Centre for Research on Families and Relationships

“Just the fault of religion”?

by Sarah Nelson


Dr Sarah Nelson is a Research Associate of Centre for Research on Families and Relationships (CRFR) and a research specialist on childhood sexual abuse and its effects across the lifecourse. Sarah’s book, ‘Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical Approaches’, offers hope of more effective, imaginative means of protecting children and young people from sexual abuse.


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Are some organisations more likely than others to sexually abuse children, due to their unique beliefs and behaviour? Or is it the risk factors they share with other, different organisations which enable abuse to continue unchecked?

Leading football clubs, classical music colleges and the modelling industry for instance appear very different, yet they share one vital risk factor. Young people and their parents are desperate to succeed and “live the dream” in highly competitive environments. Thus, they are more easily manipulated, bribed, silenced or threatened with exclusion by perpetrators.

A major report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), which found widespread sexual abuse across 38 different religious groups, suggests that most of their risk factors are shared with other organisations. This has implications for how child protection authorities identify risks and dangers to children, and the organisational changes they recommend.

While the religions in the IICSA study – including Christian, Jehovah’s Witness, Moslem, Jewish and Sikh – did display particular religious features, some characteristics were shared with other organisations, cultures and families. All of these ensured “significant under-reporting of CSA in religious organisations and settings”.

The report found “shocking failures to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse across almost all major religions” said Alexis Jay, chair to the Inquiry. Settings included schools, holiday camps, Sunday schools, Jewish yeshivas and Islamic madrassas. Sometimes even basic child protection procedures were absent.

Barriers to reporting and intervention did include religious features such as misuse of the concept of forgiveness to pressurise victims not to report, and to justify leaders’ failure to take appropriate action. Widespread reluctance to discuss sex and sexuality was identified too, although that is also found in many cultures.

Excessive respect and deference for religious figures was very significant. Even here however – and although religious figures can be endowed with mystical, sometimes divine qualities – such excessive deference is often found for other respected or wealthy lay figures in communities, in politics, in professions and social structures. It has fostered ready disbelief in their victims’ claims.

The report identified other major barriers and dangers. Self-policing of the organisation, and strong fears of reputational damage, were put above the welfare of victims. Such features have been shared with other prestigious organisations and schools. Patriarchal authority and emphasis on obedience, which also facilitate abuse and silencing in religious groups, remain too among many families in the UK.

The fact that several identified risk factors exist beyond religious groups does not diminish their importance, nor the need to challenge each in order to ensure more effective child protection policy and practice in religious settings. Various religions and denominations must now also face the fact that that clusters of these risk factors have been found in their own organisations.

However, it does suggest the inappropriateness of simple anticlerical, or even sectarian, responses to such reports as the IICSA, or to blaming a particular religion or denomination.

While this report covered England and Wales, there is no reason to suppose any significant difference exists in Scotland, which has seen its own abuse scandals, especially but not exclusively in the RC church. In some ways existing child protection guidance for religious groups appears stronger than south of the Border. Scotland already states that all religious organisations should have a child protection policy and supporting procedures – one recommendation the IICSA report made for England.

Under Scotland’s National Guidance for Child Protection 2021, within both regulated care and voluntary services by religious groups, “all reasonable steps must be taken to provide a safe environment that promotes and supports the wellbeing of children and young people”. In Scotland too, all independent schools must be registered, opening them to Ministerial intervention or even closure if they do not “safeguard and promote” the welfare of learners. Their teachers must now be registered with the General Teaching Council and have appropriate background checks.

However, this report suggests that problems will remain. First, an independent school is defined in both Scotland and England as providing fulltime education. Clarification is needed on where this leaves the status of Scottish Sunday schools, madrassas, yeshivas and so on in terms of safeguarding requirements, and the State’s ability to intervene.

Secondly, how far does (or can) current Guidance actually address the key risk factors in religious settings suggested by this report? It conscientiously urges appointment of child protection co-ordinators, safe recruitment practice, safe pastoral support, agreed protocols, training and awareness-raising. Volunteers with church and faith organisations must report concerns to their line manager or child protection co-ordinator. It is heavily about procedures and assumes goodwill. Faith groups, it says, “should” have these designated child protection leads, who “have a role” in passing on concerns to police or social work.

Major risks however are more about fundamental issues, such as traditional ways of working, organising and investigating themselves; cultures of obedience and of putting the organisation first; inability by sincere church people to believe senior figures could abuse; considerable fear by victims of speaking out publicly; guilty self-blame; survivors’ disillusionment; and the high status of senior religious figures in our society.

These are heavy cultural and traditional burdens to address. They are not just problems for religious organisations, but they do suggest bolder approaches than training, protocols and procedures may be needed.

Fear and silencing suggest a need actively to provide confidential means of disclosure. Self-policing requires accountability to the outside world. Patriarchal authority and obedience call for greater openness in structure and practice, and cultures which aim for more gender equality. Greater openness to discussion of sex and sexuality and strong statements from within religious bodies about how concepts of forgiveness and obedience should no longer be used would help protect children and vulnerable adults.

These are major challenges for professionals, supported by our Government, in their co-operation, their dialogue and even their demands in work with religious bodies. These challenges continue too for senior and lay members of Scotland’s religions: those who seek changes which will actively protect the children and young people with whom they work.