Victims of sexual abuse in churches and religious institutions were particularly damaged by the loss of their faith, a new report by the quasi-governmental Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has found.
The Truth Project Thematic Report, noting that the majority of abuse occurred in Catholic and Anglican churches in England and Wales, reported that one in five of the victims lost their faith as a direct consequence of their horrific experiences.
The “spiritual impact” of the abuse was “particularly damaging” to survivors “particularly where their religion provided the foundation to their morality, beliefs, social relationships and the way they lived their daily lives,” the report stated.
“Loss of religious faith” was “notable” among the victims and recovery was complicated for many “because they had been abused by religious individuals and, subsequently, their belief systems had been challenged,” it added.
The survivors were unable to reconcile their religious beliefs with being sexually abused by someone they saw as a representative of God. They also suffered after being alienated from their church or religious community.
Survivors said that religion was central to their childhoods and family life.
The challenge to the religious and spiritual beliefs of the victims was profound in a way not generally evident in abuse that occurred in other institutions and circumstances, the report concluded.
Perpetrators used victim’s spirituality and religion to manipulate them and the influence of religious institutions enhanced opportunities for perpetrators. Survivors said that religion was central to their childhoods and family life.
However, the traumatic experience had the opposite effect for one survivor, who went on to become a priest. He explained: “I do [enjoy being a priest] because I can do something about the institution from the inside out and I love God. [The abuse] was about [the perpetrator], not about God.”
The report also found that a higher proportion of males were sexually abused in a religious context compared to those abused in a non-religious context (61 per cent and 34 per cent respectively).
Much of the abuse occurred in male-dominated, closed and insular religious institutions with considerable influence on the community and congregations.
The most common age range for the first experience of abuse was 8–11 years old and victims sexual abused in a religious context were slightly older on average than those abused in non-religious contexts.
The nature of the abuse for participants abused in religious contexts typically involved fondling or other forms of sexual abuse involving non-penetrative contact, and victims less frequently reported penetrative abuse than participants abused in non-religious contexts.
30 per cent of those abused in a religious context reported multiple episodes of abuse involving different, unconnected perpetrators.
They also spoke about being continually re-victimised by religious institutions and communities because of the authorities’ “deflection, denial and disbelief.”
“I wrote to the bishop ... I asked to see him to talk about [the sexual abuse]. He wrote back saying he wouldn’t see me ... So I wrote back to him and said, ‘If I promise not to sue you, will you see me?’ He wrote back saying, ‘We’ll give you a date,’” one survivor said.
Many victims knew of someone else being abused in the same institution.
Another survivor told how they had been “pretty much fobbed off with a cup of tea and biscuits” after disclosing their abuse, while another said they had been blanked—with “no return call, no missed calls, no messages, no letters, nothing”—when they tried to follow up their complaint with the institution.
Many victims knew of someone else being abused in the same institution. Some either knew or strongly believed that those within the institution knew about the abuse and that other adults (including parents and other professionals) did not act as a result of the power and control of the religious institution and religious leaders.
“This power, by virtue of a perceived higher authority, and the lack of safeguarding awareness or practices, created conditions where perpetrators were easily able to abuse and where a range of strategies were used by religious leaders and others in the community to protect the institution,” the report said.
As a result, only a third of victims reported or shared their abuse at the time. A greater proportion of victims abused in a religious context reported their experiences of abuse to someone in authority inside the institution, while only a few reported it to the police.
A large proportion of those sexually abused in religious contexts disclosed the abuse after it had ended.
However, even after the abuse was reported, there was a continual failure of the religious institution to acknowledge that the sexual abuse had taken place. The rhetoric used by religious officials in the public domain did not match their experience of support, victims said.
Others cited instances where the religious institution informally recognised the abuse but avoided situations where they would be forced to formally take action.
Dr Sophia King, principal researcher for the Truth Protect, said: “This report examines their accounts in order to paint 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.”
The report describes the experiences of victims sexually abused in churches or religious institutions between the 1940s and 2010s.
The accounts in the report are from survivors who approached the Truth Project with their testimonies between June 2016 and November 2018.
The project also examined a minority of abuse cases from Islam and Orthodox Judaism and from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
(Originally published in Church Militant. To comment on this piece, click here)