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Child sexual abusers use similar tactics to groom children in institutions, Inquiry report finds

13 July 2021

Tactics exploited by perpetrators working in institutions enable child sexual abuse to continue even today, according to an unprecedented research study from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

Based on analysis of Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) case files between 2017 - 2020, the research examines the offending strategies of alleged perpetrators across a wide range of contemporary institutional contexts, such as schools, sport and foster care, as well as the nature of abuse and responses of professionals.

Across the 43 cases examined, alleged perpetrators used similar methodical grooming strategies, including: 

  • targeting and isolating children;

  • building friendships which developed into sexually abusive ‘relationships’, based on trust and codependency with children;

  • befriending children’s friends and families over time. 

The research revealed that alleged perpetrators, such as teachers and sports coaches, harnessed their professional reputations and authority to manipulate other adults, and perpetrate child sexual abuse undetected. Creating cultures of fear, they threatened, blackmailed or intimidated children to deter them from reporting the child sexual abuse and with limited opportunities for disclosure, children often had noone to turn to. 

Informal social relationships, social gatherings and contact between adults and children was normalised within institutions, whilst technology, in particular social media, was found to provide new opportunities for adults working in institutions to access and sexually abuse children. 

The research report reveals that in many cases, individuals denied the allegations or constructed a mitigation narrative to justify, explain or minimise the child sexual abuse. This included framing sexually abusive relationships as consensual and romantic, or putting the blame on the child. Some alleged perpetrators claimed that they had made “mistakes” or “poor judgements” whilst others disputed that they held ‘positions of trust’, therefore safeguarding policies did not apply to them, and had therefore not been breached.

There were also a number of examples where the institutions did not believe children’s disclosures, in particular in cases where alleged perpetrators denied the allegations against them. In some cases, it was clear that institutions chose to preserve the alleged perpetrator’s reputation and their own, above protecting children who reported child sexual abuse.

The research also found that there were numerous missed opportunities to safeguard children because concerns were not escalated and institutions and staff did not always share, record and respond appropriately. A lack of coordination with agencies, weak vetting processes and poor record keeping allowed individuals to offend multiple times within institutions, or to continue offending across institutional contexts and over long periods of time. There were also instances where the onus was placed on the alleged perpetrators to declare their own criminal histories.

Despite significant safeguarding policies being in place, these were not upheld and inaction or institutional complacency enabled alleged perpetrators to operate without being detected and continue to sexually abuse children. 

Principal researcher Julienne Zammit said:

“This groundbreaking research provides new insight into the behaviour of perpetrators across contemporary institutional contexts, finding the use of similar tactics to groom and sexually abuse children. Alleged perpetrators denied or minimised the sexual abuse, in some cases even blaming the victim. 

“Sexually abusive relationships were often framed as consensual and social media was frequently exploited to groom and perpetrate child sexual abuse, providing access to children in unsupervised and unmonitored online spaces.

“Where reports were made, opportunities to safeguard children were missed or actively blocked because concerns were not escalated and disclosures were not always believed. In some cases, it was clear that institutions chose to put their reputation above protecting children who reported child sexual abuse.”

Survivors of child sexual abuse can share their experiences with the Inquiry's Truth Project over the phone, via video call or in writing. Visit www.truthproject.org.uk for more information.

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