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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

Child protection in religious organisations and settings investigation report


H.1: Conclusions


1. The Inquiry has heard evidence of children being abused or put at risk of harm in religious organisations and settings on numerous occasions. At present, there is either no or very limited oversight and assurance of child protection in religious organisations.

2. There is significant diversity in size, character, structure and resources of religious organisations. It is possible to have sensitive and nuanced oversight that recognises the particular natures of these organisations but prioritises the protection of children. Some local authorities have been unable to take steps when they considered that a religious organisation was not keeping children safe.

3. Adequate child protection policies and procedures are essential in ensuring that children are protected against sexual abuse perpetrated by individuals connected with religious organisations and settings.

4. Strong child protection practices in such settings can make an important contribution to identifying familial abuse. It is well established that most child sexual abuse takes place within the family context.[1] Given that members of the same family will tend to be part of the same religious community, religious organisations and settings should be somewhere where signs of abuse are spotted and recognised.

Reporting and responding to abuse

5. There is presently no requirement on the part of the police to collect statistics at a national level in England and Wales as to the number of convictions or allegations relating to child sexual abuse in religious organisations and settings. There is no way of knowing the true scale of such abuse. There is, however, likely to be a significant under-reporting of child sexual abuse in religious organisations and settings.

6. There are a number of factors that may impede the effective reporting and management of allegations of child sexual abuse.

6.1. Victim-blaming, shame and honour: Within some religious organisations, victims are blamed for their abuse; it may be suggested that the abuse took place because of the victim’s behaviour. As a result, those who have experienced child sexual abuse sometimes feel ashamed and may be led to believe that the abuse was in some way their fault. This can make it difficult to report the abuse. These dynamics are not limited to religions or religious organisations but in some organisations the imperative not to speak is bound up with notions of honour, with consequences for the victim’s ability to marry, for their family and for the honour of their community.

6.2. Approaches to discussions of sex, sexuality and sexual abuse: In some languages, the words required to report sexual abuse – such as words for rape, sexual abuse or sexual organs – do not exist. In some communities, sex is not discussed at all or is discussed very narrowly. For some conservative religious organisations, sex outside marriage and same-sex relationships are considered to be morally wrong. Sexual violence against men is considered shameful and taboo within some communities, given their attitudes and approaches to sexual orientation, and it is therefore even more difficult to report.

6.3. The use of religious texts and beliefs: In some cases, those who perpetrate child sexual abuse take advantage of a victim’s faith to facilitate their abuse. We heard examples of perpetrators misusing theological texts or beliefs, positions of authority in a religious organisation, the name of God, or threats of spiritual or religious consequences to justify abuse or prevent its disclosure.

6.4. Gender disparity: Many religious organisations only recognise men as religious leaders in their theology and practice. Gender imbalance exists in many such organisations, so that trustees, volunteers and administrators are often all or mostly male. Having only men in positions of power, and only men to whom abuse can be reported within an organisation, makes it less likely that women and children will report abuse. Power structures within a number of religious communities can still make women subservient to men, and they are less able to report their abuse as a result. Women in some communities would find it extremely difficult to talk to men (particularly outside of marriage or close family relationships) about abuse, sex or their bodies and feelings.

6.5. Abuse of power by religious leaders: Across all faiths, religious leaders have significant power and influence. Children are often taught to show such figures deference and respect. Those in positions of leadership often act as advisers, confidantes, guides and helpers. Religious leaders can abuse their positions of trust. Excessive respect or veneration of leaders within religious communities may result in a feeling that they can act with impunity, and may also contribute to a victim being reluctant to report abuse.

6.6. Distrust of external agencies: A fear of interference in religious or cultural practices may lead to a reluctance to report abuse, as might concern about prejudices, including Islamophobia or antisemitism. Minority religious and racial communities are sometimes frightened of the backlash that may accompany the reporting of abuse.

6.7. Fear of external reporting and reputational damage: There remain religious or culturally sanctioned views or practices about disclosure that reporting a fellow member of the religion is a betrayal of the community and contrary to religious law. Religious organisations can also prioritise their reputation above the needs of victims of abuse, and so discourage external reporting.

