A need to protect the Church and even God himself could be used as an excuse to avoid dealing with child sex abuse in some Christian organisations, a public inquiry has heard.
Justin Humphreys, the chief executive of Christian safeguarding charity Thirtyone:eight, was asked whether victims of alleged abuse in a religious setting may be blamed for it, rather than the person who is said to have carried it out.
He told the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA): “It is more about the need of individuals to protect the reputation of the church or organisation, or maybe even God himself, and to speak out on this issue, you are damaging the church and God’s reputation.
“Rather than victim-blaming, although I acknowledge that does happen, it is more about ‘don’t speak up, because the consequences are wider than you could imagine and you really don’t want to go there’.”
He said this approach is “still present” in Christian organisations but it is “probably less so” than it has been in the last five years.
Victims need to feel they have the power to raise their concerns, but the willingness of people to talk to Christian church authorities about their experiences “varies hugely”, according to Mr Humphreys.
The experience of the victim, how long ago and where the incident may have taken place and who was involved may all influence a person’s likelihood to come forward.
He added that “by and large, there does appear to be a willingness” to discuss these situations, particularly if the person who is alleged to have been linked to the incident is not around.
Mr Humphreys said: “If that is the case, what we see is a huge inability to speak up or receive support. Then we see those individuals (victims) going outside the church context to try and find support elsewhere.”
The inquiry is currently looking at how child protection is handled in various religious organisations and settings in England and Wales.
Mr Humphreys suggested that more work needs to be done on faith-based abuse and that a degree of momentum in addressing the issue may have been lost because of a lack of backing from the Government.
He said: “It is difficult to make inroads into an emerging area when there appears to be no endorsement or support, so things like FGM (female genital mutilation), honour violence, county lines issues – those things seem to get a degree of attention that is not afforded to this.”
Dr Lisa Oakley, an associate professor of psychology and chair of the National Working Group for child abuse linked to faith or belief, said there are people who have been “traumatised” by their experiences of saying what happened to them and the response they received.
She said victims need to be able to tell their story in a safe place and they do not want it to be minimised, or to feel they are being judged.
Knowing they will be taken seriously, having an idea of what is going to happen next and that there are strong levels of confidentiality are also important to victims, Dr Oakley said.
She pointed out that in many people who are involved in religious groups are volunteers without a professional background in safeguarding and the amount of time they have to take part in training and reading up on policy matters would be limited.
Dr Oakley also stated that “succinct, helpful guidance is needed” on these matters.
Rachel Stone, of the Baptist Union of Great Britain (BUGB), said she could see value in interdenominational work with abuse victims.
She said it could help provide a resource centre of specialist skills where victims had somewhere to go and there could be a guarantee of the quality of people involved.
Some organisations may be well equipped to provide support but this would not be the case across the board.
She said the BUGB would be “open to audit, accreditation and review” but described the scale of that task in terms of the number of churches and religious groups in this country as “significant”.
Any issue brought to the BUGB’s attention would be handled “with the child’s best interests at heart” but there may be situations in certain churches where the “downplaying of an offence” could take place, she added.