By Kieran McCartan, Ph.D., Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D., and David Prescott, LICSW
Recently in the UK the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) published a report, as part of its mandate, on the extent and impact of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) within religious organizations. Unfortunately, the report indicated that child sexual abuse was often commonplace, underreported, and that the organizations defended (or at least did not condemn or remove) the person committing the abuse. Further, they found that these organisations did not support those who had been victimized. While this is very troubling, it is not uncommon either in terms of abuse within religious organizations or organisations per se; we have seen this internationally (with a similar story being published in Belgium this week and in the Netherlands last year). These revelations raise the question: why we have not moved further forward in responding to and preventing sexual abuse in organisations?
When thinking about writing this blog, the authors toyed with what was the most significant thing to focus on. As we’ve noted, religious organisations failing those have been sexually victimized is not news. This in turn leads to further questions about safeguarding, disclosures, prosecutions, treatment, and reintegration. Even then, it feels as though we are rewriting previous blogs!! Then, the authors came across a quote from Professor Alexis Jay, chair of the inquiry:
“Religious organisations are defined by their moral purpose of teaching right from wrong and protection of the innocent and the vulnerable. However, when we heard about shocking failures to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse across almost all major religions, it became clear many are operating in direct conflict with this mission. Blaming the victims, fears of reputational damage and discouraging external reporting are some of the barriers victims and survivors face, as well as clear indicators of religious organisations prioritising their own reputations above all else. For many, these barriers have been too difficult to overcome.”
Indeed, a recent Dutch study into child sexual abuse within the community of Jehovah’s witnesses emphasizes Prof. Jay’s statement. In 2019, 751 people reported to an anonymous hotline set up by Dutch researchers for (alleged) victims or people who have knowledge of abuse within this community. Three quarters of the victims find the handling of their report within the community by the Jehovah’s community inadequate. Many of these alleged victims stated that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are mainly guided by the biblical principle that they should not take a brother to court. And this is not only a dynamic that we observe in their community; despite all high-profile cases of child sexual abuse in the church of the past few years, it is still far too common to sweep these issues under the rug.
This is significant and important to unpack, as CSA (and any abuse for that matter) is anathema to the role, function, and mission of religious organizations. Without getting too philosophical about the role and function of religion in modern society, the mandate of all – especially mainstream religions – is to provide a sense of moral direction within a shared community where followers are respected, supported, and able to live their lives with a sense of common purpose and compassion.
All major religions have compassion at their centre. This includes understanding and working together to support the most vulnerable in society. The roots of community and religion are often intertwined. This makes sexual abuse within religious communities (especially within religious communities that work to downplay it or dismiss it) even more worrying, since in turning a blind eye to abuse they are going against these core values and shared ideals. Saying that religious organizations are flawed when it comes to child sexual abuse is significant: the message is that it’s not just the organisation and processes that are flawed, but that the underlying belief system is as well. Therefore, these organizations are on the horns of a dilemma: They wish to appear compassionate, and they wish to protect their reputation and often that of the accused. It seems that with each passing day, it becomes less tenable to try to do both, and those who have been harmed are not letting them off the hook.
The challenge for religious organisations is how to acknowledge and respond to claims of CSA, as the “blame it on a few bad apples” approach no longer holds water given the volume, nature, and scope of CSA within religious organizations and they’re at-best lacklustre response to it. The moral paradox of CSA for religion is that they should be supporting the least valued and vulnerable in society and not the people harming them. They should be welcoming and supportive of victims of CSA and not of the people committing CSA. While religious organizations should promote forgiveness and redemption this should only take place after acknowledgement, acceptance, and accountability have taken place. Restoration should be a cornerstone of responding to CSA but only after recognition. Until then, those who have been harmed can neither forgive nor forget.
Religious organizations need to consider their responses to CSA not only from process and policy perspectives, but also from a moral and philosophical level. How does CSA resonate with their spiritual and beliefs, and how does that translate into their social norms and behaviors? Although we’ve blogged about so many of these issues before, it behooves all of us to keep the discussion and information flowing if no fundamental changes are being observed.