IICSA: Child protection in religious organisations and settings – the investigation report

IICSA has published its long-awaited findings in relation to the child protection in religious organisations and settings investigation.

The inquiry acknowledged the complexity of some of the religious organisations featured in the report, such as the structure of the organisations and, in many cases, the autonomy that many places of religious worship had from the organisations themselves. They determined it was often not in the religious organisation’s remit to regulate or govern their members.

IICSA’s work touched upon not only the religious settings themselves, but schools (including unregistered schools) operated by the religious organisations, out-of-school settings, as well as other community services offered.

Issues faced

Victims and survivors of sexual abuse told the inquiry that alongside the recognised difficulties, such as finding it difficult to disclose the abuse and a fear of being disbelieved, there was also a fear of being ostracised from their religious community.

This, alongside other barriers to reporting, was considered in detail, with a section in IICSA’s report devoted to barriers faced. IICSA concluded that victim-blaming, shame and honour were some issues that were prevalent across a range of religious organisations. These issues were especially prevalent when women were making disclosures. Lack of discussion around sex and sexuality were also found to have an impact on disclosure.

IICSA further touched upon what could be construed as the deliberate misapplication of religious texts and beliefs for religious leaders to justify their abusive actions, and the abuse of power by religious figures, who would use that influence to silence their victims. The inquiry further reported on what it considered to be a gender disparity within religious organisations, as many senior positions were occupied by men. IICSA felt that where only men were handling disclosures of abuse, it would be less likely that women would be able to disclose.

Distrust of the state and other external agencies was, IICSA felt, a further significant factor. Quite understandably, many religious organisations were wary due to historic persecution, and their concerns of the government not understanding them, or of being insensitive to their faith. Similarly, there were concerns about religious discrimination if matters were externally reported. Forgiveness – a central tenet of a number of religions – further added to the barriers preventing victims and survivors from feeling they could report.

In considering organisations’ responses to allegations of abuse, IICSA were clear that they ought not to attempt to deal with these issues solely internally and that they should be referred to statutory authorities and regulators.

IICSA looked at child protection policies, training, and other tools available, such as vetting and barring, when considering the evidence given by core participants. It further considered the bodies responsible for inspecting and overseeing religious organisations.

Mandatory reporting and its potential implementation was a topic that was of interest to IICSA, however, the inquiry determined that this will form part of its general final report, as it is evidently not exclusive to religious organisations. Similarly, vetting and barring, regulation and legislation will be discussed in the final report.

Recommendations

IICSA was clear that it was “not acceptable” for a religious organisation to have no child protection policies at all, and that the Charity Commission required any religious organisation registered as a charity working with children to have a child protection policy. Risk assessments for those that may have been convicted or accused of sexual abuse were also addressed.

In its recommendations, the inquiry considered any child protection policy ought to be “victim focussed”, and that there should be adequate provisions as to whistleblowing. The inquiry referred to Working Together to Safeguard Children, and stated that whilst it was limited, religious organisations would be more effective at protecting children if they followed this guidance.

It further stated that training should be of an appropriate standard, and this should be undergone regularly. IICSA stressed the importance of the stance adopted by religious leaders in relation to child protection, and ensuring that internal disciplinary processes were not used in place of reporting to the authorities. The inquiry weas of the view that religious organisations ought to be aware of counselling or support services available and – where the organisation had sufficient financial resources – there should be counselling services and pastoral care offered.

Overview

Whilst the inquiry’s comments can be taken on board now and some measures implemented, it is clear that the final findings will be deferred until the publication of IICSA’s final report.

The investigation report can be accessed here.


Amanda Munro, Paralegal, BLM
amanda.munro@blmlaw.com

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