6.8. Managing allegations internally: Some organisations (particularly those that consider that the outside world may misunderstand their religious beliefs and that it is not aligned with their values) promote internal reporting, rather than disclosure to state bodies. The religious institution may then decide not to send a report to the police, may encourage mediation or resolution through religious leaders, or may block appropriate reporting.

6.9. Forgiveness: In some religious settings, 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 or organisations to take appropriate action in relation to allegations that have been made. This not only fails the victims but can put other children at risk.

The management of child protection within religious organisations

Policies and procedures

7. Religious believers can find it difficult to accept that members of their congregation or religious leaders could perpetrate abuse. As a result, some consider that it is not necessary to have specific child protection procedures or to adhere strictly to them.

8. There is significant variation in religious organisations in both their understanding of child sexual abuse and their implementation of adequate organisational processes and procedures. Some organisations have a clear understanding of these issues, with practices, procedures and policies that, if implemented, should keep children safe. Others appear to have none. Policies that do exist may not be disseminated or widely known. Even when religious organisations have clear processes, they may not always be followed. Since this investigation was launched, a number of organisations have initiated reviews or changes to their internal processes.

9. All voluntary bodies are required to have regard to Working Together to Safeguard Children. While this guidance is addressed to all faith-based organisations in England that work with children, there is no legal obligation on them to follow it. There are limitations to this guidance – it is insufficiently detailed about minimum requirements for voluntary bodies, including religious organisations. Nonetheless, the voluntary sector, including religious organisations and settings, would be more effectively protecting children if organisations followed this guidance. There is inconsistent understanding of and compliance with this guidance. This is despite there being a number of sources of advice and assistance available to religious organisations from charitable organisations, statutory bodies and local authorities. It is not acceptable for any religious organisation that provides services to children to have insufficient knowledge and understanding of child protection.

10. Child protection policies and procedures should be ‘victim focussed’. They should clearly identify the need for support for victims and should contain guidance on the provision of apologies and reparations. Religious organisations and settings should ensure that those working within an organisation are clear about the barriers to disclosure by victims and should take active steps to try to overcome such barriers by changing their practices and their culture, where appropriate. The policies of a religious organisation or setting should contain adequate provisions relating to whistleblowing. Care should be taken that, within any policies or procedures, the perpetrator’s needs do not outweigh those of the victim, and there should not be an assumption or a requirement that a victim must forgive the abuser.

11. While a child protection policy is a basic requirement for keeping children safe in religious organisations and settings, there are still examples of policies existing primarily for compliance purposes.

12. The Charity Commission requires every religious organisation or setting that is registered as a charity and works with children to have a clear child protection policy in place. This policy should:

  • set out basic standards;
  • be, as a matter of best practice, periodically audited by an external agency, or at the very least, regularly updated to reflect the latest guidance and recommended practice; and
  • be easily accessible to all members of the organisation.

However, the Charity Commission does not review policies to ensure that they are adequate or comply with these expectations.

13. The experience of the London Borough of Hackney shows that, even when attempts have been made to use the legislation, and voluntary organisations have been asked to be ‘relevant agencies’ under the Children and Social Work Act 2017, the local authority does not have the power to compel them to act in particular ways. There should be adequate guidance for these organisations about the minimum standards and expectations that should be in place.


14. Staff and volunteers should receive training that includes basic information about child sexual abuse, how to recognise it and what to do in the event of a disclosure. However, in a number of organisations that we looked at, current levels of training are inadequate. Several had only just begun to implement training requirements. In some, training is not provided to all those who need it. It was often not compulsory for those who worked with children and not always refreshed regularly. Training organisations identified gaps in the provision of specialist training for those operating in key child protection roles.

