Children who suffer sexual abuse are significantly less likely to report it if it is being perpetrated in a religious institution, according to a major analysis of survivors’ experiences.
A study by the Truth Project, part of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), drew upon the experiences of 183 individuals who were abused as children in religious institutions, or by clergy or church staff in other settings.
Almost half said they knew of someone else being abused at the time, but more than two-thirds said they had not reported it – a figure that dropped to 54 per cent among victims in non-religious settings.
Survivors said shame and guilt had prevented them from coming forward, and called for an end to the secrecy that often surrounds religious institutions, saying it enables abusers to operate with impunity.
One survivor, Lucy*, told the inquiry that the abuse she suffered after her family became involved with the Jesus Fellowship Church left her with serious mental health problems she is still coping with in her forties.
She said her parents were “brainwashed” by the church, which took all her toys from her when they joined – even her comfort blanket – and made her sleep in the same room with strange adults.
“They were big, big houses with multiple rooms and they would let anyone in off the street,” she told The Independent.
“There were no safeguarding checks on anyone. Nobody was questioned. They let very vulnerable, often mentally unwell people from the streets and criminals in our environment. It meant there was never a safe space.
“I woke up with people standing over me, shouting at me, threatening me. Then you would have to get up and go to school the next day. It was constant trauma. I was sexually abused by two teenage boys. There were lots of older children abusing younger children. There was emotional abuse and neglect of children, and sexual abuse affected many.”
Lucy said she began to be sexually abused by a teenage boy when she was around 12, but had no-one to tell, feeling she would not be believed, or even blamed for it. After another boy found out what was happening, he threatened to tell the other church members, while himself violently sexually abusing her.
She said: “As well as this, for most of my teenage years one of the members was also ‘grooming’ me. Wherever I was, he just always seemed to be there. He would get me on my own and touch me. I told another member that it was happening and they were saddened. I thought they were going to do something, but they didn’t.”
The church’s founder Noel Stanton, who died in 2009, is alleged to have abused members, including children sexually and financially.
Lucy left the church when she was 17, with her parents leaving around two years later after becoming “aware of very serious abuse going on”.
Survivors involved in the wider report argued that secrecy in religious institutions and an assumption around the morality of perpetrators needs to change in order for abuse to stop happening in future.
More than half of survivors – all of whom shared their experiences in person, in writing or on the phone between June 2016 and November 2018 – said they had engaged with the project because they wanted change to prevent abuse happening to someone else. Some 18 per cent of those abused said they had lost their faith as a result of the abuse.
Dr Sophia King, the IICSA study’s principal researcher, said: “Barriers to exposure relate to how much reverence is bestowed on the religious institutions themselves and the clergy within them. Participants felt institutions, and congregations and communities in those institutions, rallied around to protect perpetrators. Ninety-six per cent of victims and survivors reported a male perpetrator.”
Most participants reported sexual abuse by individuals from Anglican and Catholic Churches in England and Wales, but abuse within other Christian denominations and other religions – including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Islam and Judaism – was also reported and is included in the analysis.
A statement on the Jesus Fellowship Church website said an apology has been given for the “faults and failures in the church that have had a profound impact on many people’s lives”.
It added: “Children and vulnerable people were entitled to expect full protection from harm. We acknowledge the pain many of those people continue to feel. As things have become clearer to us, we are grieved and deeply troubled.”
Representatives of the church, which according to its website has recently closed, have been contacted by The Independent for comment.
To find out more about how to share an experience with the Truth Project, part of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, visit truthproject.org.uk, call 0800 917 1000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
*Name changed to protect the identity of the victim
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