Major inquiry finds evidence of child sex abuse in most major religions in the UK

Key findings of IICSA report on child sex abuse in religious settings in England 

The IICSA’s report found:

  • Child sexual abuse is present in a range of religious settings in England and Wales;
  • Child sexual abuse in these settings is likely to be significantly ‘under-reported’; 
  • From early 2015 to January 2020 of all known institutions where offending had taken place, 11 percent (443 instances) were committed within a religious organisation or setting;  
  • Ten per cent of suspects (726 people) were employed by, or somehow linked to, a religious organisation or setting;  
  • An estimated 250,000 children in England and Wales receive ‘supplementary schooling’ or ‘out-of-school provision’ from a faith organisation; 
  • But there is no central list, register or authoritative source of information concerning religious organisations and settings that may be working with children;
  • Religious leaders discouraged alleged victims from coming forward through ‘victim-blaming, abuse of power and by creating a culture of fear’;
  • The report called religious leaders ‘hypocritical’ and said the ‘shocking failings of religious organisations to protect children from harm was in direct conflict with this mission’;
  • ‘Religious believers can find it difficult to accept that members of their congregation or religious leaders could perpetrate abuse’, the report alleges; 
  • It recommends all religious organisations should have a child protection policy and supporting procedures;
  • IICSA also recommends 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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Child sexual abuse takes place in a broad range of faith settings and is likely to be ‘significantly under-reported’ as ‘blatantly hypocritical’ religious leaders discourage alleged victims from coming forward by creating a ‘culture of fear’, a damning 226-page report has found.

Victim-blaming, an absence of discussion around sex and sexuality, abuse of power by religious leaders and discouraging external reporting are among the ‘shocking’ and ‘moral failings’ outlined in the report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. 

It also found alleged victims were reluctant to come forward due to ‘concern about prejudices, including Islamophobia or anti-Semitism’, adding: ‘Minority religious and racial communities are sometimes frightened of the backlash that many accompany the reporting of abuse.’ 

The report, based on 16 days of public hearings held during March, May and August last year, examined evidence of failings across 38 religious organisations present in England and Wales including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Methodists, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and non-conformist Christian denominations. 

Between early 2015 and January 2020, of all known institutions where abuse had taken place, 11 per cent (443 instances) were committed within a religious organisation or setting.

Ten per cent of suspects (726 people) were employed by – or somehow linked to – a religious organisation or setting.

However, there is likely to be ‘significant’ under-reporting, the IICSA said, adding: ‘There is no way of knowing the true scale of such abuse.’ 

An estimated 250,000 children in England and Wales receive ‘supplementary schooling’ or ‘out-of-school provision’ from a faith organisation. But in some settings, not even basic child protection procedures are in place, despite serving large congregations.

There is also no reliable information on how many settings there are, how many children attend them and for how many hours, what activities are provided and who runs them.  

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 warned.  

It found evidence of ‘egregious failings’ and highlighted the hypocrisy of major religions that purport to teach right from wrong yet fail to protect children in their care. 

‘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,’ the IICSA report stated. 

It recommends all religious organisations should have a child protection policy and supporting procedures, 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. 

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.’

Child sexual abuse takes place in a broad range of faith settings and is likely to be 'significantly under-reported' as 'hypocritical' religious leaders discourage alleged victims from coming forward by creating a 'culture of fear', a damning report has found (stock)

Child sexual abuse takes place in a broad range of faith settings and is likely to be 'significantly under-reported' as 'hypocritical' religious leaders discourage alleged victims from coming forward by creating a 'culture of fear', a damning report has found (stock)

Child sexual abuse takes place in a broad range of faith settings and is likely to be ‘significantly under-reported’ as ‘hypocritical’ religious leaders discourage alleged victims from coming forward by creating a ‘culture of fear’, a damning report has found (stock) 

Why are alleged victims of child sex abuse in religious settings reluctant to make external complaints?

The IICSA report cites a number of factors that may impede the effective reporting and management of allegations of child sexual abuse: 

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.’

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.’

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.’

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.’

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. 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.’

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.’

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.’

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.’

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Richard Scorer, specialist abuse lawyer at Slater & Gordon who acts for seven victim and survivor groups in the IICSA, including those representing Jewish, South Asian and Jehovah’s Witnesses’ survivors, said: ‘Today’s report confirms that some religious groups have catastrophically failed to protect children in their care and that many have patchy or non-existent safeguarding policies and support for victims and survivors of abuse.

