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Shame stops children reporting abuse in religious institutions, inquiry warns

Website: The Guardian
Date: 30/05/2019
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Testimonies for independent inquiry reveal how abusers use beliefs to manipulate victims

Children who were sexually abused in religious institutions often did not disclose assaults and mistreatment because they felt ashamed and guilty, a report from the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse (IICSA) has said.

Almost one in five of those abused reported a loss of faith as a direct consequence of their experiences, according to testimonies given to the inquiry's truth project.

The report, based on accounts from more than 180 survivors, was published on Thursday, a few days after the Jesus Army, a radical evangelical church based in Northampton, closed down as a national body after multiple cases and allegations of historical sexual abuse.

Six men from the church have been sentenced for the indecent and sexual assault of 11 victims from the 1970s to the 1990s. Northamptonshire police said about 200 complaints of various types of abuse were made, and it was continuing investigations.

Survivors who gave evidence to the IICSA came from religious institutions and backgrounds including the Church of England, the Catholic church, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, Methodists, the Salvation Army, Mormons, Islam and Judaism. The timescale of abuse they experienced ranged from the 1940s to the 2010s.

More than half did not disclose their abuse because of feelings of shame (37%) or guilt (18%). Those abused in religious institutions were significantly less likely to report abuse than survivors from other institutions (69% compared with 54%), the report said.

The abuse typically involved fondling or other forms of sexual abuse involving non-penetrative contact. More than six in 10 of those abused in religious settings were male.

Opportunities for perpetrators were enhanced by the extent of influence and involvement the religious institutions had over their communities and the daily lives, culture and background of survivors and their families. Perpetrators used children's spirituality and religion to manipulate them.

Interviewees described "male-dominated, closed and insular religious institutions with considerable influence on the community and the lives of their congregants", the report said. The institutions were "self-governing … with little or no external contact or supervision".

They said "the secrecy that comes from the sanctity of religious institutions and the assumption of the automatic morality of those involved in them had to be addressed".

Almost half said they knew of others being abused by the same perpetrator. Most perpetrators had an official role within the institutions, such as priest, vicar, imam or elder. Many survivors believed other people in the religious community were aware of their abuser's behaviour but did nothing.

Sophia King, the report's principal researcher, said it painted "a clear picture of abuse in religious settings. It is clear that feelings of shame and embarrassment created a huge barrier to children disclosing abuse, as did the power and authority bestowed upon their abusers."

Among those who gave evidence was "Lucy", who grew up in the 1970s and 80s in the radical evangelical Jesus Fellowship church, later the Jesus Army, in Northamptonshire.

Members of the church voted on Sunday to revoke its constitution after a series of cases of historical sexual abuse and claims of bullying and financial and physical abuse.

According to Lucy, the church "began to resemble the hallmarks of a cult". She said: "We all lived together and were not allowed outside friendships or trips. We never celebrated Christmas and all our toys were taken from us when we joined, even my comfort blanket."

She lived in a community house, where she never felt safe. "I remember feeling anxious, stressed and scared all of the time ... I could never sleep because I wasn’t sure who was around."

She began to be sexually abused by a teenage boy when she was about 12, and another boy regularly abused her after he found out what was happening. For most of her teenage years, a senior leader was grooming her. "He would get me on my own and touch me," she said.

Lucy told another leader what was happening, but no action was taken. She left the church at the age of 17. "It was such a strange, oppressive life ... I do blame my parents at times but they were brainwashed. They had control taken away from them."

After Sunday's decision to close down, the church said it was "deeply sorry for, and appalled by, the abuse that has taken place" within its organisation. "As things have become clearer to us, we are grieved and deeply troubled."

At its peak in the early 2000s, the Jesus Army had about 2,500 members, many of whom lived in community houses. Congregations were established in Birmingham, Brighton, Coventry, Kettering, Leicester, London, Norwich, Oxford and Sheffield as well as Northampton.

Membership fell to below 1,000 people after the abuse claims began to surface a few years ago. The church passed reports to Northamptonshire police, who opened an investigation.

In July, the IICSA will launch an investigation into a range of religious organisations and settings, including Jehovah's Witnesses and Buddhists, alongside its ongoing scrutiny of child protection and abuse in the Church of England and Catholic church.

The investigation will also cover religious settings such as mosques, synagogues, churches and temples. Places where children are taught about faith, such as Muslim madrasas and Christian Sunday schools, will be investigated, along with faith-based youth groups and camps.