*Co-authored with Precious Mealia, trainee solicitor 

Following its investigations into the Catholic and Anglican Churches last year, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse has now published its report covering other religious groups, including other Christian denominations, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism.

The report highlighted significant barriers to the reporting of allegations of child sexual abuse. It identified victim shaming, gender disparity, abuse of power by leaders, gender disparity and mistrust of external agencies as key reasons why children were being put at risk. While the report acknowledged instances of good practice, it made several general conclusions about why children were not being protected from harm in all settings:

  • There is limited oversight and assurance of child protection in many religious organisations, with procedures often being ill-defined or not communicated and followed.
  • Many organisations do not consistently undertake DBS checks or provide training to staff and volunteers on safeguarding and what to do in the event of a disclosure.
  • Local authorities are unable to have sufficient oversight of children in religious organisations in relation to unregistered schools and are unable to take action when there are concerns that children are not being kept safe.
  • There is no requirement on the part of the police to collect statistics at a national level relating to child sexual abuse in religious organisations.
  • Fear of external reporting and reputational damage in some settings is leading to a reluctance to report abuse. There can also be a distrust of external agencies, sometimes seen as interference in religious or cultural practices, meaning that some organisations choose to manage allegations internally.
  • In some settings, victims are blamed for their abuse and are led to believe that the abuse was in some way their fault. This is amplified in organisations where discussions about sex and sexuality are not commonplace.
  • In some contexts, religious texts and beliefs are used to facilitate abuse, especially by those in positions of authority.
  • Gender disparity in organisations can mean that women and children are less likely to report abuse to trustees, volunteers or administrators who are men.
  • While all voluntary organisations are required to have an understanding of the guidance addressed to all faith-based organisations who work with children, there is no obligation to follow it, and the Charity Commission does not review child protection policies to ensure they are adequate.

Recommendations

To address these problems, the report made two key recommendations:

  1. All religious organisations should have a child protection policy and supporting procedures which include advice and guidance on responding to disclosures of abuse and the needs of victims and advisors. Both should be updated regularly with professional child protection advice, and training should be regular and compulsory.
  1. The Government should introduce legislation to:
  • change the definition of full-time education, and to bring any setting that is the pupil’s primary place of education within the scope of the definition of a registered educational setting; and
  • provide the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) with sufficient powers to examine the quality of child protection when it undertakes inspections of suspected unregistered institutions.

The Inquiry will publish its final report in a year’s time. In the meantime, it is essential that faith organisations maintain effective child protection policies and procedures, as set out in the first recommendation. Policies and procedures should set out effective measures to address the risk of abuse and should be regularly reviewed and updated where necessary. Regular audit and review will help to ensure that those measures are effective and are actually implemented on a day-to-day basis.