The Metropolitan Police has warned that an increasing number of child abuse cases involving accusations of witchcraft and exorcism are being reported to police.
A specialist unit in London recorded 46 alleged crimes linked to faith last year- more than double the number in 2013. Project Violet, the specialist faith-based abuse team within the Metropolitan Police Service, has identified 60 incidents so far in 2015.
The figures relate to crime reports flagged as involving abuse linked to faith or belief, and many of the cases involve children.
Incidents not routinely recorded
Data obtained by under a Freedom of Information request reveals that half of police forces do not routinely record such cases. Only two other forces reported incidents over the last three years - Greater Manchester and Northamptonshire each had one case.
Among this year’s cases are two claims of rape, alongside a report one child was swung round before being smacked over the head in order to “drive out the devil”. The Telegraph reported instances of children having chili rubbed into their eyes in order to remove evil spirits, to instances where children were dunked in baths and forced to drink noxious liquids in exorcism ceremonies.
Information about such practises and their causes remains limited. In 2007 the NSPCC released a report urging greater legislative action to combat child abuse linked to a belief in witchcraft. “Although the number of identified cases is low, the type of abuse is particularly disturbing and the impact on the child is substantial and can have serious implications for them in later life,” urged the NSPCC. Citing research by the Department for Education and Skills in 2006, the report stated that “certain characteristics or behaviour including disability, illness or a child with a ‘difference’ were common features in abuse cases linked to a belief in spirit possession.”
A separate Freedom of Information request to councils across the UK revealed 31 instances of a child being accused of witchcraft or possession by spirits in 2014. This compares to 21 cases in 2013 and ten in 2012.
Detective Sergeant Terry Sharpe, from Project Violet, said cases remain “small in number” but “there has been a significant increase”. Sergeant Sharpe said: “You'll get the actual physical abuse and injuries taking place, and in the worst case scenario we've had some homicides as well. We've had a case within the last year where a nine-year-old boy had been called a devil child and thrown out of his address by his parents and was found by social services standing in his bare feet.”
Debbie Ariyo, founder of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, said that within churches there is often a financial motivation behind claims. She said: “The pastor says there's a witch in this church today; looks around and points to a child - that means public humiliation for the family. The next step is exorcism which is not done for free. It's a money-making scam.” She warned against viewing the issue as solely affecting the African community, adding that her organisation has supported victims from other faiths and cultural backgrounds.
Ms Ariyo raised concerns about the lack of awareness among childcare professionals in the UK. “We did a training event in July for social workers, teachers, and lawyers. Most of them didn't know anything about witchcraft and juju but they had dealt with [such] cases,” she said.
An NSPCC spokesman said: “While the number of child abuse cases involving witchcraft is relatively small, they often include horrifying levels of cruelty. The authorities which deal with these dreadful crimes need to ensure they are able to spot the signs of this particular brand of abuse and take action to protect children before a tragedy occurs.”
A Government spokeswoman said: "Nothing is more important than keeping children safe. No belief system can justify the abuse of a child - it is unacceptable in whatever form it takes. Those responsible for child abuse linked to faith or belief would be prosecuted under the same legislation as anyone abusing or killing a child for other reasons."
In 1542 UK Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act, which made witchcraft a crime punishable by death. It was repealed five years later and restored by a new Act in 1562, which saw the trials of witches being moved over from churches to ordinary courts. In 1735, the Witchcraft Act made claims of being able to cast spells or speak to spirits a crime punishable by fines. This law was repealed 1951, with the creation of the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which in turn was repealed in 2008 when new EU consumer protection regulations were enacted.
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