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Religious groups betray children

24th Sep 2021

Home Correspondent

Children in religious institutions in England and Wales, including madrasahs, Sunday schools, are vulnerable to sexual abuse as a result of cultures of victim-blaming, abuse of power, and distrust of external authorities, according to a report released on September 2.

The report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), found evidence of “egregious failings” and highlighted the hypocrisy of religions that purport to teach right from wrong, yet fail to protect children.

The findings, based on over two weeks of public hearings held last year, concluded there was “no doubt that the sexual abuse of children takes place in a broad range of religious settings”.

In its investigation, IICSA examined child protection practices in 38 religious organizations, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Methodists, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and nonconformist Christian groups.

The organisations had “significant or even dominant influence on the lives of millions of children”, the inquiry’s report said. “What marks religious organisations out from other institutions is the explicit purpose they have in teaching right from wrong; the moral turpitude of any failing by them in the prevention of, or response to, child sexual abuse is therefore heightened.”

It added, “Freedom of religion and belief can never justify or excuse the ill‐treatment of a child, or a failure to take adequate steps to protect them from harm.”

The report followed earlier investigations into the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches that detailed widespread abuse and cover-ups.Among the cases cited in the report were those of a girl who was abused and raped at a madrasah between the ages of eight and 11. After disclosing the abuse, she was called a “slag” by others in the community.

Another case concerned three children abused by Todros Grynhaus, a prominent member of the Haredi Jewish community in Manchester, who was sent by his rabbi for counselling after allegations were made. Grynhaus was eventually convicted and jailed.

The local minister of a girl abused by a volunteer at a Methodist church did not provide any support following her disclosure.

A girl who was abused between the ages of four and nine by a “ministerial servant” with the Jehovah’s Witnesses after Bible study sessions later brought a civil claim against the religious organisation. It was defended by the Jehovah’s Witnesses despite a separate conviction against the perpetrator.

The IICSA report, said there was likely to be a significant under-reporting of child sexual abuse in religious organisations and settings. Organisational and cultural barriers to reporting child sexual abuse within religious organisations and settings were common, said the report.

They include blaming victims rather than perpetrators, reluctance to discuss issues around sex and sexuality, excessive deference and respect shown to religious leaders, and a mistrust of Government and external bodies.

The report recommends that all religious organisations have a child protection policy. It also calls for legislative changes to allow for the official scrutiny of child protection policies in unregistered educational institutions.

Alexis Jay, Chair of the inquiry, said: “Religious organisations are defined by their moral purpose of teaching right from wrong and protection of the innocent and the vulnerable. However, when we heard about shocking failures to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse across almost all major religions, it became clear many are operating in direct conflict with this mission.

“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.”

“Today’s report confirms that some religious groups have catastrophically failed to ensure the safety of the children in their care,” said Richard Scorer, a specialist abuse lawyer at Slater & Gordon. He added,

“It is clear from the report that too many religious organisations continue to prioritise the protection, reputation and authority of religious leaders above the rights of children. In the light of today’s report, the arguments for mandatory reporting and independent oversight of religious bodies are overwhelming.”

The Muslim Council of Britain said: “The protection of children is rooted in our religious traditions and should be at the centre of all Muslim institutions… Crucially, children must feel confident in reporting any concerns they have.”

The Methodist church said it was “truly sorry” where it was failing children. “We will continue to review and improve our support to victims and survivors and we apologise where this has not happened as it should have done,” said the Rev Jonathan Hustler.

IICSA highlighted concerns that the law currently does not define religious leaders as holding a “position of trust” within child protection law. However, the inquiry did not make a finding requiring this to change. A final report following more than a dozen investigations is due next year.

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Over 120 people attended a landmark conference on the media reporting of Islam and Muslims. It was held jointly by The Muslim News and Society of Editors in London on September 15.

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