The launch of a police investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse against media personality Jimmy Saville in 2012 was perhaps the pivotal point in our society really taking this issue seriously. In the years before that a growing number of allegations against media stars, sports personalities, prominent politicians, civil servants, and even church leaders were often accompanied by accusations of cover-ups. At times it seemed that there was a refusal to accept the extent of what was happening, and to question what made it possible. Indeed, some would argue that child sexual abuse was and is embedded within British society, sanctioned by the establishment.
The result of a rising national outcry was that in July 2014 Theresa May, the Prime Minister, announced the setting up of an wide ranging inquiry, which eventually became IICSA, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Chaired by Professor Alexis Jay, IICSA has set up 15 strands of investigation looking at specific institutions and themes, each hearing evidence, the understanding of experts, and, most importantly, the experiences of the survivors of abuse, with the intention of establishing what went wrong and why. The hearings have not held back: as a lay leader in the Church of England I have been shocked at the evidence given in the inquiry looking at instances of sexual abuse and exploitation in the church, and the rigorous nature of the interim inquiry released in May 2019. The final report on the will come out in October.
A significant strand of the national conversation on child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation (CSE) has been on “Muslim grooming gangs.” Indeed, in words summing up their important paper which sought to deconstruct the phrase and properly understand this phenomenon, Ella Cockbain and Waqas Tufail have written that “’Muslim grooming gangs’ have become a defining feature of media, political and public debate around child sexual exploitation in the UK.” They argue that “The dominant narrative that has emerged to explain a series of horrific cases is misleading, sensationalist and has itself promoted a number of harms” (Cockbain and Tufail, “Failing victims, fuelling hate: challenging the harms of the ‘Muslim grooming gangs’ narrative” January 2020).
It was in a number of conversations between Muslims and Christians in Luton around sexual exploitation of children in the church and the alleged “Muslim grooming gangs” that FACES was born. We launched in July 2016 with the clear mandate that as people of faith we had to challenge all forms of sexual abuse, and that we would not avoid the elephants in the room, the difficult issues that seemed to implicate our own faiths. For me, speaking at the launch, it was important that we not hide from the reality of evil, but nor would I allow it to define either CSE, myself and my Muslim friends (Launching FACES, July 2016).
The analysis that Cockbain and Tufail have given us is one we echo from our own journey as FACES. We have sought to hear from those involved. At our launch conference we heard from the mother of a survivor. To hear her conversation with our co-chair, Rehana Faisal was deeply humbling. 18 months later we heard from Sara Rowbotham, the social worker who was a part of bringing the Rochdale case of grooming to conviction, there is a short account of this here. We have worked to bring perspective on the issue to those who have placed the issue entirely in the Muslim community (Rehana here, myself here.) Rehana has sought to look more deeply at the way racism has clouded the analysis, and Luton church leader Tony Thompson, FACES co-chair, has outlined his own journey and understanding of prejudice. This theme was explored in our 2019 conference, The Faces We Fail To See. Throughout our journey our close and growing commitment to trusting collaborative relationships, essentially friendship, has been central in addressing a complex social challenge. In short, we believe we have a broad and effective view on the subject.
Today the IICSA strand of inquiry into Organised Networks will begin two weeks of hearings. It is our hope it will provide understanding that will enable our government, police, social services and all in our society committed to the welfare of young people to effectively challenge the evil that has been at work in places like Rotherham, Rochdale, Huddersfield, Telford and Oxford. It is good to see that Dr Helen Beckett, who has helped us develop our own work as FACES, is giving evidence. Helen, director of the Luton based Bedfordshire University International Centre: Researching child sexual exploitation, violence and trafficking and her colleagues are leading authorities in this important field. One of our own team, Dr Lucie Shuker, was a senior research fellow there until recently.
We hope and pray for truth to come out and for justice to be done, and for prejudice of all forms to be exposed. It will not be comfortable, however as people of faith we are friends of truth and justice, and enemies of prejudice. We trust it will provide a language and understanding that all in leadership in the UK will be able to use in challenging the narrative of those, not least on the far right, who seek to use the incredible pain of so many to whip up division in our society.
I started by noting that the extent of abuse and cover ups made it possible that “some would argue that child sexual abuse was embedded within British society, sanctioned by the establishment.” We are at the start of a period of two weeks where the IICSA Hearings are likely to produce media stories of the failing of central and local government and the police in preventing widespread abuse and exploitation of children are likely to hit the media. Such stories are always dramatic. While hearing them we need to move beyond them to understand the landscape such issues exist in. Most importantly we look for a rational and evidence based inquiry, an appropriate response from institutions implicated, followed by a coordinated response. This is the way to expose evil in this age.