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By Tom Kingsbury | Head of Politics
An independent report has found “egregious failings” by a number of religious organisations in the UK to protect children from sexual abuse.
It states that currently there is “either no or very limited oversight and assurance of child protection in religious organisations.”
The report is a result of an inquiry by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), and looked at evidence from 38 religious organiations with a presence in England and Wales.
The IICSA’s inquiry was established in 2014 following the testimony of 100s of people that they were abused as children by Jimmy Savile. The IICSA has published a number of reports over the course of its inquiry with a final report to be published next year.
According to the IICSA, UK religious organisations “may have a significant and even dominant influence on the lives of millions of children”, and it has “no doubt” that sexual abuse of children is taking place across a range of organisations of different faith.
Whilst it recognised the importance of respect for religious beliefs, the report argued that religion and faith “can never justify or excuse the ill-treatment of a child, or a failure to take adequate steps to protect them from harm.”
Among the issues examined in the report were the significant barriers preventing or discouraging the reporting of cases of child sexual abuse in religious organisations.
Victim blaming was one such barrier, the report noted, along with the use of religious texts and teachings to manipulate children and justify abuse.
It also explained that a lack of discussion of sex and sexuality lead to fewer reported cases, as do the predomance of men in positions of authority within religious organisations.
Another threat to the reporting of cases is the power of and trust placed in religious leaders. In one case, the report details, a church minister told the mother of a 12-year-old victim that the abuser was “valued” and must be considered “innocent until proven guilty”.
It later became clear, according to the report, that prior to being allowed to volunteer for the church, the abuser had been dismissed from the police after being charged with unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.
In another case detailed in the report, a seven-year-old was abused by a Sunday school activity leader following the death of his mother. He was told not to tell anyone, as it would upset his father and nobody in the church would believe him. This abuse continued for around three years.
What does the report recommend?
The report made two main recommendations, the first of which was that all religious organisations should have a child protection policy and protection procedures.
In its investigation the inquiry found the level of protection within religious organisations varied significantly, leaving many children unsafe.
It noted that child protection policies and training were especially important in religious organisations, since child sexual abuse is most likely to take place within the family, and families are often part of the same religious community.
The report also detailed the issue of ‘disguised compliance’, where a religious organisation appears to have policies in place protecting children, but in reality implements little if any of the policies.
Other issues identified in this regard include the inconsistent use of Disclosure and Barring Services (DBS) background checks, and the “wide variation” in the use of training to help protect and identify abuse of children within religious organisations.
The IICSA states:
“The current system for oversight of child protection within religious organisations and settings is one of patchwork influence rather than mandatory standards and enforcement.”
The other recommendation made by the report is that the UK Government amend by law the definition of ‘full-time education’ to include any place that acts as the child’s primary place of education, and that Ofsted is allowed the powers to examine the quality of child protection when inspecting suspected unregistered schools.
Unregistered schools in the UK
An unregistered school is defined by Ofsted as a “setting that is operating as an independent school, without registration”, and educating children in them is illegal. Ofsted states:
“These children are potentially at risk because there is no formal external oversight of safeguarding”.
According to a 2019 Ofsted estimate, of the unregistered schooling settings it inspected, around 6,000 children were being educated. Of these settings, 21 percent were places of religious instruction.
A setting that provides full-time education to at least 5 children is required to register as a school. Although there is no legal definition of ‘full-time education’, guidance from the Department of Education states that 18 hours a week or more is likely to be considered full-time.
Some providers, however, will operate “on the cusp of the law”, avoiding scrutiny by providing 17 hours and 50 minutes of education a week.
Settings where only religious instruction is given are not required to register as schools, even if they operate full-time and their pupils receive no further education.
After years of investigation and over a hundred million pounds spent, in 2022 the IICSA will publish its final overarching report.
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