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Child protection in religious organisations & settings: learning from IICSA’s latest report

On Wed, 29 September, 2021 - 15:54
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ECA Safeguarding

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) is a UK government-commissioned legal inquiry into child sexual abuse in England and Wales. Since 2015 it has held a series of hearings about child sexual abuse and child protection in many institutions of public life in those two areas of the UK, including the Catholic and Anglican Churches.

In May 2020 IICSA turned its attention to smaller faith groups and its 226-page report on this latest phase, published on 2nd September 2021. is summarised in this post. It cites Triratna’s Safeguarding as an example of good practice.

Munisha (Triratna’s ECA Safeguarding officer) took part in the May 2020 hearing, online, giving testimony under oath as the sole Buddhist contributor. Watch Munisha’s testimony.

A summary of the IICSA report “Child protection in religious organisations and settings”

IICSA found

  1. There is no doubt that the sexual abuse of children has taken place in a broad range of religious settings in England and Wales.
  2. Religious teachers/leaders have significant influence, often acting as advisers, confidantes, guides and helpers. This gives them a position of trust which they may abuse.
  3. Religious bodies are subject to law and religious belief can never justify the ill‐treatment of children or prevent authorities from taking measures to protect children from harm.
  4. “The barriers to reporting child sexual abuse within religious organisations are numerous, varied and powerful… both organisational and cultural”:
  • Many find it difficult to believe that members of their communities could perpetrate abuse and therefore consider it unnecessary to have child protection procedures or adhere to them.
  • Victims are often blamed for their abuse and can feel belittled or ignored.
  • Victims may fear that their information will not be kept confidential (beyond those who need to know to address the matter).
  • Where most leaders, trustees, volunteers and administrators are male, it is less likely that women and children will report abuse.
  • Some believe that reporting a fellow member of one’s religious community is a betrayal of the community.
  • Some organisations have discouraged external reporting of abuse in order to protect their reputation.
  • A fear of worldly interference in spiritual life may lead to a reluctance to report abuse to external authorities.
  • Instead of reporting to the police, some organisations have promoted internal reporting and resolution through mediation provided by leaders within the organisation.
  • Forgiveness is central to the teachings of many religions and can be misused to pressure victims not to report abuse. This does not address the victim’s need for redress and may lead to a failure to address the risk the abuser may continue to pose to other children.

IICSA’s recommendations

  1. A change in the law regarding positions of trust is required. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, introduced into the House of Commons in March 2021, will make it a criminal offence for a religious teacher/leader to have sex with anyone aged 16 or 17 deemed to have been ‘in their care’. (The age of consent is otherwise 16.) Read an explanation of this law. 
  2. All religious organisations should have child protection policies and procedures.
  3. Child protection policies and procedures should be victim-focussed and care should be taken that the perpetrator’s/alleged perpetrator’s needs do not outweigh those of the victim.
  4. Safeguarding officers are required. Effective child protection within a religious organisation requires a Safeguarding officer to deal with concerns, and a trustee, director or other senior should exercise oversight of child protection.
  5. All organisations should have regular compulsory Safeguarding training for those in leadership and those who work with children and young people.
  6. Police reporting Internal disciplinary processes should not be used as a substitute for reporting to external authorities or as the sole tool for determining whether abuse has taken place. This is because such processes cannot provide justice or redress for a victim.
  7. Trustees are responsible for child protection. Despite the Charity Commission having made these responsibilities clear, some trustees still don’t understand their safeguarding responsibilities.
  8. Those in leadership must provide strong examples of child protection, acting decisively to ensure that child protection failures are challenged and lessons learned.
  9. Forgiveness It should not be assumed or required that a victim forgive their abuser.
  10. Risk assessments are required. Where a member of a religious organisation has been convicted or accused of sexual offending the organisation must ensure that a risk assessment is carried out (even if that is deferred to the police or the probation service). This may involve exclusion from a particular place of worship or making specific arrangements for attendance.
  11. Religious organisations must share information about sexual offenders who move on and seek to join another religious group.

Triratna cited as a positive example of good practice

On p.45 Triratna is one of four religious organisations cited as providing examples of good practice, including a quote from the extensive written Statement required in advance of the hearing, written by Munisha and Amaladipa at the ECA Safeguarding team and agreed by members of the Ethics Kula.

The Triratna Buddhist Order and Community (Triratna) publishes sample child protection policies every year for use by local groups. The 2019 policy includes guidance on spotting signs of abuse, recording allegations, escalating concerns and the need to refer cases to the police. Safeguarding issues have been brought to the fore within Triratna as a result of the allegations made against its founder, Sangharakshita. Sangharakshita had sexual relationships with up to 24 young men who were his followers, the youngest of whom was 18 years old. A few have said “they felt their consent was compromised to a greater or lesser extent by their respect for him as their teacher”. Another young person aged 17, unconnected with Triratna, reported that he had sex with Sangharakshita.

It’s important to understand why Sangharakshita is mentioned in the context of child sexual abuse, given that there has never been any suggestion that Sangharakshita had sexual relations with anyone under 16.

In the UK a person remains legally a child until the age of 18 but is deemed incapable of consenting to sex until they are 16; therefore any sexual contact between an adult and a child under 16 is automatically a criminal offence on the part of the adult and this is generally what is meant by ‘child sexual abuse’. 

IICSA has, however, been concerned to explore the need for legislation to protect children aged 16-17 from sexual exploitation by religious leaders/teachers to whom they look up as figures of authority or trust, in the same way that 16 and 17 year-olds are already legally protected from sexual exploitation by school teachers, sports trainers and scout leaders, for example. Bhante is therefore mentioned because one of those with whom he had (consensual) sex was aged 17 (in 1969), although as they note the 17 year-old was unconnected with the FWBO.

Mandatory police reporting; reporting of criminal confessions

The Inquiry raised the question of whether police reporting should be made mandatory in relation to child sexual abuse. (There is currently no absolute legal obligation to report anything to the police in the UK, though if challenged in court on failure to report one would have to argue convincingly that greater harm would have been caused to a child by reporting than not reporting.) Here they again quoted from the Statement written by Munisha and Amaladipa at the ECA Safeguarding team and agreed by the Ethics Kula, but in the second paragraph below they have selected from, and conflated, points which were more clearly separated in our Statement.

The Triratna Buddhist Order and Community was supportive of the view that it ought to be compulsory for those in positions of responsibility to report allegations, suspicions and disclosures of abuse to the external authorities. It noted, however, that there is at present no agreement within the organisation about what should be done in cases of formal confessions:

“This is because many believe in the sanctity of the confessional; that serious misconduct disclosed in the context of formal confession need not be reported… There is a particular challenge where a person confesses to viewing indecent images of children, given that the seriousness of this non-contact offence is underestimated… Rather than referring to the police all those confessing to viewing indecent images of children, it would be helpful to be able to refer such a person for psychological assessment by an external body, which body would then determine whether to refer the person for psychological treatment or report directly to the police.”

External regulation of child protection in religious organisations

IICSA found there was broad support for external regulation of child protection in religious organisations. However it noted there is currently no body with the authority or capacity to provide this.

Other matters to be explored further by the Inquiry

  • the system of DBS checks (background security checks), which was widely reported to be too complex and impractical.
  • legislation to require voluntary organisations to adhere to basic child protection standards. (At present they are a regulatory requirement of charities registered with the Charity Commission, but not an absolute legal obligation.)

We have previously summarised on TBCO the reports from IICSA’s earlier hearings about child sexual abuse in religious organisations in England and Wales.

Read a digest of the IICSA report on the Catholic Church.
Read about reports on the Anglican Church.