Rogue preachers use 'witch' scares to abuse children

Police say unregulated ministers play on believers' superstitions to beat, starve, even kill youngsters

Children are being branded as witches in churches in the UK, with many suffering abuse from supposed exorcisms in which they are physically restrained and screamed at. But those are the lucky ones.

The very accusation of being a witch can result in children being starved, tortured, beaten, stabbed or even, as in the case of Victoria Climbié, murdered. It is an increasing problem around the country, campaigners say.

Police admit the cases they deal with are the tip of the iceberg, with people reluctant to speak out for fear of being stigmatised.

"It is a hidden crime that is very difficult to measure," said Jason Morgan, a detective based at the Metropolitan Police's Project Violet – a specialist child protection unit. "There may well be a large number of cases that never come to light ... it is a national problem," he added.

Debbie Ariyo, founder of Africans Unite against Child Abuse (Afruca), said: "This is a growing problem and we are seeing more of it. At the very least, we are talking about dozens of cases every year."

Last year her organisation dealt with at least 10 cases of children in Britain accused of being witches or possessed by evil spirits, including two children with "challenging behaviour" who were beaten by parents who believed they were possessed. In another case a disabled child was burnt with an iron in an attempt to get rid of the evil spirit blamed for the condition.

A 10-month undercover investigation into what takes place behind closed doors in some African churches has exposed pastors who exploit the religious beliefs of their congregations and then seek large sums of money in return for "deliverance".

In one case, a church leader used the fear of witches to obtain sexual favours. Kay (not her real name) began worshipping at the Faith and Victory Church in London when she was 13. Her mother had died several years before and her father was being treated for kidney failure. Kay claimed that in 2008, when she had turned 18, her pastor said she would need to sleep with him 21 times to rid her family of the witchcraft that caused their problems. Kay said: "It felt as if I was being raped."

Another woman told how her husband was turned against her by their pastor at a London church. "He told my husband that God showed him that his wife and son were witches." Convinced his pregnant wife and two-year-old son were possessed, her husband attacked them and moved out. Eighteen months later he committed suicide. "These pastors are destroying people's lives. They should be put behind bars," she said.

There are more than 4,000 African churches in Britain, serving half a million people. "At the moment you can set up a church anywhere, any time ... in the same way we wouldn't tolerate somebody setting themselves up as a lawyer or surgeon without proper training and regulation, we shouldn't expose the souls of people to anybody who happens to think they can set up a church," said Bishop Dr Joe Aldred, secretry of minority ethnic Christian affairs at Churches Together in England.

The investigation into "Britain's witch children" will be broadcast on Channel 4's Dispatches tomorrow.

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