Cutting off the nose to save the face! – a response to the IICSA report, Child Protection in Religious Organisations and Settings

Are we cutting off our nose to save our face by protecting our organisation’s reputation and the perpetrator, instead of the abused child? That is one of the issues arising from the findings in this 226 page document. I found it to be highly informative and deeply challenging even though it was a little tedious in places. Surely one of the driving factors is this: because we love our children and young people we want to be sure that we are getting our child protection procedures right. After all isn’t it part of our belief system to defend the vulnerable?  Consequently, in the light of this report, I believe a review of our procedures to be a top priority.  

This is the latest report from The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). It states that religious organisations show “blatant hypocrisy and moral failings” in professing to teach right from wrong yet failing to prevent or respond to child sexual abuse. This report covers 38 groups in England and Wales and includes my church denomination. It has gathered evidence from Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Methodists, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, Scientologists, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and people from non-conformist Christian denominations. Collectively this would represent a significant influence in the lives of millions of children. The Church of England and the Roman Catholic churches were addressed in previous reports. 

“..the freedom of religion and belief.. can never justify the ill-treatment of children, or prevent governmental authorities from taking measures to protect children from harm.”   

The number of victims involved cannot be estimated because police are not required to keep records of a religious context. But, the Office of National Statistics estimated that 3.1 million adults in the UK have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 16 (ONS Report, Child abuse in England and Wales: March 2020). In another study, they found that 11 percent of respondents said that they had been sexually abused as children in religious institutions (Truth Project, Child sexual abuse in the context of religious institutions, May 2019). This is only a rough idea because, sadly, much abuse goes unreported. 

  “ Evidence submitted to the Inquiry from victims and survivors, and the organisations that support them, has been clear that child sexual abuse occurs within religious organisations and settings. ”  

Reporting of Sexual Abuse

This report highlights woeful findings in reporting child sexual abuse across the majority of religious settings and highlights organisational and cultural barriers. Specific obstacles are described in detail. These include victim-blaming, shame, and ‘honour’; having no opportunities to discuss sex, sexuality and sexual abuse; the misuse of religious texts and beliefs; abuse of power by religious leaders, particularly men; discouraging external reporting and fear of reputational damage; desire to manage allegations internally; and misusing the concept of “forgiveness”. These seven issues create barriers to reporting child abuse and can emerge from prioritising the organisation’s reputation above the needs of the victims of sexual abuse. A classic case of cutting off our nose to save the face.  

A Lack of Safeguarding Procedures

The investigation also found wide diversity between religious organisations as to whether they had safeguarding policies in place and the extent to which they follow them. At present there is no legal requirement to follow relevant guidance such as ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’. Many organisations did not consistently undertake DBS checks.  At present some people with responsibilities may not be eligible to be checked at the highest level. This could mean that a previous breach of trust, say by a former teacher, might not be known now that they are a volunteer in an organisation. 

It was also found that the training available from local authorities to recognise child abuse and respond to disclosures – had a limited take up. Few organisations had processes in place to take action where there was an allegation against a volunteer (but might have processes if it was an employee).  Nor was there a provision for counselling or therapy for the victim.  At FACES (Faiths Against Child Sexual Exploitation) we have a passion for providing appropriate training in some of these areas and view faith as a strength that plays an important role in safeguarding. 

Pen portraits of sexual abuse from a Jewish community, an Islamic school, a Methodist church, an Independent Christian Church, the United Reformed Church, the Jesus Fellowship Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses clearly showed how faith settings can provide the environment for abuse and cover up or minimise accusations which safeguard the perpetrator and accuse the victim. This is similar to other contexts where there are strong power dynamics, the opportunity to abuse positions of authority, and long-standing values and behaviours that can be manipulated and used to manipulate others. Isn’t this something we all want to avoid?

This investigation did provoke the beginnings of change in some of the organisations. 

“As a result of this investigation, a number of religious organisations have told us that they have altered, improved or recognised the need for policies and procedures in respect of child sexual abuse.”

