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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Child protection in religious organisations and settings Investigation Report


C.5: Abuse of power by religious leaders

23. Religious leaders in all faiths have significant power. Children are often taught to show deference and respect to religious figures and, as explained by Ms Patel, “to regard them as innately trustworthy, authoritative, moral, and innately deserving of their status as spiritual and moral leaders”.[1] Both parents and children defer to religious leaders, and may be disempowered from asking questions of or criticising them.

24. In 2002, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland published a report entitled Time For Action, which examined the response of various Christian denominations to those who had been subject to sexual abuse. Among other things, it noted:

“Fundamentally, sexual harassment and abuse is a serious misuse of power and authority, committed by the dominant partner in an unequal relationship. Power is a fact of life. It is present in every relationship and situation. Clergy and others with leadership roles have been granted power as a resource and responsibility to support, lead and serve other people. The institution of the Church, and individual members, have a right to expect that such authority will be trustworthy and used in the best interests of those who are served. Ministry carries with it spiritual authority, and privileged, if not unique, access to people’s homes. Clergy are expected to demonstrate high standards of moral and sexual integrity: those to whom they minister hope and expect, not that those whose vocation comes from God will be ‘perfect’ or beyond the reach of ordinary human complexity in relationships but that they should at least embody a mature and careful Christian understanding of the responsibility to respect and honour all members of their community.”[2]

25. Dr Oakley noted that, in some Christian (and other religious) settings, a minister or leader of collective worship holds a “divine position”. They must be obeyed and not challenged, which adds an additional layer of difficulty to disclosing abuse.[3] A key challenge in some church settings is deference. Some religious leaders perpetuate the belief that, as they have been appointed by God, they are not answerable to their congregation or organisations or others. In an exploration of spiritual abuse, a survivor noted:

“We actually believed the general consensus underlying every conversation in our last church that our pastor was ‘God’s anointed’ in a special way and shouldn’t really be questioned.”[4]

26. In some communities, especially those bound by strict religious principles, leaders can provide guidance for, and play a part in, all aspects of a person’s life. Where religious leaders interpret religious law for those who observe it strictly, advice can be needed regularly on all aspects of daily living. Mr Manny Waks, Chief Executive Officer at Kol v’Oz (now VoiCSA), identified that the role of a rabbi in the Charedi community has “unlimited and unparalleled power and influence and is the ultimate decision-maker in every aspect of life, literally”.[5] Mr Waks described a culture of “complete reverence and subordination to the Rabbi. It is often believed – consciously or otherwise – that the Rabbi can do no wrong”.[6]

27. Even in religious organisations with no ordained or full-time religious leader, or that do not wish to have leaders other than God, and in which lay individuals take on roles of spiritual assistance, there are individuals who are often seen as being more powerful than other members of the congregation. For example, while elders within the Jehovah’s Witnesses are not meant to be seen as superior to others within the faith, children and young people may well still see them as important individuals within the community, and as more spiritually ‘pure’.[7] PR-A6 was abused by a ministerial servant in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Peter Stewart, who would quote scripture to her and tell her that Jehovah wanted them to spend time together, and that it was important to be obedient and respect her elders.[8]

28. The United Reformed Church (URC) undertook a past case review in 2015, which aimed to “ensure that the URC appropriately addressed any cases of historical abuse and examined the processes and procedures at the time of any complaints or grievances”.[9] This identified that ministers (religious leaders) needed to recognise the power differential inherent in their relationship with congregants, and their responsibility to make sure that they did not misuse their position. The reviewers suggested that there needed to be clearer boundaries for those who are religious leaders around appropriate relationships.[10]

29. The Methodist past case review of 2013, Courage, Cost & Hope, stated that a review of the cases showed that its ministers found it difficult to recognise and accept that abuse had taken place when the perpetrator was a colleague.[11]

30. In our investigation into the Anglican Church, this Inquiry recommended in May 2019 that the government should amend section 21 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 to include clergy within the definition of a position of trust. This would criminalise sexual activity between clergy and a person aged 16 to 18, over whom they exercise pastoral authority and involving the abuse of a position of trust. [12]

31. It is already a criminal offence to undertake sexual activity with a 16 or 17-year-old when an adult holds a defined ‘position of trust’ in respect of that young person.[13] Positions of trust are narrowly defined to be limited to those involved in education, health and social care.

32. A significant number of organisations told us of their disappointment and concern that this does not reflect or provide for prosecution of a person in a position of trust in a religious context, if the young person is between 16 and 18 years old. These include the NSPCC, which ran a ‘Close the Loophole’ campaign, the Legal Director of the Crown Prosecution Service, and the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Safeguarding in Faith Settings, which produced a report in January 2020 titled Positions of Trust: It’s time to change the law.[14] The evidence from the organisations that contributed to the APPG report, which included a number of religious bodies, academics and professional child protection organisations, was that the law needed to be changed to protect young people.[15]

33. The Ministry of Justice accepted during this investigation that the current law “may not be sufficient” in dealing with situations in which an adult religious leader abuses a child who is a member of their congregation, or over whom they have pastoral responsibility.[16] Its review in 2019 – with a variety of organisations, including the police, Crown Prosecution Service, sports bodies, individuals and religious organisations – concluded that “most stakeholders felt a change in the law was required”.[17] Mr Matthew Gould, Deputy Director of the Criminal Courts and Criminal Law Policy Unit, recognised that the law needed to change, but there was no consensus on “how to improve it”.[18]

34. No matter how difficult a drafting exercise it may present, a change in the law regarding positions of trust is required to keep children safe.[19] The government has now proposed to change the law in the way suggested by this Inquiry in the Anglican Church investigation report under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which was introduced into the House of Commons in March 2021.[20]

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