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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Final report

F.4: Reporting child sexual abuse

Institutional reporting

47. The Inquiry’s investigations have demonstrated that systemic change is needed to ensure allegations of child sexual abuse are reported. The Inquiry heard of many instances in which children who were being sexually abused made disclosures or presented information to someone within an institution, but no action was taken to inform the relevant authorities.[1]

47.1. In several cases, no steps were taken by senior leaders of institutions to report sexual abuse to the police and perpetrators continued to have unrestricted access to children.[2]

47.2. There were personal records of children in care and employment records of those who looked after them that contained references to behaviour amounting to sexual abuse of the child that were recorded but not reported or investigated.[3]

47.3. There were cases of known perpetrators who were allowed to resign, retire or transfer to similar institutions elsewhere, rather than taking appropriate action.[4]

47.4. In the educational field, there were instances where teachers were dismissed for sexual offending but referrals were not made for their inclusion on lists of those unsuitable to teach (despite such mechanisms having been in place since the 1920s).[5] In some of those cases, other children were sexually abused who should have been protected by prompt and proper reporting by the adults whose job it was to keep them safe.

48. A prominent reason that individuals and institutions failed to report child sexual abuse to statutory authorities was a desire to protect an individual or institution from reputational damage.[6] Protection of reputation was particularly prevalent within religious, educational and political institutions, and concerns to avoid embarrassment trumped concerns about risks to children.[7] Leaders were sometimes more focussed on controlling what information about allegations of abuse became public rather than on ensuring authorities were properly notified so that allegations were investigated.[8] When concerns arose that were politically or professionally inconvenient for an individual to report, they sometimes did not do so.

49. Similar considerations applied where institutions comprised individuals with a shared moral code, or in institutions with cultures or leaders that emphasised deference within their ranks through strict hierarchies or moral and spiritual authority.[9] Not reporting an allegation of child sexual abuse out of a misguided sense of wanting to ‘protect their own’, a shared sense of defensiveness or a fear that making a report would bring their community into disrepute also featured in the evidence received by the Inquiry.[10]

50. In other instances, factors such as confusing or nebulous procedures for handling reports of child sexual abuse led to reports not being made.[11] In some cases, individuals decided not to make a report because they were applying a subjective filter of credibility or ‘seriousness’ to an allegation.[12] Sometimes adults simply did not believe the allegation they heard, possibly because it was difficult for them to “think the unthinkable” about the alleged perpetrator, who may be a respected colleague or friend.[13] Prejudiced perceptions about child complainants also featured in reasons for non-reporting of complaints.[14]

51. Victims and survivors, some senior religious leaders and some organisations argued strongly in favour of mandatory reporting, particularly in the Inquiry’s investigations into child sexual abuse occurring in religious settings and organisations and in educational establishments.[15] As noted in Victims and Survivors’ Voices, a survey by the Inquiry’s Victims and Survivors Forum found that 88.6 percent of respondents said that they would like to see mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse introduced in England and in Wales.[16]

Current requirements to report child sexual abuse

52. Many of the individuals who failed to report abuse to the police or social services in these and other examples that the Inquiry examined may have failed to meet their professional or moral obligations, but they did not break any laws in doing so. The legal requirements to report abuse differ between England and Wales. Neither system is an adequate model for ensuring that reports of child sexual abuse are made to the agencies that should receive them.

The legal position in Wales

53. In 2016, the Welsh Government enacted a duty for specified public bodies to report children at risk of harm. Under section 130 of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014, specified public bodies must inform the local authority if they have “reasonable cause to suspect” that a child within the local authority’s area is “at risk of abuse, neglect or other kinds of harm”.[17] This duty applies to those defined as relevant partners in the Act.[18] This includes local authorities, the police, providers of probation services, local health boards, NHS trusts and youth offending teams.[19] There are no criminal sanctions for individuals who fail to comply with the duty to report a child at risk in Wales.

54. Statutory guidance Working Together to Safeguard People: Volume 5 states that where a member of the public or a practitioner has reasonable cause to suspect that a child is at risk, a “report must be made as soon as possible to the local authority”.[20] The emergency services should be contacted in the case of immediate concerns about a child’s safety or a criminal offence against a child. In addition, the Wales Safeguarding Procedures state that “a report must be made” by anyone working with children, including in unpaid positions, who has a concern that a child is experiencing, or is at risk of, abuse, neglect or other harm.[21] This applies broadly to individuals working with children, including in schools and healthcare settings, the police, children’s social care services, youth offending teams, sports clubs and voluntary organisations. It emphasises the importance of individuals reporting concerns about a child’s welfare.