But there are still endemic rifts to be overcome.

“Blaming the victims, fears of reputational damage and discouraging external reporting are some of the barriers victims and survivors face, as well as clear indicators of religious organisations prioritising their own reputations above all else. For many, these barriers have been too difficult to overcome.”

For Christians, we hear the challenge of Jesus to allow the little children to come to Him and not to hinder them (Matthew 19:14).  Before this He warned that whoever causes one of these little ones to sin would be better off having a millstone put around his neck and be thrown into the depths of the sea (Matthew 18:6). This report seems to represent an awful lot of millstones!  How can this be counteracted?

Recommendations to Move Forward

I am not shocked nor am I surprised by these findings (perhaps because I have been researching this subject for a while) but I am sickened and saddened. Sickened that a place where children should be nurtured and protected and set a high example, should become, for them, a place of horror and destruction. Saddened that this is so diametrically opposite to the God (as presented in our sacred texts) who defends the poor, the vulnerable and the powerless, and loves with a pure love beyond our imagination. To misrepresent God in this way is beyond scandalous. 

I would suggest that having a safeguarding policy is essential but not enough, nor is having a safeguarding officer sufficient. What is also needed is a culture where leaders can be challenged and held accountable, where our young people are permitted a voice, where sex is spoken about openly and appropriately as God’s idea, and conduct – sexual or otherwise – can be questioned and challenged. To begin with we need to bite the bullet and admit that we, in our religious groups, have fallen short of our own standards let alone God’s standard. Perhaps, like Nehemiah, we should begin by lamenting in prayer (Nehemiah 1:4). We should climb down from our ‘it couldn’t happen here’ attitude and wake up to the fact that children in our religious groups have been betrayed, blamed and scarred for (this) life, while in many cases perpetrators walk free.  

Here are some of the recommendations from the report which religious organisations should be targeting and covering on an ongoing basis:

  • application of a child protection policy which is ‘victim’ focused and accessible to everyone
  • provision of experienced counsellors and therapists to support victims
  • always reporting externally to the relevant statutory authorities
  • high quality child protection training at all levels of the organisation
  • safe recruitment practices including DBS checks and relevant references
  • a well-informed child protection lead (preferably female)
  • a robust culture of child protection developed by the organisation’s leadership
  • risk assessments for offenders wishing to continue and information sharing between organisations

Practical Responses                                                                                                             

As a person of faith, I ask myself, ‘What else is a sufficient practical response to these findings?’  Do we need to see abuse and sexual addiction as a personal battle with sin and work through repentance, reconciliation and rehabilitation? Could we, instead of hiding behind what we think our sacred writings say, actually teach and follow their clear procedures?  Do we need to provide more support and guidance to our young people to keep them safe? How can we equip and empower them to keep themselves and each other safe?  Should we compensate victims with sufficient support for a journey into Post Traumatic Growth so that they are not left surviving with PTSD?  Then, how do we wisely support perpetrators who genuinely want to change? 

But let us not forget those who have been spiritually abused, domestically abused, physically, racially, emotionally or sexually. Let us not flinch from the magnitude of the challenge ahead. Let us be moved to wise and godly action. God can do the impossible.  

Can we sweep these issues under the organisations carpet after satisfying ourselves that we have ticked a few boxes? Or will we act in response to the unseen tears of many and, I am convinced, of heaven itself?  Surely child protection needs to be everyone’s priority and in a constant state of improvement.    

Robert S Lightowler is the project coordinator for FACES. He has retired from teaching and pastoring a church and is author of, ‘Breaking the Silence On Child Abuse’ Robert Stevens (Pseudonym), 2018, DayOne Publications

FACES (Faiths Against Child Sexual Exploitation) facilitate interactive workshops on Identity, Safeguarding and Child Abuse that have benefitted religious organisations, students and professionals. Visit www.faces.org.uk or contact admin@faces.org.uk.

All quotes are from ‘Child Protection in Religious Organisations and Settings’,  Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) Investigation Report, September 2021

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