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Crime Bill includes religious leaders under ‘position of trust’

09 March 2021

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THE definition of a person in a “position of trust” under English criminal law has been expanded to improve child protection by including religious leaders and sports coaches.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill, introduced in Parliament on Tuesday, would make it illegal for both religious leaders and sports coaches to engage in sexual activity with 16- and 17-year-olds. The age of consent for sexual activity in the UK is 16; this rises to 18, however, where one person in a position of trust is involved.

The Bill amends Section 21 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which sets out the law on sexual offences committed by people in these positions, which are listed under it: teachers; social workers; doctors; foster carers; and police officers. Specific settings include educational institutions; hospitals; foster homes; residential care homes; young offenders’ institutions; and independent clinics.

This amendment — to include clergy under the definition of people in a position of trust — was recommended by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in its interim report on abuse in the Anglican Church (News, 9 May 2019). Victims and survivors of abuse and campaigners have also called for this change (News, 19 July 2019).

The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, who is the Church’s deputy lead safeguarding bishop and co-chair designate of the All Party Parliamentary Group on safeguarding in faith settings, welcomed the Bill.

She said on Tuesday: “We responded to the IICSA recommendation at the time indicating our full support for the change in law. The Church takes all safeguarding issues very seriously and expects the highest standards of its clergy and leaders. But, as the recent overarching IICSA report has shown us, the Church has failed to respond well to victims and survivors who have come forward and has failed to protect some children and young people from sexual predators within their midst.

“We are committed to improving our safeguarding processes and changing our culture and we welcome this proposed change in legislation as part of this. We would also like to thank the All Party Parliamentary Group on safeguarding in faith settings for all their important campaigning work on the Positions of Trust issue and personally I look forward to working with them in the future.”

Professor Julie Macfarlane, an abuse survivor and author of Going Public: A survivor's journey from grief to action (Review, 26 February), said on Tuesday: “Recognising the potential for grooming and abuse of a young person by a person with the authority of a church minister or sports coach is an important step forward. 

“But just a step: what we now know and understand about the exploitative nature of such relationships should also affect how the law handles complaints and charges involving those older than 18, who are also vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation by people whom they trust.”

Justin Humphreys, who is the joint-chief executive of the safeguarding charity Thirtyone:eight and chair of the Christian Forum for Safeguarding, said on Tuesday: “We have been leading discussions on the topic of positions of trust with the Christian community and its various denominations for the past 18 months, with general support for a change in the current legal provision. This change to the law is a significant step in moving forward efforts to provide better protection for young people in faith settings and other activities.

“We have yet to see the detail within the bill and will be keeping a close eye on how this develops as simply extending the existing list of those roles or positions that may fall in scope of the law is insufficient to afford the best protections for young people.”

Other changes that would be made under the Bill include new court orders and stop-and-search rules to crack down on knife crime; new laws to enable police to tackle unauthorised encampments and manage protests safely; and the doubling of sentences for people who assault police or other emergency and front-line workers from 12 months to two years.

Other sentencing changes include Whole Life Orders (WLOs) for child murderers, and permission for judges to impose these on 18- to 20-year-olds in exceptional cases, for example, acts of terrorism which cause mass loss of life; life sentences for those who cause death by dangerous driving, and for careless drivers who kill while under the influence of drink or drugs; and an end to the automatic halfway release for serious violent and sexual offenders.

Read more on the story in our leader comment

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