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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Child protection in religious organisations and settings Investigation Report

Contents

Executive Summary

This thematic investigation augments the dedicated investigations into the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches already conducted by the Inquiry.

In this investigation, the Inquiry obtained evidence from 38 religious organisations with a presence in England and Wales, which vary greatly in character and size. They may have a significant and even dominant influence on the lives of millions of children, often engaging a large proportion of a child’s time outside of their full-time schooling, including through tuition in religious and cultural studies or national curriculum subjects (known as ‘supplementary schooling’) alongside social and leisure activities.

As we have said in other investigations, what marks religious organisations out from other institutions is the explicit purpose they have in teaching right from wrong; the moral turpitude of any failing by them in the prevention of, or response to, child sexual abuse is therefore heightened. The religious organisations and settings examined in this investigation have a range of theological beliefs and practices. Respect for a diversity of beliefs is a hallmark of a liberal democracy. However, freedom of religion and belief can never justify or excuse the ill-treatment of a child, or a failure to take adequate steps to protect them from harm.

As set out in the report, we have seen egregious failings by a number of religious organisations, and cases of child sexual abuse perpetrated by their adherents. For example:

  • PR-A22, PR-A23, PR-A24 and PR-A25 were all sexually abused when they were approximately nine years old whilst they were being taught the Qur’an by a teacher in a mosque. In 2017, the perpetrator was convicted and sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment.[1]
  • PR-A3 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 PR-A3’s home and during Sunday school camps. The abuser told PR-A3 not to tell anyone because it would upset PR-A3’s father and no one in the church would believe him. The abuse continued for approximately three years.
  • PR-A10 was sexually assaulted by a church volunteer when she was 12 years old. PR-A10 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.

Child sexual abuse in religious organisations and settings

Precise and reliable evidence about the scale of child sexual abuse within religious organisations and settings is not currently available.

Police forces are not required under Home Office counting rules to record whether the circumstances of a crime involving child sexual abuse involves a religious organisation or setting; there is thus no way of reliably knowing how many child sexual offences reported in England and Wales took place in, or were linked to, such settings.

The numbers of referrals to local authority designated officers and the internal records kept by some religious organisations themselves are unlikely to reflect the true scale of abuse, given what we already know about the under-reporting of child sexual abuse in general.

However, the evidence we received and heard from witnesses in this investigation leaves no doubt that the sexual abuse of children takes place in a broad range of religious settings.

Barriers to reporting

Within some religious organisations and settings there are significant barriers to the effective reporting of allegations of child sexual abuse. These barriers may be linked to the organisation itself or to the wider community to which it relates. These include:

  • 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.

Child protection policies and procedures

A child protection policy is the basic foundation on which organisations working with children should build their practices to keep children safe.

Although there is a range of guidance available to religious organisations and settings on child protection policies (such as the Department for Education’s Working Together to Safeguard Children), there is no legal obligation on such settings to follow this guidance. There is significant diversity between religious organisations as to whether they have adequate child protection policies in place and the extent to which they effectively follow them. We were also alerted to the problem of ‘disguised compliance’, where an organisation might take care to have a policy in place but the reality is one of half-hearted or non-existent implementation.

Safer recruitment practices are central to keeping children safe in any organisation. This includes the use of disclosure and barring checks. Under the current disclosure and barring regime, the highest level of checks (ie an enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check, with a check of the barred list for children) is only available if a person is engaged in ‘regulated activity’. However, the legislative definition of ‘regulated activity’ is complex and difficult for religious and other voluntary organisations to understand and apply. Even when a person is in a position of trust or authority within a religious organisation, they may not be eligible for the highest level of checks. This could mean that an individual who had, for example, been dismissed as a teacher as a result of safeguarding concerns would be able to undertake some volunteer or other activity without the religious organisation knowing of this breach of trust.

We heard evidence that many religious organisations and settings do not consistently undertake DBS checks of those who have contact with children within the organisation. There was little evidence of religious umbrella bodies and representative organisations taking decisive steps to help their member organisations with safer recruitment practices.