15. Those engaged with children and young people should be required to attend regular child protection training of an agreed standard that is specific to their roles and responsibilities. This applies equally to volunteers or paid workers and leaders and trustees, although it may be more difficult to organise for a volunteer workforce who may have limited time or other responsibilities. While an understanding of the context (in this case a faith group) is necessary, this should not be the only focus of training. Training centred on religious texts alone is not a substitute for child protection training and it is very unlikely to keep children safe.

Safer recruitment

16. In this investigation, there was varied evidence of safer recruitment practices, in particular among many organisations running supplementary schools or offering activities with children run by volunteers. At the most basic level, a number of organisations did not carry out the vetting and barring checks required by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) for all those working in a ‘regulated activity’.

17. There are also many roles and responsibilities within a religious organisation that do not amount to ‘regulated activity’ but that involve regular contact with children. The relevant legislation is complex, with eligibility requiring consideration of the nature, frequency and intensity of contact with children. Guidance has been provided by the DBS, the Charity Commission and the Department for Education, but the legislative definition of ‘regulated activity’ is still difficult for religious organisations to understand and apply, since it is primarily directed at education, health and social care institutions.

18. Safer recruitment has arisen in a number of the Inquiry’s investigations and we shall return to vetting and barring in the Inquiry’s final report.

Child protection leads

19. Effective child protection within a religious organisation or setting requires a designated person – a child protection lead – to deal with concerns and suspicions of abuse. That person should also be responsible for promoting awareness of child protection issues. It is good practice for child protection leads to have adequate and sufficient training, to be of sufficient seniority in the organisation that their advice is followed by others, and to be given sufficient time to undertake their role. A trustee, director or senior person, or someone with sufficient standing within the organisation, should exercise oversight of child protection.

Internal processes for auditing, inspection and oversight

20. There is no requirement at present for any religious organisation to audit or oversee its constituent bodies in respect of child welfare and child protection. The Charity Commission is not an inspection body and does not currently have the capacity to act as one.

The role of those in leadership positions

21. Those in leadership positions provide direction to the organisation and are vital in stressing the importance of child protection and generating changes – by their actions as well as their words. There is still a lack of understanding by some trustees of charities about their safeguarding responsibility. This was despite there being safeguarding guidance, issued by the Charity Commission, that makes these responsibilities clear.

22. A robust culture of child protection is developed by those in leadership positions providing strong examples of good awareness and understanding, and acting decisively to ensure that child protection failures are challenged and steps are taken to learn lessons. We saw some good examples in this investigation – such as the clear communication by the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue of his abhorrence of child protection failures, and his repeated public communication about this to the press and public – but there is more to be done in every faith.

Internal disciplinary processes

23. A number of religious organisations and settings use some form of internal disciplinary process in relation to those against whom allegations of abuse have been made. This may involve determining whether such an individual may remain a participating member of a congregation or community.

24. Internal investigatory or disciplinary processes should not be used as a substitute for reporting to external authorities. It is not acceptable for any internal disciplinary process to stand as the sole adjudicative tool for determining whether abuse has taken place. Such processes cannot provide justice or redress for a victim, nor are they the appropriate means to consider risk to others.

25. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are one of few religious organisations which have an internal disciplinary process which can lead to the expulsion of members. The internal disciplinary processes of the Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to use a rule of corroborative evidence known outside the community as ‘the two-witness rule’, whereby in the absence of a confession the evidence of two material witnesses is required to establish an allegation, which can then lead to disfellowship for the purposes of internal discipline. The rule is not intended to be a safeguarding measure. Nevertheless, it has no place in any response to child sexual abuse and fails to reflect the reality that by its very nature child sexual abuse is most often perpetrated in the absence of witnesses. The rule’s capacity to cause harm to victims and survivors of child sexual abuse is clear. We have received first-hand evidence of this harm. As it presently operates, the Jehovah’s Witnesses internal disciplinary process for disfellowshipping members bears no relationship to how sexual crime happens. The continuing use of this rule shows a disregard of the seriousness of the crimes involved and their impact on individuals. It also lacks compassion for the victim, and serves to protect the perpetrator.

