Child sexual abuse victims have been let down by the “blatant hypocrisy and moral failing” of religions “purporting to teach right from wrong”, an inquiry has found.
The Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) discovered cases of abuse in most major UK religions, with some found to have no child protection policies in place at all.
In its latest report, the inquiry said there was no way of knowing the true scale of child sex abuse in religious settings as there was likely to be “significant” under-reporting.
The inquiry examined evidence from 38 religious groups in England and Wales including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Methodists, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism and non-conformist Christian denominations.
“The report highlights the blatant hypocrisy and moral failing of religions purporting to teach right from wrong and yet failing to prevent or respond to child sexual abuse,” it said.
It covered a broad range of religious settings, including Sunday schools, madrasahs and Jewish yeshivas, and found organisations often had “significant and even dominant influence” on the lives of millions of children.
“What marks religious organisations out from other institutions is the explicit purpose they have in teaching right from wrong; the moral turpitude of any failing by them in the prevention of, or response to, child sexual abuse is therefore heightened,” the report said.
“Freedom of religion and belief can never justify or excuse the ill-treatment of a child, or a failure to take adequate steps to protect them from harm,” it added.
The report found that while some organisations did have “effective” child protection policies, some settings did not have “even basic child protection procedures” in place.
Religious leaders blamed victims for their abuse, put the organisation’s reputation above their needs and discouraged the external reporting of allegations, it said.
The report gave the example of three children who were sexually abused by a prominent member of the Charedi Jewish community in Manchester who was also the son of a rabbi.
One of the victims, a 15-year-old girl, reported her abuse to a rabbi, but the only action taken was to send the perpetrator to counselling.
When the victim shared the allegations with influential individuals in the community two years later, she was offered £5,000 compensation.
She was told it was the “only route” and that it was “not considered an option” to go to the police because she would be regarded as a “moiser” – a Yiddish term for someone who informs on another Jew to secular authorities – and shunned by the community.
Another case involved a 12-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted by a volunteer at a Methodist church.
She revealed the abuse to her mother, who reported it to the police.
During a phone call with a church minister, the victim’s mother was told her abuser and his family were “valued members of the church” and that he must be considered “innocent until proven guilty”.
The report recommended all religious organisations should have a child protection policy and supporting procedures.
It also called on the government to legislate to amend the definition of full-time education to bring any setting that is the pupil’s primary place of education within the scope of a registered school, and provide Ofsted with sufficient powers to examine the quality of child protection when undertaking inspection of suspected unregistered schools.
Professor Alexis Jay, chair of the inquiry said: “Religious organisations are defined by their moral purpose of teaching right from wrong and protection of the innocent and the vulnerable.
“However, when we heard about shocking failures to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse across almost all major religions, it became clear many are operating in direct conflict with this mission.
“Blaming the victims, fears of reputational damage and discouraging external reporting are some of the barriers victims and survivors face, as well as clear indicators of religious organisations prioritising their own reputations above all else. For many, these barriers have been too difficult to overcome.
“We have seen some examples of good practice, and it is our hope that with the recommendations from this report, all religious organisations across England and Wales will improve what they do to fulfil their moral responsibility to protect children from sexual abuse.”