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Can we rely upon religious institutions to protect our children from sexual abuse?

View profile for Malcolm Underhill
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Can we rely upon religious institutions to protect our children from sexual abuse?

What is the answer to the question?

Although a blog, with a question in its title, will usually proceed to have an examination of the evidence before providing an answer, I will start with the answer and explain my reasons.

I do not think we can rely on all religious institutions, to protect our children from sexual abuse. Some may disagree, but my experience as a lawyer specialising in childhood sexual abuse (and the sexual assault of adults) is heavily influenced by what I have learnt over the last 15 years or so, helping individuals harmed in childhood.   

Have you been abused by a religious leader?

If you or your child has been sexually abused in a religious institution, contact our no win, no fee sexual abuse solicitors now, for advice on how to make a claim for the harm caused by abuse, or to simply consider what options and possibilities are available, without any obligation. Call us today on 0333 123 9099, email or fill in our online form.

Teaching right from wrong

Religions have different ideologies and faiths but there is often to be found one common element, which is to teach children right from wrong.   Unfortunately, in the very environment where children should be at their safest when away from their home, they may, in reality, be at significant risk of abuse. This is a betrayal and makes me particularly angry.

Although revelations about Jimmy Savile being a paedophile shocked the nation, nearly 10 years ago, even by 2012 we had, sadly, already become accustomed to media stories reporting upon the sexual abuse of children at the hands of religious leaders.   What has struck me over the years is the number of stories from victim survivors of childhood sexual abuse, who felt that whilst being abused, others must have known what was going on.   Experience reveals the children were right. Adults did know what was going on, or at least had suspicions, but rather than tackle and confront the paedophile, the religious leaders would sometimes ignore the complaint, sweep it under the carpet, taking no action, either against the paedophile or to help the child. Sometimes the offending religious leader would be moved on, to another part of the country, by their institution. By that inaction the paedophile was permitted to repeat their offending against children.

What did the Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse say about child abuse in religious institutions?

The Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) was set up in 2015 to undertake a wide-ranging inquiry into child sexual abuse, to consider the extent to which institutions had failed in their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation, and to consider the necessary steps to protect children from such abuse in the future.

The IICSA have produced a series of reports, the latest being published in September 2021, covering the issue of “Child protection in religious organisations and settings Investigation Report”. The IICSA have already produced reports upon the Church of England and Catholic Church but have now obtained evidence from 38 religious organisations to report further upon child abuse in religious institutions. The IICSA has obtained evidence from interfaith groups, umbrella bodies and representative organisations which include, but not limited to, the following faiths:-

  • Buddhism;
  • Hinduism;
  • Islam;
  • Judaism;
  • Scientology;
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints;
  • Paganism; and
  • Sikhism.

The IICSA found there was different levels of record keeping. The enquiry found that the processes of the organisations they examined, ranged from ill defined to more effective systems of responding to allegations of abuse and reporting those allegations to statutory authorities.

There is a wealth of guidance for religious institutions to call upon, to draft child protection policies. The inquiry identified a diversity between religious organisations as to whether they had adequate child protection policies in place, and their effectiveness.

The inquiry also referred to “disguised compliance” where an organisation will have a child protection policy “but the reality is one of half-hearted or non-existent implementation”. I don’t think this is confined to religious institutions. I have recently been approached by two sets of parents in relation to their very young children being abused in nurseries. Both cases strongly suggest that even if those nurseries had a child protection policy in place, it was not applied in practice. If it had been, the nursery worker (in each case) would not have been able to gain access and sexually abuse pre school children.

There is a danger that institutions become complacent when the child protection policies has been signed off and published. Perhaps they feel the job done, but failing to ensure that the

words, the procedures and the protocols are applied on a daily basis. It is therefore noteworthy, but worrying, the IICSA has similarly found half-hearted implementation.

Lack of criminal record checks

The inquiry received evidence that many religious organisations and settings do not consistently undertake DBS checks of those who have contact with children within the organisation. This further supports my concern that we cannot rely upon religious institutions to protect our children from sexual abuse.

Terrible failings by religious institutions

The inquiry gave examples of egregious failings by a number of religious organisations. I set out two below.

A child was sexually abused by a Sunday school activity leader when he was seven years old, shortly after his mother died. The sexual abuse took place in the child’s home and during Sunday school camps. The abuser told the child not to tell anyone because it would upset the child’s father and no one in the church would believe him. The abuse continued for approximately three years.

A child was sexually assaulted by a church volunteer when she was 12 years old. The girl 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”. It later became known that the abuser had previously been dismissed from a police force following charges of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.

Why allegations of abuse are not formally reported to the authorities

The Inquiry found a number of barriers to religious organisations reporting allegations of child sexual abuse. These are recorded as including:-

  • “victim-blaming, shame and honour: in some communities, ideas of sexual ‘purity’ and social and familial standing can make abuse markedly harder to report;
  • “discussion of sex and sexuality: in some communities, matters relating to sex are not discussed openly, or children are not taught about sex or sexual relationships; in certain languages, there are no words for rape, sexual abuse or genitalia;
  • “abuse of power by religious leaders: children are often taught to show deference and respect to religious figures, who are typically regarded as innately trustworthy; this trust can be exploited to perpetrate abuse;
  • “gender disparity: within many of the religious organisations examined, there was a preponderance of men occupying both positions of spiritual and religious leadership and senior lay positions;
  • “mistrust of external agencies: some religious organisations harbour mistrust about the involvement of government bodies in their affairs, which may emanate from concerns about religious persecution or discrimination, a view that such involvement is contrary to religious teachings or a view that government bodies are insensitive to religious practices and beliefs; and
  • “forgiveness: the concept of forgiveness can be misused, both to put pressure on victims not to report their abuse and to justify failures by religious leaders to take appropriate action where allegations have been made.”

Are not all religious Institutions serious about protecting children from sexual abuse?

It makes one wonder the extent to which some religious institutions are serious about protecting children in their custody and whether the protection of children is their absolute priority. The barriers identified by the IICSA give, perhaps, an indication that the priority for some religious institutions is to protect their religion, their leaders and culture, at all costs, even at the expense of a child being abused.

Mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse

Religious institutions have had time to respond to reports of abuse, made over many years, but as the IICSA has found, they have not done the right thing, by applying child protection policies, to protect children.

The IICSA will produce a final report in due course with a list of recommendations. Hopefully, there will be a recommendation to Parliament that the mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse become law, making it a criminal offence for an individual not to make a formal report to appropriate authorities when they come aware of or have reasonable suspicion of child sexual abuse, whether occurring in a religious institution or elsewhere.  

Contact our Religious Institutions Child Sexual Abuse Lawyers today

If you or your child has been sexually abused in a religious institution, contact our no win, no fee sexual abuse solicitors now, for advice on how to make a claim for the harm caused by abuse, or to simply consider what options and possibilities are available, without any obligation. Call us today on 0333 123 9099, email or fill in our online form.

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