15 November 2019 | Podcasts | Article by Abigail Flanagan

All-Party Parliamentary Groups: Hearings into “positions of trust” in faith settings

This week the Abuse team at Hugh James discusses the All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG): Hearings into “positions of trust” in faith settings.

The APPG is investigating whether the definition of “positions of trust” in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 ought to be amended to include faith settings.

Currently, this “positions of trust” covers educational, youth justice and medical settings. This is effectively to ensure, for example, a teacher who is 30 is not permitted to engage in a sex act with a student who is 17, despite that student being over the age of consent, which is 16.

This is because the nature of the relationship renders what is ostensibly consensual, non-consensual.  The reasons for this are many, but mainly because of the undue influence, power imbalance and vulnerabilities which surround the child in the context of the relationship.

It does not currently include within that definition faith settings.  As such, a priest who is 40 could have a sexual relationship with a child member of the church who is 17 and this would be legal. 

Hugh James were asked to speak to the APPG on behalf of the Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses Advocates Opposing Crimes Against Children (the “Group”), as Sam Barker of the Hugh James abuse team represents the Group at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse’s upcoming hearings into safeguarding in faith settings.

It is the view of the Group that Jehovah’s Witnesses as a religion demonstrates perfectly why the law needs to change given the significant trust and power placed in adult male members of the faith, such that one of those members engaging in a sex act with a child in the congregation ought to be illegal.  However, the Group submits this is relevant to all religions.

The Group submitted that:

  • The Jehovah’s Witnesses as a religious institution clothes men in official positions (such as a circuit overseer, elder or ministerial servant) with profound trust, power and authority as it is consistently conveyed that their appointments are approved by God’s Holy Spirit;
  • The Jehovah’s Witnesses literature, which is frequently read at meetings, studied and said to be “spiritual food” from God, requires members to obey elders unquestionably and be submissive to them even when they act in error;
  • The elders and to a lesser extent, ministerial servants, play a crucial role within a congregation which goes directly to the care, supervision, instruction and training of children within the congregation, whether that is through mentoring, spiritual guidance, evangelising, religious instruction and teaching through Bible study and meetings, spiritual investigations and/or judicial committee hearings;
  • The significant power placed in elders within a congregation consequently has the effect of placing those men to whom the elders designate roles, duties and/or administrative functions with the same power, trust and authority;
  • The role of adult men within the Jehovah’s Witnesses is absolutely paramount to the role of women and children and it is ingrained, particularly in children, to respect and obey adult men within the congregation (even if that person is not an elder or ministerial servant);
  • The Jehovah’s Witnesses literature encourages all adults to take an active part in the mentoring of children in the teachings of the religion and the same literature encourages the children to trust the adult and they will benefit from this mentoring; and
  • The roles allocated to elders and ministerial servants and indirectly allocated to other senior members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in respect of children engage the same trust relationship which involves an imbalance of power, vulnerability and susceptibility to harm as those which are already covered by the Part 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 but are not criminalised in the context of faith settings.

Overall, this change would put the UK in line with other common law jurisdictions like Australia, where this conduct is criminalised.  In Victoria, faith settings is included in the definition of “care, supervision or authority”, which is:

  • “Without limiting the circumstances in which a child is under the care, supervision or authority of a person, a person (A) has a child (B) under their care supervision or authority if (A) is – 'a religious or spiritual guide, or a leader or official (including a lay member) of a church or religious body, however any such guide, leader, official, church or body is described, who provides care, advice or instruction to B or has authority over B'.
Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.

Business news, knowledge and insight