55. The Working Together to Safeguard People: Code of Safeguarding Practice sets out the Welsh Government’s expectation that all those offering activities or services to children in Wales will ensure that safeguarding arrangements are in place.[22] This includes that organisations should have a safeguarding policy which contains information about how to report safeguarding concerns to the local authority or the police if necessary.[23]

56. The Welsh model leaves a number of gaps in terms of who is required to report, including all staff in independent schools and those involved with voluntary and religious organisations.[24] There is also no sanction in the legislation for failure to report a child at risk. Any failure of a professional to report concerns is dealt with through agencies’ own internal disciplinary processes and referral to professional regulators. Further, whereas section 130 of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 refers in the main to a list of organisations,[25] the accompanying guidance set out in the All Wales Procedures implies a duty on individuals (referring to ‘practitioners’). It is unclear whether independent professionals, who might not be associated with the organisations listed, are covered by the obligation. This has the potential to lead to confusion. The Inquiry was informed that, by November 2020, the introduction of the referral-reporting duty in Wales had not led to “a substantive change in practice”.[26]

The legal position in England

57. In England, there is no statutory obligation requiring individuals or institutions to report child sexual abuse.

58. Working Together to Safeguard Children states that anyone who has concerns about a child’s welfare “should make a referral to local authority children’s social care”.[27] This referral should be made immediately if there is a concern that the child is experiencing significant harm or is likely to do so. This statutory guidance does not impose a legislative requirement on those working with children to report child sexual abuse. It only creates an expectation that individuals will comply with the guidance unless “exceptional” circumstances arise.[28]

59. The government also sets out expectations for other organisations working with children in England to make safeguarding arrangements. Section 11 of the Children Act 2004 places a duty on a range of organisations and individuals to ensure that “their functions are discharged having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children”.[29] This duty applies to, for example, local authorities, NHS organisations, the police, probation services, transport police, youth offending teams, and governors or directors of custodial institutions. Statutory guidance sets out the arrangements that these organisations should have in place to fulfil this duty, including the need for clear procedures to ensure that staff know how to respond to and escalate concerns about a child’s welfare.[30]

60. Working Together to Safeguard Children also sets out expectations for safeguarding arrangements in organisations not subject to the section 11 Children Act 2004 duty. This includes that voluntary, faith-based, charitable and private sector organisations, sports clubs and social enterprises should ensure that those working with children, whether paid or volunteer, are “aware of their responsibilities for safeguarding and protecting children from harm”.[31] This should include knowing how to respond to child protection concerns and how to make a referral to local authority children’s social care or the police if necessary.

Common approaches

61. Both jurisdictions issue specific statutory guidance for schools which set out the arrangements that schools should have in place to ensure child protection concerns are reported.[32]

62. The effect of this guidance is that institutions that work with children in England and in Wales are expected to have clear policies and procedures in place to ensure that staff report concerns about child sexual abuse. Individuals working within those institutions who fail to do so may be subject to internal disciplinary proceedings. Those expectations, however, are not the same as legal obligations.

63. In addition to statutory guidance, some individuals are required to report concerns under standards or codes of conduct set by their professional regulatory body. This includes healthcare professionals, social workers, social care workers in Wales, the police and teachers. In the main, that requirement is part of professionals’ obligations to ensure the safety and well-being of the members of the public with whom they work and to raise concerns about colleagues. A professional’s fitness to practise may be brought into question if they fail to adhere to such standards. If a professional is found to be unfit to practise, they can be removed from the professional register and prevented from practising. The effect of this is that specific requirements to report children experiencing, or at risk of, abuse, neglect or other harm are generally set out in accompanying guidance.

64. In both jurisdictions, existing reporting frameworks within particular institutions or sectors can be unduly complicated and professionals are sometimes unclear about their own reporting responsibilities.

65. Although there are presently a range of non-statutory measures that aim to encourage individuals and institutions to report child sexual abuse, there is a marked absence of a cohesive set of laws and procedures in England and in Wales that require individuals working with children to report child sexual abuse. Children have suffered as a result.


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