The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse identified a ”callous indifference” to the suffering of victims in a Church that prefers to protect its own reputation over the most vulnerable in its flock, says Samantha Smith
In England and Wales, the dominant Christian denominational churches – Roman Catholic and Anglican – offer spiritual guidance, safety and fellowship to millions. However, behind the veneer of morality among the ranks of the Holy Orders exists a dark history of widespread child sexual abuse that continues to sully the reputation of the Christian faith to this day.
Last week, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) published its long-awaited final report, marking the end of a seven-year investigation into the patterns, demography and history of child sexual abuse in the UK. In it, they highlighted the testimonies of over 7,000 victims and the systemic failings of police, social services, local authorities and religious organisations – among others – in tackling child sexual abuse and exploitation.
Past and present crimes
Child sexual abuse and the Church seem, tragically, to have become synonymous.
The 2002 Boston sex abuse scandal marked the beginning of a series of explosive investigations into allegations of abuse and cover-ups within the Catholic Church, which revealed an epidemic of sexual abuse by members of the clergy against young girls and boys across the globe.
To turn a blind eye to abuse is to abandon the core principles of the Christian faith
The IICSA’s investigation into the Roman Catholic Church of England and Wales documented a lengthy history of abuse; between 1970 and 2015, over 3,000 complaints were filed against more than 900 individuals affiliated with the Church. But these are not crimes of the past. Child sexual abuse has happened – and is still happening – in parishes and dioceses across the country, while those at the helm of the Catholic and Anglican faiths continue to turn a blind eye.
It is estimated that one in six girls and one in 20 boys in England and Wales experience child sexual abuse before the age of 16. Police forces have reported a 57 per cent increase in reports in the last five years.
A failure to respond
The response was characterised by a failure to support survivors, and a desire to instead protect the reputation of the perpetrators and the Church itself. In some cases, church officials actively ignored allegations against clergymen, permitting the continued sexual abuse of children where it might otherwise have been stopped.
Indeed, the attitude of the Catholic Church was described as “resistant to change”, marked by their decades-long refusal to acknowledge past failings, remove dangerous individuals from active duty and implement adequate safeguarding processes to protect vulnerable children from abuse.
In the Church of England, a similarly bleak picture was painted: the IICSA concluded that the Church had, over several decades, displayed “moral cowardice” in the face of hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse against clergy and church officials. Rather than identifying and disciplining offenders within their ranks, internal investigatory mechanisms were used as vessels for church leaders to act out their personal conflicts and antagonisms.
Secrecy, prevarication, institutional blindness, avoidance of reporting alleged crimes and a “callous indifference” towards victims perpetuated an environment in which child sexual abuse was not only ignored but facilitated. Simply put, church institutions prioritised their own reputations, and those of the individuals within them, over the protection of children.
Time to change
Inaction from those tasked with safeguarding children – including religious institutions – sends a very concerning message. It suggests that the safety of victims comes second, and that there is no point in disclosing abuse because nothing will be done.
Churches prioritised their own reputations over the protection of children
Like so many reports before it, the IICSA maintains that “mistakes were made, and lessons are being learnt” by the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. However, the experiences of thousands of victims and survivors suggests otherwise. As Christians, we have a moral and spiritual obligation to protect the most vulnerable members in our society.
To turn a blind eye to the sexual abuse and exploitation that is still occurring up and down the country is to abandon the core principles of the Christian faith. So long as children are still being groomed, raped, exploited and abused under our own roof, our responsibilities are not being met.
Read Samantha’s own story of surviving abuse here.