Experts speak out against religious abuse

Abuse survivors and safeguarding experts came together to discuss how to tackle abuse in religious communities, in a panel discussion organised by the National Secular Society.

The event, which took place at Manchester Art Gallery on Sunday, aimed to highlight current threats to safeguarding in a variety of religious settings, and explore what needs to be done to keep people in all communities safe from abuse.

The discussion began with Yehudis Fletcher, of the Jewish counter-extremism group Nahamu. An independent sexual abuse advisor, Yehudis spoke about the challenges to safeguarding in the orthodox Jewish community, where strict adherence to religious norms has led to problems with unregistered faith schools, forced marriage and the denial of women’s rights. She said religious leaders “outsource morality” to religion, leading to “systematic failures” in safeguarding. She expressed support for proposals to tackle unregistered schools, including a compulsory register for children who are home educated.

Rachael Reign, of Surviving Universal UK, spoke about her experiences as a former member of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG). Describing the church as a “cult”, Rachael explained how the Church makes millions of pounds through tithing vulnerable people. She said the tithing amounts to “emotional and psychological abuse”, because members are sometimes threatened that “bad things will happen” if they do not donate to the church. She also criticised the church for practising exorcism, including on children. She herself was exorcised while under 18, and now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Rachael said the church uses aspects of the state, including the NHS, the police and the charity sector, to gain credibility and access to potential converts.

Finally Richard Scorer, NSS vice president and lawyer specialising in representing victims and survivors of abuse, spoke about the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). The inquiry, which concluded in 2022, examined abuse in religious settings as part of its remit. Richard said IICSA focussed “overwhelmingly” on abuse in the Catholic Church and the Church of England, while neglecting abuse in other religious communities. But he welcomed IICSA’s recommendation for a legal requirement for mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse in certain settings including religious organisations. The government is now preparing to introduce mandatory reporting laws in England. Richard said IICSA’s findings demonstrate that religious organisations “cannot be trusted to self police”, and that independent state oversight is required for safeguarding in religious settings.

Audience members shared their insights and experiences during a Q&A session chaired by NSS president Keith Porteous Wood.

NSS: Mindset around religion “must change” to tackle abuse

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans said: “It was valuable to bring together people from a wide background of experience, expertise, and communities to discuss the steps we need to take to protect people in religious communities from abuse and harm.

“A theme which emerged again and again was that public authorities fail to challenge abuse out of fear of being accused of being anti-religious or intolerant.

“This mindset must change. We must not let deference to religion stop us from speaking out when we know someone is being harmed, or is at risk of harm, from the imposition of religious ideology.

“I’d like to thank our excellent speakers for courageously giving a voice to abuse victims and calling out the failings of the state and their own former or current religious communities.”

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