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IICSA: survivors speak of influence of religion

18 February 2021

Inquiry is told of churches that fostered mistrust of secular authorities


BEING raised in a highly religious community is seen by victims and survivors of child sexual abuse. as one factor affecting their experience. This emerged in a new report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), published on Thursday of last week.

The Inquiry is building on information that it hears through its investigations, research, and through its Truth Project (News, 29 January). This latest consultation took the list of the nine “protected characteristics” identified in the Equality Act 2010, which protects people from discrimination in the UK.

It asked members of the Victims and Survivors Forum whether any of these might have affected their experience, and their access to and interaction with institutions and support services.

The characteristics are age, disability, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity. Eighty-five per cent of respondents felt that their protected characteristics had affected their experience of child sexual abuse or its impact, which included making them feel more vulnerable to abuse.

Seventy-five per cent of the 131 respondents to IICSA’s online questionnaire were female, and 23.7 per cent were male; 73.3 per cent described themselves as heterosexual or straight; 43.5 per cent described themselves as Christian, and 42 per cent as of no religion. Of the others, 4.6 per cent were Buddhist, 3.8 per cent Muslim, 1.5 per cent Hindu, 1.5 per cent Sikh, and 0.8 per cent Jewish.

Some described feeling isolated and unable to associate with anyone beyond their religious community. One described a culture of “insularity” in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and how it fostered mistrust of secular authority. Another said that coming from a Christian background had led her “to rebel against my parents, leading me into the arms of a sexual predator”.

Some linked their sense of shame and blame to their religious upbringing, with particular reference to religious teachings and doctrines that emphasised that women must be “submissive and prudent”.

One respondent said: “While I do not believe this is the true doctrine in Christianity, the leaders in my church taught me that women’s bodies belonged to their future husbands and should be preserved for their future pleasure. Psychologically, this disconnected me from the ownership of my own body as a female.”

Another said that religious doctrines and world-views emphasised that women were “dogmatic, dangerous, and deceitful”. Some described how religious leaders would dismiss, refuse to acknowledge, or minimise their reported experiences of child sexual abuse, and how this invalidation had added to their trauma.

Losing faith and trust in religious institutions was a common theme among Forum members with a religious upbringing. In some Christian denominations, the topic of child sexual abuse remained taboo, which could result in disengagement from this topic by members of some religious communities. One respondent said: “Religious people, including priests, often seemed disgusted by any talk of sexuality, and would dismiss, ignore, or actively shut down conversations about it.”

Religion or belief also caused problems for some in gaining access to support. One said: “I think, as a Christian, there can be a pressure not to access support outside of the church community, and that can lead to an exclusion when you do — people making you feel like you have betrayed the Church. And there is pressure to use prayer ministry and internal support rather than professional psychotherapy.”

Sexual stereotyping also emerged as a strong factor in victims’ and survivors’ experience. Stereotypes of the “sexually dominant male” and the “submissive female” could result in girls’ either expecting or accepting sexual exploitation, something further compounded by cultural attitudes that female bodies were both a “temptation” and a “commodity”.

One respondent said: ”Being a girl was like having no identity, so no reason to be respected.” Another said: “As a girl, I was told to speak only when I was spoken to. To do as I was told. Not to complain. Not to say ‘no’. I was told not to say ‘no’ to anyone in authority.”

Many respondents said that being female had exacerbated the shame that they felt. Some spoke of feeling less important and respected because of their sex, while others described being labelled as “promiscuous”, “asking for it”, “little tarts”, and “whores” when they spoke about being a victim and survivor of child sexual abuse.

One said: “I was a victim of abuse by a male teacher at my all girls’ school when I was 16. To all the adults involved, I had either made up the story, with some malicious or insane intent, or I was ‘a little tart’. As a consequence, I was expelled from school and the man kept his job.”

The consultation also heard that stereotypes in relation to masculinity, such as “Boys don’t cry,” could leave male victims and survivors feeling ashamed and unable to fully understand that they had been sexually abused. Stereotypes that men should “man up” can “undermine and invalidate their experiences, resulting in male victims and survivors feeling unable to process the child sexual abuse they suffered and consequently report this to statutory authorities”, the report says.

Race also emerged as a strong factor. Victims and survivors from certain ethnic-minority communities described having limited knowledge or understanding of child sexual abuse, because the topic was taboo in their communities. One described being seen as a “troublemaker” when attempting to speak out against sexual abuse suffered as a child. They faced the risk of being ostracised.

Others spoke about how racism and other people’s perceptions and treatment of people from certain ethnic groups created a barrier to disclosure. Mistrust of the police by the black community was specifically mentioned. The language used by the police was felt to be unsympathetic or not understanding, and to leave survivors feeling ignored. Good practice by some police officers was acknowledged.

In certain ethnic-minority communities, any sexual contact (including sexual abuse) before marriage could be met with physical violence from family members in the Arab community. Victims and survivors described how this, too, could lead to intense trauma and feelings of isolation and vulnerability.

One said: “I’m from an Arab Muslim family, and the abuse took place at home — my biological father. The stigma, taboo, and shame involved in exposing my family was unbearable and due to my upbringing. In my home country, if a girl has any sexual contact prior to marriage it is considered acceptable to kill her to avoid bringing shame on the family.”

Another said: “As a bi-racial black female, my race impacted the sympathy, compassion, and belief I got. It also made care-home staff see me as a consenting and a willing participant in my rape. They refused to see me as a child or as innocent. I strongly believe I was seen as the issue.”

Neurodiverse victims and survivors, including those with autism, reported how their condition could lead them to misinterpret social situations and not understand when others were acting inappropriately, making them more vulnerable to child sexual abuse.

One described being targeted by perpetrators who felt that they could manipulate and exploit them. Some had been labelled as naughty, or “difficult’, meaning that underlying issues were not detected, and the child was not protected.

Some described how their mental-health condition or disability led to their being marginalised by others. Seeking attention and affection from others because of this isolation had led to their being sexually groomed and assaulted by adult staff.

One respondent described how children with disabilities might be exposed to multiple professional carers, expressing concern that this could increase their risk of being sexually abused.

The consultation also heard heard that children with complex needs or disabilities could have difficulty naming their body parts, and were not helped by institutions to communicate what had happened to them.

Sexual orientation was another factor in access to support. Some respondents suggested that being sexually abused as a child had prevented their accepting or understanding their sexual orientation. Some spoke about suppressing it to prove that they were “normal”, and how that had made an impact on their ability to accept their sexual orientation.

The Equality Act does not list socio-economic status as a protected characteristic. But one Forum member felt that working-class girls were perceived as “sexual beings” at a much earlier age than middle-class girls, and were treated as being fully complicit in the child abuse that they suffered.

The findings of this consultation will inform IICSA’s final report.

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