The Churches Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) has made the warning in response to a report by the National Crime Agency’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop) that criticises the role of churches, schools, youth groups and care homes in protecting children from abuse.
The report details how poor leadership and “inflexible hierarchies” among such institutions are leading to a culture of fear, causing abuse to be ignored.
Based on abuse case files and interviews, the Ceop report found that junior members of staff and religious community members felt disempowered and unable to report abuse if it involved senior colleagues or religious leaders. Some said they feared being ostracised or punished themselves.
The community work of religious groups also gave abusers an effective mask of “virtue” to groom children, said the report. In addition, reports of abuse being ignored led to a “normalization” of abuse in some organisations.
CCPAS said hierarchies within the Christian religion are a particular concern because these can lead to parents being “more prone to obeying their church leaders without question”.
Simon Bass, chief executive of CCPAS, said: “It sounds harsh to suggest that the children of strongly-committed parents are more at risk of being abused. However, this is not only true but it stems largely from the fact that they tend to buy in to the culture of their local church wholeheartedly.
“Unscrupulous church leaders may be able to exploit the respect and, often, unquestioning obedience they receive from their more committed members as cover for their abusing, because they are less likely to believe their leaders could or would ever offend. If any do have concerns, the hierarchical, narrow pyramid structures of such churches prevents them from raising those worries in the most appropriate and effective ways.”
Among Ceop’s recommendations is an expansion of the legal definition of ‘position of trust’ to include sports coaches and religious leaders. This definition carries a further deterrent to abusers of harsher sentencing in courts.
All institutions including religious groups should also develop and regularly update safeguarding policies and tighten their recruitment procedure. Potential recruits should be asked in job interviews whether they would raise concerns about abuse, said Ceop.
Bass added: “Any church that has no proper safeguarding policy, does not operate safer recruitment procedures and operates under a hierarchical structure that is closed to wider scrutiny creates the perfect environment within which, potentially, malign cultures of abuse may thrive.”