‘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.

‘In the light of today’s report, the arguments for mandatory reporting and independent oversight of religious bodies are overwhelming, and it is imperative that IICSA recommends these changes when it delivers its final report next year.’

The Secretary of the Conference of the Methodist Church, the Revd Dr Jonathan Hustler, said while it will take time for them to study the 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’.

He said the report’s first recommendation that all religious organisations should have a child protection policy and supporting procedures ‘largely reflects our existing policy and procedures’, and that they will await Government advice on the second recommendation about amending the definition of full-time education. 

The IICSA is investigating claims against local authorities, religious organisations, the Armed Forces, public and private institutions, and people in the public eye after hundreds of people came forward to claim that BBC presenter Jimmy Savile had abused them as children.  

It has already held separate investigations into the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church, the two largest religious groups in the country.

The Inquiry found that ‘organisational and cultural barriers to reporting child sexual abuse within religious organisations and settings are numerous, varied and difficult to overcome’. 

These include ‘victim-blaming, an absence of discussion around sex and sexuality, and discouraging external reporting, thus prioritising the organisation’s reputation above the needs of victims of sexual abuse’, the report said.

The report refers 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. 

‘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,’ the report said.

It said there have been ‘egregious failings by a number of religious organisations’ and cases of child sexual abuse perpetrated by their adherents.

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

In 2017, the perpetrator was convicted and sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment, the report said. The report also gave the example 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. 

The report says 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’. 

The inquiry found 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.

One striking passage describes how alleged victims are reluctant to come forward with complaints of child sex abuse due to concerns about being accused of stirring Islamophobia in the community.

It cited evidence presented to the Inquiry by Pragna Patel, the founder of Southall Black Sisters, who said: ‘Forty years ago, when we raised issues of domestic violence, when we raised issues of forced marriage and all those… other forms of gender-related violence, the charge that was levelled against us… was, ”You are being racist. You are raising the issues. You are showing up our community in a bad light. You are doing this and it is fuelling racism. It will fuel racial stereotypes about our communities. It will fuel a racist backlash”. 

‘So now, instead of the racist backlash, the charge is, ”You are fuelling Islamophobic backlash or a Hinduphobic backlash. You are fuelling hatred and hate crimes towards our communities”.’ 

It also advises that Ofsted should be provided with sufficient powers to examine the quality of child protection when undertaking inspection of suspected unregistered schools.

Dr Hustler said: ‘We note the report’s mention of a general lack of support for victims of abuse among religious organisations.

‘We will continue to review and improve our support to victims and survivors and we apologise where this has not happened as it should have done. We are grateful to the panel for recognising positive child protection practice in the church including our safer recruitment and internal auditing processes.’

He added that the church is grateful to the victims and survivors of abuse for their ‘bravery’ in taking part in the Inquiry. 

Professor Alexis Jay, chairwoman of the Inquiry, which has already held separate investigations into the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church, the two largest religious groups in the country

Professor Alexis Jay, chairwoman of the Inquiry, which has already held separate investigations into the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church, the two largest religious groups in the country

Professor Alexis Jay, chairwoman of the Inquiry, which has already held separate investigations into the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church, the two largest religious groups in the country

‘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,’ Dr Hustler said.

‘We have learnt much of how our response can be improved from our Survivors’ Advisory Group and we are grateful to them for sharing their experiences and working with us to make our systems and support better for all.

‘We welcome the report’s conclusion that child protection work should be ‘victim focussed’ and we will continue to work with and be led by the SAG to achieve this.

‘We are grateful to the chair and panel for the work they have done in producing this report and to the victims and survivors of abuse for their bravery in taking part in the inquiry.’

Other areas of investigation during the long-running inquiry have included Westminster and the internet. 

The final report of overarching findings from all 19 sections of the investigation will be laid before Parliament next summer. 

Last year the Inquiry found that the Church of England specifically had ‘failed’ to protect children and young people from sexual predators within their ranks for decades because it cared more about its own reputation than the victims.  

Its report found that nearly 400 people who were clergy or in positions of trust associated with the Church have been convicted of sexual offences against children from the 1940s to 2018. 

‘Many allegations were retained internally by the Church, rather than being immediately reported to external authorities’ as a culture of secrecy, deference, tribalism and naivety allowed abusers to hide.   

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