Sexual abuse of children happening in broad range of religious settings, report finds

The sexual abuse of children takes place in a broad range of religious settings, with some found to have no child protection policies in place, a report has found.

Victim-blaming, an absence of discussion around sex and sexuality, abuse of power by religious leaders and discouraging external reporting are among the “shocking failures” outlined in the report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA).

The Child Protection In Religious Organisations And Settings report examined evidence from 38 religious organisations with a presence in England and Wales.

These include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Methodists, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and non-conformist Christian denominations.

The report, based on 16 days of public hearings held during March, May and August last year, said there is likely to be a significant under-reporting of child sexual abuse in religious organisations and settings.

The IICSA has already held separate investigations into the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church, the two largest religious groups in the country.

The report says that what marks religious organisations out from other institutions is “the explicit purpose they have in teaching right from wrong; the moral turpitude of any failing by them in the prevention of, or response to, child sexual abuse is therefore heightened”.

‘Egregious failings by a number of religious organisations’

The inquiry found there is “significant diversity” between religious organisations as to whether they have adequate child protection policies in place and the extent to which they effectively follow them.

The report refers to the problem of “disguised compliance”, where an organisation might take care to have a policy in place but the reality is one of half-hearted or non-existent implementation.

“Religious believers can find it difficult to accept that members of their congregation or religious leaders could perpetrate abuse.

“As a result, some consider that it is not necessary to have specific child protection procedures or to adhere strictly to them,” the report said.

It said there have been “egregious failings by a number of religious organisations” and cases of child sexual abuse perpetrated by their adherents.

Some religious groups have ‘catastrophically failed’

Richard Scorer, specialist abuse lawyer at Slater & Gordon who acts for seven victim and survivor groups in the IICSA, said that the report confirms some religious groups have “catastrophically failed to protect children in their care”.

He added: “This is simply unacceptable. It is clear from the report that too many religious organisations continue to prioritise the protection, reputation and authority of religious leaders above the rights of children.”

The report gave the example of four people who were all sexually abused when they were approximately nine years old whilst they were being taught the Koran by a teacher in a mosque.

Students reading the Koran


Students reading the Koran


Credit: WILLY KURNIAWAN/REUTERS

In 2017, the perpetrator was convicted and sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment, the report said.

The report also gave the example of a girl who was sexually assaulted by a church volunteer when she was 12 years old.

She disclosed the abuse to her mother, who reported it to the police.

After being made aware of the allegations, a church minister told her mother that the abuser was “valued” and must be considered “innocent until proven guilty”.

The report said it later became known that the abuser had previously been dismissed from a police force following charges of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.

The report highlights that an estimated 250,000 children in England and Wales receive “supplementary schooling” or “out-of-school provision” from a faith organisation.

There is no reliable information on how many settings there are, and as there is no requirement for such schools to be registered with any state body, they have no supervision or oversight in respect of child protection.

Child protection policy should be in place, says report

Two recommendations are made, 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 the pupil’s primary place of education within the scope of a registered school.

It says Ofsted should be provided with sufficient powers to examine the quality of child protection when undertaking inspection of suspected unregistered schools.

Professor Alexis Jay, chairwoman of the Inquiry said: “Religious organisations are defined by their moral purpose of teaching right from wrong and protection of the innocent and the vulnerable.

“However when we heard about shocking failures to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse across almost all major religions, it became clear many are operating in direct conflict with this mission.

“Blaming the victims, fears of reputational damage and discouraging external reporting are some of the barriers victims and survivors face, as well as clear indicators of religious organisations prioritising their own reputations above all else.

“For many, these barriers have been too difficult to overcome.

“We have seen some examples of good practice, and it is our hope that with the recommendations from this report, all religious organisations across England and Wales will improve what they do to fulfil their moral responsibility to protect children from sexual abuse.”

Other areas of investigation during the long-running inquiry have included Westminster and the internet.

The final report of overarching findings from all 19 sections of the investigation will be laid before Parliament next summer.

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