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Inquiry into non-conformist churches and other religious settings finds cultural obstacles to abuse being disclosed

by Cara Bentley

An inquiry into current child protection policies in religious institutions, such as Baptist, Methodist, Afro-Caribbean Churches and other non-conformist churches, as well as other religions, has found there are sometimes cultural obstacles to victims and others disclosing abuse allegations. 

The inquiry also found that some religious institutions are misusing the concept of forgiveness to pressure victims into secrecy. 

The report into 38 religious institutions also covers other religions such as Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist settings. The Christian groups it looked into included the United Reformed Church, Baptist Union of Great Britain, Evangelical Alliance, Methodist Church of Great Britain, Afro-Caribbean Churches and the Salvation Army. It detailed where these organisations were behaving correctly as well. 

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which examines the extent to which organisations have failed to protect children in England and Wales from sexual abuse, has already investigated the Roman Catholic Church, The Church of England and certain councils and abuse via the internet. 

The 16 days of public hearings for this inquiry finished in August 2020.

This report found there are significant barriers to reporting abuse in these religious settings, such as victim-blaming, shame, abuse of power when leaders are treated deferentially, mistrust of external bodies and the concept of forgiveness being used to pressure victims into secrecy. 

The 226-page report states that abuse has happened in nearly every religious group. It also concluded that umbrella organisations did not always collect data on abuse allegations and that some churches and other places of worship do not have basic child protection measures in place, although many do. 

The report recommends that all religious organisations should have a child protection policy and supporting procedures and that the Government should legislate to amend the definition of full-time education to bring any setting which is a child's primary place of education within the scope of a "registered school", and therefore provide Ofsted with sufficient powers to examine it.

The report gives a number of examples of abuse in churches, such as a girl who was assaulted under her clothes, aged 12 at a Sunday school in a Methodist Church, but not given any support by the church minister, who said the culprit was to be considered innocent until proven guilty and his family were "valued members of the church". When he was convicted, the minister did not apologise. 

The report stated that: "A key challenge in some church settings is deference. Some religious leaders perpetuate the belief that, as they have been appointed by God, they are not answerable to their congregation or organisations or others. In an exploration of spiritual abuse, a survivor noted: 'We actually believed the general consensus underlying every conversation in our last church that our pastor was 'God's anointed' in a special way and shouldn't really be questioned.'"

The report describes how different denominations have different levels of interference or responsibility with individual churches within their organisations, 

For example, "The Baptist Union of Great Britain is made up of approximately 1,945 Baptist churches in England and Wales. At the time of the public hearing in May 2020 it did not collect or maintain records of the number of allegations made across its churches (unless allegations were made about accredited ministers that had then been referred up 
to regional or national teams). It had plans in place to start gathering this information from the end of 2020 onwards.

"In 2018, the Salvation Army had around 20,000 members in England and Wales. It does record the number of allegations made at a national level, and reported that 60 allegations had been made within the Salvation Army in the previous 10 years."

The concept of forgiveness was also noted as a doctrine that was being misused across the religions: "Placing pressure on individuals to forgive may also prevent any disclosures from being properly dealt with. Ms Hirst [Ms Sally Hirst of the Jesus Fellowship Survivors Association] told us that, when people within the Jesus Fellowship Church did disclose, there was a 'cycle of forgiveness' in which victims were 'told to forgive, told to pray or told it was God's will or God alone would judge'. 

"If there was a proven allegation, the perpetrator was forgiven and 'they would say, well, it's repentance, reconciliation' and convicted perpetrators would be welcomed back into the Church and into another leadership role."

The report writers recommend that all religious organisations should have a child protection policy and supporting procedures, which should include advice on responding to disclosures of abuse and the needs of victims and survivors. These should be updated regularly, with professional child protection advice and all organisations should have regular compulsory training for those in leadership and those who work with young people.

Their second recommendation, as mentioned above, is to make the definition of full-time education clearer and let Ofsted inspect any setting that is the pupil's primary place of education. 

The report demands that religious organisations and the Government should publish responses to their recommendations, including a timetable involved, within the next six months.

Justin Humphreys, CEO of Christian safeguarding charity Thirtyone:Eight responded to the report: "We have been encouraged that the investigation has found much evidence of good safeguarding practice among faith groups and of the acknowledgement it gives to the impact religious organisations are having in communities through the provision of services particularly for children and young people...The report clearly shows that many churches in this country has made significant progress to embedding child protection practices – including policy, safer recruitment, training, audit and evaluation - where these have perhaps not been evident across the broader religious and faith community. However, this should not leave us with any sense of complacency, there is still much more to be done. 

"We are please that the issues we have raised around regulated activity, and the challenges of safer recruitment and of mandatory reporting have been heard, and that there appears to be a general consensus that faith and religious organisations should not be left to manage compliance for their own practice."

A response by The Methodist Church, who welcomed the report, is available here

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