Support for victims of abuse

26. Few religious organisations provided any form of professional or support services for those who were abused, or offered any systematic access to counselling or therapeutic support. The services that were offered were ad hoc and very much dependent on access to local support services. It would be helpful for religious organisations to be aware, for example, of counselling and support services available nationally or in their local area, or for these to be developed. For organisations that are members of umbrella bodies, or where there are sufficient financial resources, there should be development of counselling services, alongside pastoral care, from those with adequate training and expertise in this area.

27. The provision of spiritual care and pastoral support by religious leaders is important. However, this does not replace the provision of therapeutic services and these therapeutic services are often not offered by religious organisations. Those in leadership positions within religious organisations and settings should have an adequate understanding of the nature of therapeutic support.

28. The experience of some victim and survivor groups who gave evidence is that many religious organisations do not use or approach them for help and support in managing issues around child protection. There seem to be limited examples of a shared approach with victims on, for example, the development of relevant policies and procedures. This reinforces the strongly held perspective that some faith leaders are not listening or willing to learn from victims’ experiences, which should be seen as essential. Despite the long experience of some victim and survivor groups, and their valuable insights into providing better care and support, they perceive that they are ignored or belittled as ‘difficult’ or ‘confrontational’. Survivors may shout to be heard because they have been marginalised and excluded.

Risk assessment of those who offend

29. Forgiveness is central to the teachings and practices of many religions. However, care must be taken to avoid creating a culture in which the encouragement of forgiveness results in safety concerns and the assessment of risk to others being overlooked.

30. There are still religious organisations that have no process of risk assessment for convicted or accused sexual offenders who wish to continue in their religious practice in communal settings. To keep children safe, religious organisations and settings need some form of mechanism for assessing risk (even if that is deferred to the police or the probation service) where they have congregants who have been convicted or accused of sexual offending. In the gravest of cases, this may involve exclusion from a particular place of worship or specific arrangements for attendance being made. Information-sharing between religious organisations (both of the same denomination or faith, and of other denominations and faiths) about sexual offenders is essential where it is known that they have moved to another area and may seek to worship at another institution.

Oversight of the sector by governmental bodies

31. The Charity Commission has a number of different responsibilities and obligations and its ability, given its resources, to run an auditing or inspection service is limited. It cannot and does not monitor the policies, practices and procedures of each individual charity in the way that an inspectorate would. It has built its capacity over the past 15 years to focus on child protection issues, but can only examine or investigate regulatory concerns about serious harm to children if reports are made to it. Not all charities have understood or used the system of reporting of ‘serious incidents’ consistently or at all in the past, and the Charity Commission told us that many still do not file reports when they should.[2] As a result, the Charity Commission often relies on information in the media or from complaints from the public.

32. The current powers of local authorities and other public bodies are limited – exacerbated by the significant reduction in their budgets over the past decade. Some local authorities have sought to use powers under health and safety or fire legislation. This is unlikely to be adequate for child protection purposes.

33. Ofsted does not have sufficient powers in relation to unregulated schools, in which it estimated that 500,000 children are receiving education every year (the same size as the independent school sector). It has only limited power to investigate and close down these institutions if it suspects that they are operating as an unregistered school. If they are operating as a supplementary setting, it has no powers in respect of them. Similarly, we received evidence that the Charity Commission does not have the capacity or expertise to act as an inspectorate or investigator of child protection issues. It has what it considers to be minimum standards (such as an annual return, which would confirm that a child protection policy exists), but these are not the subject of any extensive compliance activity. As a result, the level of compliance with those minimum standards is not adequately monitored. The Department for Education has indicated that Ofsted’s powers need to be widened in relation to unregistered schools.

34. Non-statutory guidance – such as the guidance on out-of-school settings issued in October 2020 by the Department for Education – is helpful, but is unlikely to be seen by less mainstream organisations, and may result in a checklist approach to child protection and the giving of false reassurance.

35. There was a broad measure of support for oversight of child protection by a body external to the religious organisation. It is possible to design standards to be applicable to all settings while respecting their religious and ethical beliefs.

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