has already published detailed responses to the full report published last October (News, 9 October 2020). The Roman Catholic Church was also separately investigated (News, 13 November 2020).
The “moral turpitude” of any failings by a religious organisation are heightened because their explicit purpose is teaching right from wrong, says the report, which warns at the outset: “Freedom of religion and belief can never justify or excuse the ill-treatment of a child, or a failure to take adequate steps to protect them from harm.”
It spares no detail in highlighting “egregious failings” in all religions. Significant barriers to effective reporting of abuse include victim-blaming, shame, and honour; having no vehicle or language in some communities to discuss sex and sexuality; abuse of power by religious leaders, particularly men; and mistrust of external agencies.
Some organisations take care to have a safeguarding policy in place, but the reality is one of “half-hearted or non-existent” implementation, the report says. Many do not consistently undertake DBS checks, and the report describes the current system for oversight of child protection within religious organisations and settings as one of “patchwork influence”.
A series of pen portraits give graphic accounts of abuse — and how the reporting of it was dealt with in communities. In the Manchester Charedi Jewish community, for example, “centuries of persecution and unfairness means that there is a Jewish learning and tradition that someone should not be reported to secular authorities. . . Someone who does so is considered to have betrayed their community.”
A child finally finding the courage to report years of abuse by the son of the household in a house mosque suffered harassment from others in the community, who then called her a “dirty slag” and a “tart”.
In one Methodist congregation, a child was abused by a volunteer and active member of the congregation, and received no support by a local minister following her disclosure, because the perpetrator was someone who was “valued”.
An elder in the Jehovah’s Witnesses would say a prayer after the abuse, “during which the child was expected to sit quietly and join in with ‘Amen’”.
Child sexual abuse in many settings and organisations appears to be underreported, the report says. “In some communities, the relationship between ideas of sexual ‘purity’ and social and familial standing are likely to make abuse markedly harder to report. The imperative not to speak is bound up with notions of honour, with consequences for individuals’ ability to marry, for their family, and for the ‘honour’ of their community.”
In some religious traditions and communities, matters relating to sex are not discussed at all openly, so those subject to abuse feel unable to report it. A witness said, of the Charedi community, “There no sex ed . . . and the biology pages were superglued or stuck together for those sort of lessons, so to speak.”
Abusers using religious texts have been known to take advantage of a victim’s faith in order to facilitate their abuse and to ensure their silence, the investigation found. It received evidence, too, that belief in spirit possession, witchcraft, and folk religion can be used to facilitate or justify abusive behaviours.
The report says: “We heard examples of perpetrators misusing theological texts or beliefs, positions of authority in a religious organisation, the name of God, or threats of spiritual or religious consequences to justify abuse or prevent its disclosure.”
The inquiry examined governance in the religious organisations and found many to be entirely autonomous: all mosques and Hindu temples, for example, operate as separate organisations. Within many religious settings, positions of spiritual or religious leadership are occupied only by men. In the Jesus Fellowship Church, all of the leaders were men, and women were seen as a “temptation to men with very strict modesty rules for girls about their appearance and clothing”.
Distrust of external agencies and the persecution of religious minorities by state bodies throughout history has generated a strong fear of outside authorities within certain communities, the report says.
It refers to fear of racism or racial stereotyping as another factor that causes certain religious communities to avoid the involvement of external agencies in their affairs. They can also be reluctant to report abuse “because of a belief that local and central government bodies lack an understanding of their religious faith and practice”. Within the Muslim community, “victims were often told to stay silent so as not to ‘put the Muslim community in a bad name’ . . . because of the fear of Islamophobia.”
Some organisations were found to have no child-protection policies at all, while others were rudimentary and incomplete. Some umbrella organisations, such as the Evangelical Alliance, which serves approximately two million, have a safeguarding policy but do not require its members to have one.
Positive examples of good practice included the Baptist Union of Great Britain. The Salvation Army’s disciplinary process allows action to be taken against a range of individuals, not just employers. It was found to be one of the very few organisations employing formal risk assessments by child-protection professionals as part of these internal processes.
Many religious organisations and settings do not consistently undertake DBS checks of those who may have contact with children, the report says. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, despite having four policies in place, did not undertake vetting and checks on elders or the ministerial servants who provided practical help and assisted them. There is also discretion not to expel perpetrators if they are thought to be repentant.
Very few religious organisations that the inquiry looked at had arrangements in place for professional counselling or therapy services for victims of child sexual abuse committed within the organisation or setting.
There is much concern in the report about the lack of regulation of supplementary schooling, out-of-school settings, and unregistered schools. There are potentially 250,000 children in England and Wales receiving education in supplementary schools with a faith focus or organised by a religious organisation.
Some of these, including some religious leaders, “do not wish to change the current position, largely because they consider having to register or have some formal oversight would lead to them having to teach matters they considered to be contrary to their faith”.
The report recommends that all religious organisations should have a child- protection policy and supporting procedures, and that the Government should legislate to amend the definition of full-time education to bring any setting that is a pupil’s primary place of education within the scope of a registered school.
A response from the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team said that the first of those recommendations was “being addressed by its current work in safeguarding regarding the requirement to have in place appropriate safeguarding policies and procedures”.
The Secretary of the Methodist Conference, the Revd Dr Jonathan Hustler, said that his Church welcomed IICSA’s findings. “While it will take time for us to study today’s report, early indications are that it includes many areas where religious organisations are still failing their members, and we are truly sorry for where this happens in our churches,” he said.
He continued: “We note the report’s mention of a general lack of support for victims of abuse among religious organisations. We will continue to review and improve our support to victims and survivors, and we apologise where this has not happened as it should have done.
“There can never be any excuse for failings in safeguarding and it is the responsibility of everybody connected with the Methodist Church to uphold the highest standards in order to protect children and vulnerable people.”
Paul Parker, Recording Clerk for Quakers in Britain, said that Quakers were committed to making sure that everyone was safe in the Quaker community. “IICSA is building the case for change and improvements in how institutions must protect children, learning from the past and drawing on the experiences of victims and survivors,” he said. “Quakers in Britain see this as important work, and we uphold everyone involved.”
The independent Christian safeguarding charity Thirtyone:Eight was a core participant in IICSA. Its joint chief executive (safeguarding), Justin Humphreys, said on Thursday: “The report clearly shows that many churches in this country have made significant progress to embedding child-protection practices — including policy, safer recruitment, training, audit, and evaluation — where these have perhaps not been evident across the broader religious and faith community. However, this should not leave us with any sense of complacency. There is still much more to be done. . .
“We await the final report of the Inquiry with anticipation, where we hope to see some clear recommendations being made around topics such as mandatory reporting, vetting and barring, regulation, development of primary legislation, and oversight.”
Read the IICSA report here
Read more about this story in this week’s Press column here