Religious organisations ‘lack external oversight’ to safeguard children from sexual abuse, inquiry

Religious organisations are subject to “little to no external oversight” of how they ensure children are protected from sexual abuse, an inquiry has heard.

Despite organisations stressing their commitment to stamping out abuse, the power of religious leaders could lead to victims being “silenced or ignored”, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) heard on Monday.

In the latest strand of its investigations, the IICSA will examine how child protection is handled in religious organisations and settings in England and Wales.

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

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

Opening the investigation on Monday, lead counsel to the inquiry Fiona Scolding QC said: “There is little to no external oversight of child protection in religious organisations at present.

“There are no child protection standards or minimal levels of competence by staff or volunteers working with children which must be fulfilled.”

She went on: “Every religious organisation which has provided us with evidence has stressed their dedication to stamping out child sexual abuse and has categorically said that their religion views child sexual abuse as abhorrent.

“What this investigation wants to examine is whether or not those statements of intent are reflected by practice and actions.”

Commenting on community leaders, she said it is known that individuals use religious organisations “as a route to be able to be with children without suspicion and they groom and perpetrate sexual abuse upon children in these settings”.

“The power and influence of those in position of religious leadership or the way the community operates itself can lead to such abuses being silenced or ignored,” she said.

The inquiry heard that 11% of investigations under the police’s Operation Hydrant, which looks at non-recent cases of child sexual abuse, involved a religious setting or organisation.

Ms Scolding said the Government funds the Strengthening Faith Institutions programme which has provided a “health check” to 446 organisations of their policies.

But the inquiry heard that the Charity Commission estimates there are more than 34,000 faith-based organisations in the UK, excluding the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.

Additionally, around 60,000 “exempt” religious charities, such as universities, academies, special schools, do not have to register with the commission but are subject to a regulator.

Some small “excepted” charities do not have to register or submit annual returns to the commission, but it can use powers to take compliance action, the inquiry heard.

An expectation for religious organisations to follow government guidance, entitled Working Together, on co-operating with local authorities on child safeguarding work is “not legally enforceable”, Ms Scolding said.

“There is … no responsibility at present for any religious organisation to comply with minimum standards, or to have certain practices and policies, or to have certain safeguarding training,” she added.

Ms Scolding said this is in “stark contrast” to other organisations such as schools, nurseries and fostering agencies.

She also outlined a number of cultural barriers to child sexual abuse being dealt with in religious settings.

This includes deference to religious leaders considered “above reproach”, the use of religious texts or beliefs to discourage reporting of abuse and the fear of causing reputational damage to an organisation.

Other barriers include distrust of external authorities such as the police and a fear of persecution.

For example, the concept of mesirah in Judaism – one Jew reporting the conduct of another Jew to a non-rabbinical authority under circumstances forbidden by rabbinic law – has in some cases been used to discourage people from reporting abuse.

Some cultures encounter language barriers in tackling and encouraging dialogue around the issue; for example, there are no Tamil words for child sexual abuse.

The inquiry also heard that the Muslim Women’s Network said there can be a fear in the Muslim community to report abuse because it could fuel Islamophobia.

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