FACES in Luton: Creating a constructive approach to challenging Child Sexual Exploitation in all its forms

Recently  my friend and colleague Rehana Faisal in a post ‘Name it. Shame it. Protect the children’ strongly critiqued the approach taken by Qulliam Foundation’s report “Group-Based Child Sexual Exploitation: Dissecting “Grooming Gangs”, and especially the recent attempts at defence of that report by the organisation’s chair, Maajid Nawaz. She joins a growing number who take issue with the report’s conclusion that there are a disproportionate number of individuals of ‘(South) Asian’ heritage in “Group Based CSE” and the conclusion that this suggests ‘the background of these men has influenced their actions.’  The debate around the evidential basis of the report since it first appeared in December 2017 has been heated, but the criticism, as Rehana points out, has often moved well away from the issue of CSE.

The terrible abuse of young people and the resulting pain they are left to deal is shocking. However this has too often has too often been compounded by the way the society around them responds to it.  First, many victims have encountered the unwillingness of the authorities (police, social and health care workers, religious leaders, head teachers, etc) to listen to the possibility of abuse.  If they are heard, many have been brushed off or worse still, find themselves taking the blame.  Next, they too often see extensive attempts to cover up the facts by those same authorities, especially where perpetrators come from within these institutions. And finally they encounter those who would use their story for some or other political or ideological purpose to hit out at an institution, a religion, a group of people.

The stories of the sexual abuse of young people by grooming gangs in Rotheram, Rochdale and Oxford involve all levels of this compounding of the original abuse. But so too do the stories of abuse in the Church of England that we have heard in the media and at the Independent Enquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) this past year.  This makes it so important we find the right way to address this issue.

As a deeply committed Christian, I reject the accusation that CSE occurring in the church is integrally connected with my faith.  It has nothing to do with the God I worship, it is condemned absolutely by the scriptures I live my life by, and it is condemned by the church.  Yet I have to sadly acknowledge that terrible abuse has taken place in the church. As a Christian leader I am committed to ensuring it is exposed and named for what it is, and to opposing it and doing all I can to ensuring it doesn’t happen.  So, when a few years ago I heard Rehana expressing similar sadness at the stories we encounter, we made up our mind to do something. We knew leaders in our respective communities shared the same concerns, so we gathered to talk.  It was out of those conversations that FACES was in Luton born.

We have already done a lot as a group in raising awareness around CSE.  But alongside that we have created a place where real conversations about deeply troubling subjects have been had, naming issues for what they are without recriminations. We come from diverse perspectives, backgrounds, professions etc but we are listening to one another. At our launch conference in July 2016 Tam, mum of a victim / survivor who is a Christian leader from Telford and Rehana as a Muslim talked about reconciliation.  At our most recent conference in March 2018 Sara Rowbotham, social worker and whistle blower in Rochdale, a lawyer representing victims, a senior police officer and faith leaders talked openly and constructively together.

I suggest the importance of the approach we have taken with FACES in Luton has allowed us to make important progress locally, and in the training we’ve done elsewhere, on what is so loaded an issue.

At the heart of our work is that we are united as Muslims and Christians, and as humans, in the value we place on children and young people.

On that basis, crucially,  we have sought to understand the underlying patterns that grooming and then abuse takes. In particular that has come from concepts that Dr Lucie Shuker, both as an academic researcher in CSE and a Christian leader in her own right, has brought to the group.  That has given us a strong unifying narrative on CSE which foregrounds the abuse of power, rather than anything intrinsic to one group’s religion or ethnicity.

Finally, that knowledge has allowed us to deconstruct the nature of on street grooming, focusing on factors that enable and empower it. But we can equally use the same method to understand the awful patterns of abuse and then cover up that have occurred in the Church of England, as well as the football world, celebrity culture, schools, children’s homes, the political world, etc.

It is clear to us that those who want to abuse children and young people look to find ways and means within their lived context.  Helen Beckett uses a model of the conditions for abuse that is important to our approach:  it involves a perpetrator, inadequate protective structures and a vulnerable child.

Critical to understanding how abuse has occurred, and preventing it is to look at the conditions that allows it to exist and yet stay hidden.  The form of abuse that has been called “Street Grooming” has taken on a shape that fits the environment in which it has emerged. In contrast CSE in the church takes on a very different shape. But in both, abusers find places where they can get close to vulnerable young people without a question of motives. They use goods or favours to draw them close to young people who want what they have to offer.  The abuse occurs in places where the awful acts can hide in plain sight and sometimes where the abused young person can be further abused, and sometimes where those around can be called on to deny impropriety. Nazir Afzal, the former CPS lead on CSE has been clear that the determinants are essentially practical rather than cultural, and he is very clear: “There is no religious basis for the abuse in Rotherham.”

We have found in our conversations in FACES that this framework has enabled us to bring the focus back to the underlying problem, and the awful pain of the victims.  However, it also means we can bring sharp focus on taking responsibility for the structures in a faith community that could enable CSE and enable it to remain hidden.

It is our experience  that this approach has enabled us to have more fruitful and honest discussion about so called Street Grooming than has so far resulted from the Qulliam report, as well as to talk about all other forms of CSE. We sincerely hope others can benefit from this too.

(In a later post I will seek to look at some of the issues arising out of the Church of England hearings at IICSA.)

Peter Adams, Director of St Mary’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation

And a member of the FACES working group.

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