31 May 2019 | Comment | Article by Samuel Barker

HJ Talks About Abuse: IICSA hearing into child protection in religious organisations and settings

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (the “Inquiry”) has announced a hearing into child protection in religious organisations and settings.

So, what does this mean?  The Inquiry has to date examined large religious institutions in the UK such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church, along with other religious instructions and state based organisations.

However, this has left quite a significant gap in the field as many religious denominations and other institutional religions have escaped scrutiny.

This is a welcome announcement given the figures released by the Truth Project indicate more than one in ten survivors who shared their account were abused in a religious institution, which equates to 11% overall, and of that group, almost a quarter, being 24%, were abused in institutions to be examined in the new hearing.

The first relevant question which arises is which religious institutions are subject to this hearing?

The Inquiry considers a religious setting or organisation to include:

  1. Places where people gather to engage in collective rituals designed to bear witness or share collectively in  their religious faith (e.g. mosques, temples, festivals);
  2. Places of tuition regarding one’s faith tradition or cultural matters related to religious observance or faith, such as preparation for rites of passage (e.g. Jewish yeshivas and chedarim, Muslim madrassahs, Christian Sunday schools); and
  3. Places where children and young people gather in connection with their religious beliefs (e.g. youth groups, camps)

The Inquiry will focus upon those religious organisations with a significant presence within England and Wales, including but not limited to:

  1. “Non-conformist” Christian denominations;
  2. Eastern and Coptic Orthodox communities;
  3. Pentecostal churches and independent charismatic and house churches;
  4. The Church of Latter Day Saints;
  5. The Jehovah’s witnesses;
  6. Islam;
  7. Judaism;
  8. Hinduism;
  9. Jainism;
  10. Sikhism;
  11. Buddhism

Given the scope of such a hearing, it is difficult to see how exactly the Inquiry will deal with such a prevalent issue across such a broad range of religions.

However, the way in which it will be dealt with can be gleaned from the scope, which is effectively the four corners of the hearing.   The scope indicates that the Inquiry will examine these institutions on a “thematic” basis focussing on management of child protection within religious organisations and settings including the training and understanding of child sexual abuse, policies and procedures, vetting and barring, responses to allegations of child sexual abuse and internal processes for auditing, inspection and oversight of child protection practices and procedures.

What this means is the Inquiry, unlike in previous hearings, might not have any specific case studies in respect of abuse in the past and the religious institution's response.  Whilst this is understandable given how unwieldy and time consuming it would be if each institution were to be examined both specifically by reference to case studies and broadly in respect of their practices and procedures, it must not be lost sight of, however, how important those case studies are.

The reality is that many of these religious institutions will publicly abhor child abuse and denounce it as a sin.  It would be outrageous not to. We do not suggest for one minute that individuals, leaders or even the institution is not genuine when publishing such material. The problem is in the implementation.

What we do know is that no matter how loud the protest against child abuse by religious institutions, the reality of dealing with sex offenders, allegations of child abuse and internal practices are often not reflective of those public positions.

This reflects a wider problem in these institutions, which is a reluctance and often a hatred of being governed by secular laws and society.  So the Inquiry has a real chance here to dig deep into these institutions and establish which ones have outdated practices which must change, whether by external legislation or from within, and which ones do not have proper safeguarding practices.

We believe the answer will be fairly predictable - mandatory reporting is required.   This will avoid ridiculous internal policies which exist to avoid reporting child sexual abuse to secular authorities and focus on dealing with it internally.

Whether the Inquiry should go further and adopt positions such as in Victoria, Australia and recommend failure to protect laws should also be considered by the Inquiry.

In Victoria, a criminal offence was introduced in 2015 which applies where there is a substantial risk that a child under the age of 16 under the care, supervision or authority of a relevant organisation will become a victim of a sexual offence committed by an adult associated with that organisation.

A person in a position of authority in the organisation will commit the offence if they know of the risk of abuse and have the power or responsibility to reduce or remove the risk, but negligently fail to do so. 

This offence encourages organisations to actively manage the risks of sexual offences being committed against children in their care to protect them from harm.

It is our view, that given the magnitude of the problem, this is a necessary step.  There is one sure-fire guard against child sexual abuse and that is to place in a person who is in a position of authority within a relevant institution criminal responsibility for negligently failing to take steps to protect a child from a known risk of abuse.

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.

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