Letters from Europe - A report on "child protection" (or lack thereof?) in religious organization in England and Wales
A new report found a disturbing pattern of child sexual abuse in 38 religious organizations in England and Wales - a scope that goes beyond previous similar findings concerning the Anglican and Catholic churches.
According to official estimates roughly 1 in 20 adults in the UK have been sexually abused before they were 16, which is probably an underestimate. About 10% of these cases took place within a religious setting.
In their report the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse notes many common threads that run through the abuses reported by victims from a broad range of religions and sects ranging from Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists and Methodists to Judaism, Sikhism, Buddhism and non-conformist Christian denominations. Indeed, despite their diverse "cultural settings" these groups share common attributes such as victim-blaming, abuse of power by leaders and mistrust of "external agencies" which create ideal breeding grounds for the sexual abuse of children.
A characteristic of the educational system in England and Wales is that the roughly 34,000 faith-based organizations play a "central role in the lives of millions of children" - from the mostly legal "supplementary" schools to the "unregistered" ones which emphasize religious teachings and can be of questionable quality. (Jewish "yeshivas" and Islamic "madrasahs" come to mind).
Many social and cultural activities are run in these organizations and expose children to unscrupulous individuals whose sense of impunity can be enhanced by the authorities' reluctance to look too closely at these institutions for fear of appearing biased.
Still, authorities provide guidance, training and oversight to help religious organization fight sexual abuse, which does result in the occasional prosecution of offenders. There is an elaborate system of Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks used to vet those who work with children in religious settings. A lack of enthusiasm for these measures and their "patchy" enforcement result in many perpetrators escaping justice through the usual process of intimidation and pressure put on the victims who are made to feel they are betraying their faith and their community. Cynical traditions of "forgiveness" conveniently abound in many religious settings and contribute to the pressure felt by victims.
Some organizations have safeguarding procedures in place, while others resist what they perceive as the state's interference in religious affairs. This tension between a well-meaning state attempting to enforce western values and traditional communities is illustrated in particularly acute fashion with the issue of female genital mutilation, which authorities can be reluctant to crack down on.
The extent to which the "institutional depravity" and betrayal of purpose cut across cultures and religions is striking. To be fair rooting out sexual abuse will be particularly difficult in some South Asian communities whose languages conveniently have no words for sexual abuse, rape or sexual organs: no word, no problem. In typical British understated fashion the report points out that this situation can "make disclosure difficult".
The issue of "mandatory reporting" is fraught and still "in flux". While some religious organizations are in favor of reporting recognized crimes, they can be more reluctant to report "suspicions" of sexual abuse.
The report concludes with two main recommendations. First, religious organizations must have child protection policies which include compulsory training for those who work with children - a tall order for institutions who at best are in denial and at worst actively protect those who sexually abuse children.
Second, laws must be enacted to provide oversight agencies with the powers to effectively investigate and crack down on "suspected unregistered institutions" which allow the criminal sexual exploitation of children. Sadly, the report acknowledges between its lines that there is a long road ahead before children stop being sexually abused in many religious institutions in England and Wales.