Staff and volunteers should receive training on how to recognise child sexual abuse and what to do in the event of a disclosure. However, again, we saw wide variation in the extent to which religious organisations ensure that their staff and volunteers receive such training. We also heard about a limited uptake by religious organisations of child protection training that is offered by local authorities.

Responding to allegations of abuse

While some religious organisations and settings have effective systems in place for responding to allegations of child sexual abuse that are implemented throughout the organisation, others have procedures that are ill-defined or are not communicated and followed.

Few religious organisations have formal arrangements in place for the provision of professional counselling or therapy services for those who have been abused in the context of their religious organisation or setting. Some do have a system of pastoral support for victims and survivors.

Most of the religious organisations and settings we examined that employ staff have disciplinary processes which should be invoked when an allegation of child sexual abuse is made against an employee. A few of the religious organisations we examined had an internal process in place for taking action where an allegation is against a volunteer or congregant (who is not an employee).

Supplementary schooling, out-of-school settings and unregistered schools

Some religious organisations provide education and services to children through ‘supplementary schooling’ or ‘out-of-school provision’. It has been estimated that around 250,000 children in England and Wales receive education in supplementary schools with a faith focus or that are organised by a religious organisation. However, because there is no requirement for such schools to be registered with any state body, this estimate cannot be relied upon.

Voluntary guidance is available (such as the Department for Education’s Keeping children safe in out-of-school settings: code of practice), but supplementary schools and out-of-school settings are not subject to any compulsory minimum standards. Additionally, while there are some pilot projects, local authorities do not currently have powers to inspect or oversee such settings.

There are also a number of ‘unregistered schools’ which may pose as providing part-time education but in fact provide full-time education (and thus ought to be registered as a school), or provide the sole education that the child receives. There is a gap in the legislation whereby schools that provide solely religious education cannot register as a school, even if this is the only education a child receives.

The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) has serious concerns that a minority of out-of-school settings are putting children at risk by failing to adhere to basic child protection standards. Ofsted’s remit in inspecting such settings extends only to determining whether an unregistered school is being conducted; it does not have any powers to take any action against these settings, except where they are deemed to be operating as unregistered schools.

In 2015, the Department for Education issued a consultation on whether to change the law in respect of the registration of schools. It recently made a public commitment to tighten the definition of an independent school and legislate to strengthen Ofsted’s powers in respect of unregistered schools.

Inspection and oversight

While there are a number of state and local governmental or quasi-governmental bodies that have oversight of some aspects of the services provided by religious organisations, none of them can or do provide oversight of child protection within such settings. These bodies include the Department for Education, Ofsted and the Charity Commission, among others.

Local authorities are legally responsible for running child protection services and taking action when children have been abused. This investigation obtained evidence from nine local authorities across England and Wales, covering large and diverse religious communities. Each one indicated that it wished to have greater powers to help religious organisations to better protect children.

We saw a few rare examples of internal quality assurance by religious organisations themselves. These include examples of audits, inspections and reviews arranged by the organisation. Such reviews and audits recognise the need for oversight of child protection arrangements, as well as the need to address past failures.

Charitable organisations and training providers such as thirtyone:eight and Faith Associates offer a range of services to assist religious organisations and settings with their child protection arrangements, including audits and inspections. Such auditing initiatives help to raise child protection standards within these settings, but their voluntary nature means that there is no compulsion for the organisation to comply with any recommendations.

The current system for oversight of child protection within religious organisations and settings is one of patchwork influence rather than mandatory standards and enforcement. While the religious organisations and settings that provided evidence to the investigation expressed different views as to how any oversight ought to work, there was clear evidence that some standard-setting and oversight is required.

Conclusion

Two recommendations are made in this report: (i) that all religious organisations should have a child protection policy and supporting procedures; and (ii) that the government should legislate to amend the definition of full-time education to bring any setting that is the pupil’s primary place of education within the scope of a registered school, and provide Ofsted with sufficient powers to examine the quality of child protection when undertaking inspection of suspected unregistered schools.

We will return to a number of the issues relating to the protection of children from sexual abuse raised in this investigation in our Final Report.

References

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