Skip to main content

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

K.5: Identifying and reporting child sexual abuse

56. Child sexual abuse may come to the attention of institutions in different ways and at different times. Sometimes the child may make a disclosure, but many do not disclose what has happened to them until years, sometimes decades, later. Child sexual abuse almost invariably happens in private, making the chances of witnessing abuse or observing obvious physical injuries resulting from the abuse rare.

Identifying child sexual abuse

57. The ability of adults to identify children who are being sexually abused or are at risk of sexual abuse is fundamental to the institutional response. Institutions and organisations – as well as those working in them such as carers, social workers, doctors and teachers – should have procedures and training in place to identify potential indicators of child sexual abuse or exploitation. Despite this, the Inquiry encountered numerous examples of failures to both identify and report abuse to the police or social services. These matters should be dealt with in the policies and procedures of an institution, and may be aided further by the Inquiry’s recommendations for a public awareness campaign and for the introduction of mandatory reporting.

58. While there is no typical child abuser, there are similarities in the ways perpetrators behave, particularly in the methods used to groom children. Enabling institutions, and individuals working in them, to understand warning signs and indicators of potential child sexual abuse exhibited by a perpetrator is an important preventive measure.

Detecting online child sexual abuse

59. The number of perpetrators accessing child sexual abuse images continues to grow. Techniques for detecting child sexual abuse images vary depending on whether the image has previously been identified by law enforcement or industry as a child sexual abuse image (a ‘known’ child sexual abuse image). Technological tools are used to detect such imagery.

60. In the US, where known child sexual abuse images are detected, there is a legal obligation for the matter to be reported. Where that report relates to the UK, the matter is passed to the National Crime Agency, which responds to the most serious reports itself and passes others to local police forces for investigation. This form of mandatory reporting has had a significant positive impact on the way US institutions report child sexual abuse material and an equally positive impact in assisting UK law enforcement to identify perpetrators based in the UK. Once the Online Safety Bill is passed, UK companies will be under a duty to report any child sexual exploitation and abuse content directly to the National Crime Agency.

61. Pre-screening, however, enables internet companies to prevent child sexual abuse images from ever being uploaded to platforms and social media profiles. The image cannot therefore be viewed or shared; this prevents access to the material and therefore much of the resulting harm. As a result, in its The Internet Investigation Report (published in March 2020), the Inquiry recommended that the government should require internet companies to pre-screen for known child sexual abuse images before material is uploaded. In its response, the government referred to the Interim Code of Practice on Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (Interim Code) and its “expectation that all companies will prevent access to known child sexual abuse material”.

62. This does not go far enough in circumstances where the technology to pre-screen exists and is effective in preventing known child sexual abuse material from being made available to users.

63. In due course, it will be for the Office of Communications (Ofcom) as the online safety regulator to issue the code of practice, but it is not clear how long it will take for the Bill to come into force, what provisions will be enacted and in what precise form. It is imperative that pre-screening is utilised to its fullest extent. The Inquiry therefore recommends that pre-screening for known child sexual abuse images should be a mandatory feature of the code of practice.

Recommendation 12: Pre-screening

The Inquiry recommends that the UK government makes it mandatory for all regulated providers of search services and user-to-user services to pre-screen for known child sexual abuse material.


64. A number of notable impediments to the future detection of child sexual abuse material remain. One of the most significant impediments to detection is end-to-end encryption, the process of converting information or data into a code that makes it unreadable to unauthorised parties. While the Interim Code acknowledges the threat posed by encryption and requires companies to consider the potential harm, it falls short of proposing any solution to the problem. In November 2021, the government announced that £555,000 had been awarded to five projects as part of the Safety Tech Challenge Fund, one of which was to develop an integrated plug-in for encrypted social platforms to detect known child sexual abuse material. Such technological advances are positive steps to be encouraged and may contribute to changes proposed to the Online Safety Bill giving Ofcom the power to issue a company with a Notice to use “best endeavours” to develop technology to prevent, identify and remove child sexual abuse material, including on services that are encrypted.

Reporting child sexual abuse

65. The Inquiry heard numerous examples of individuals who received disclosures or were aware of child sexual abuse yet failed to report this to statutory authorities.

66. One 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. When concerns arose that were politically or professionally inconvenient for an individual to report, they sometimes did not do so. Failing to report 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. In other instances, factors such as confusing or subjective procedures for handling reports of child sexual abuse led to reports not being made.

67. Many of the individuals who failed to report abuse to the police or social services, in the instances examined by the Inquiry, may have failed to meet their professional or moral obligations, but they did not break any laws in doing so. The Inquiry therefore considers that systemic change is needed to ensure reporting of allegations of child sexual abuse.

68. A number of other countries have introduced legislation which places specified persons, or members of the public, under a statutory obligation to report child abuse or neglect to a designated agency. This is commonly referred to as ‘mandatory reporting’. Victims and survivors, some senior religious leaders and some organisations argued strongly in favour of mandatory reporting, which is also supported by a body of international evidence.

Mandatory reporting for England and for Wales

69. Having considered a range of views during its investigations and the various possible approaches to a scheme, the Inquiry has concluded that mandatory reporting is required so that those who work with children in certain roles are under a legal duty to report child sexual abuse to the police or social services.

70. The core elements of the Inquiry’s recommendation are that:

  • as well as an obligation to report witnessed or disclosed child sexual abuse, there should be an obligation to report abuse based on well-recognised indicators of child sexual abuse;
  • criminal liability should attach where there is a failure to make a mandatory report in certain specified circumstances;
  • those engaged in regulated activity or positions of trust as well as police officers should be subject to a law of mandatory reporting; and
  • reports should be made to local authority children’s social care or the police.

Recommendation 13: Mandatory reporting

The Inquiry recommends that the UK government and Welsh Government introduce legislation which places certain individuals – ‘mandated reporters’ – under a statutory duty to report child sexual abuse where they:

  • receive a disclosure of child sexual abuse from a child or perpetrator; or
  • witness a child being sexually abused; or
  • observe recognised indicators of child sexual abuse.

The following persons should be designated ‘mandated reporters’:

  • any person working in regulated activity in relation to children (under the Safeguarding and Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, as amended);
  • any person working in a position of trust (as defined by the Sexual Offences Act 2003, as amended); and
  • police officers.

For the purposes of mandatory reporting, ‘child sexual abuse’ should be interpreted as any act that would be an offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 where the alleged victim is a child under the age of 18.

Where the child is aged between 13 and under 16 years old, a report need not be made where the mandated reporter reasonably believes that:

  • the relationship between the parties is consensual and not intimidatory, exploitative or coercive; and
  • the child has not been harmed and is not at risk of being harmed; and
  • there is no material difference in capacity or maturity between the parties engaged in the sexual activity concerned, and there is a difference in age of no more than three years.

These exceptions should not, however, apply where the alleged perpetrator is in a position of trust within the meaning of the 2003 Act.

Where the child is under the age of 13, a report must always be made.

Reports should be made to either local authority children’s social care or the police as soon as is practicable.

It should be a criminal offence for mandated reporters to fail to report child sexual abuse where they:

  • are in receipt of a disclosure of child sexual abuse from a child or perpetrator; or
  • witness a child being sexually abused.
Back to top