Child sex abuse takes place in almost all major UK religions, inquiry finds

2 September 2021, 13:57 | Updated: 2 September 2021, 15:26

Religious groups in UK have failed children over sex abuse, report finds.
Religious groups in UK have failed children over sex abuse, report finds. Picture: Alamy

By Emma Soteriou

An inquiry into child sexual abuse says it has found "shocking failings" of religious organisations to protect children.

The Independent Inquiry said child sexual abuse had been found in most major UK religions and described the 'blatant hypocrisy' of those claiming to teach right from wrong.

Victim-blaming, an absence of discussion around sex and sexuality, abuse of power by religious leaders and discouraging external reporting are among the "shocking failures" outlined in the report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA).

The Child Protection In Religious Organisations And Settings report examined evidence from 38 religious organisations with a presence in England and Wales.

The report, based on 16 days of public hearings held during March, May and August 2020, said there was likely to be a significant under-reporting of child sexual abuse in religious organisations and settings.

These included Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, Methodists, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and non-conformist Christian denominations.

The IICSA had already held separate investigations into the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church, the two largest religious groups in the country.

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It found that 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".

However, there was "significant diversity" between religious organisations as to whether they had adequate child protection policies in place and the extent to which they effectively follow them.

"Religious believers can find it difficult to accept that members of their congregation or religious leaders could perpetrate abuse," the report said.

"As a result, some consider that it is not necessary to have specific child protection procedures or to adhere strictly to them."

An example was given of four people who were sexually abused when they were approximately nine years old whilst they were being taught the Koran by a teacher in a mosque.

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In 2017, the perpetrator was convicted and sentenced to 13 years' imprisonment, the report said.

Another example given was of a girl who was sexually assaulted by a church volunteer when she was 12 years old. She 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".

The report said it later became known that the abuser had previously been dismissed from a police force following charges of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.

Professor Alexis Jay, chairwoman of the Inquiry, said: "Religious organisations are defined by their moral purpose of teaching right from wrong and protection of the innocent and the vulnerable.

"However when we heard about shocking failures to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse across almost all major religions, it became clear many are operating in direct conflict with this mission.

"Blaming the victims, fears of reputational damage and discouraging external reporting are some of the barriers victims and survivors face, as well as clear indicators of religious organisations prioritising their own reputations above all else.

"For many, these barriers have been too difficult to overcome.

"We have seen some examples of good practice, and it is our hope that with the recommendations from this report, all religious organisations across England and Wales will improve what they do to fulfil their moral responsibility to protect children from sexual abuse."

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Richard Scorer, a specialist abuse lawyer who acts for seven victim and survivor groups in the inquiry, said children had been "catastrophically failed" by some religious groups with non-existent safeguarding policies.

He added: "This is simply unacceptable. It is clear from the report that too many religious organisations continue to prioritise the protection, reputation and authority of religious leaders above the rights of children."

There are an estimated 250,000 children in England and Wales who receive "supplementary schooling" or "out-of-school provision" from a faith organisation, the report revealed.

That said, there is no reliable information on how many settings there are, and as there is no requirement for such schools to be registered with any state body, they have no supervision or oversight in respect of child protection.

The report provided two recommendations moving forward: that all religious organisations have a child protection policy and 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.

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In response to the inquiry, the Methodist Church said it "welcomes" the findings.

"While it will take time for us to study today’s report, early indications are that it includes many areas where religious organisations are still failing their members and we are truly sorry for where this happens in our churches," a statement from the secretary of the Conference of the Methodist Church, Rev Dr Jonathan Hustler, read.

It went on to say: "There can be never be any excuse for failings in safeguarding and it is the responsibility of everyone connected with the Methodist Church to uphold the highest standards in order to protect children and vulnerable people."

Meanwhile, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said the abuse inquiry report "makes for difficult reading and underlines the importance of education centred around the wellbeing of children".

It added: "The protection of children is rooted in our religious traditions and should be at the centre of all Muslim institutions. This includes child safeguarding policies and regular on-going training.

"Crucially, children must feel confident in reporting any concerns they have.

"The MCB is committed to providing resources and support for our affiliated organisations, and to sharing good practice already out there, to foster safe and nurturing environments for children in religious settings."

Children's charity NSPCC said the report highlighted "a host of fundamental, reoccurring safeguarding flaws" that left children vulnerable.

A spokesman said: "As a result, many young people have suffered terrible abuse and then found there is no-one willing to listen to them and provide help and support.

"A significant barrier to tackling child sexual abuse within religious settings has been a failure of members to prioritise safeguarding and make it a serious issue that requires substantive attention and action."

The charity recognised that, although the safeguarding of children and young people in their community should always be prioritised, "it is important to recognise the shortage of support and advice for religious organisations seeking to improve their safeguarding policies and procedures".