Religion, abuse and the role of the secular state

The Guardian

August 29, 2018

Readers respond to Polly Toynbee’s claim that respect for the rights of religion has gone too far

Well said, Polly Toynbee (The culture of respect for religion has gone too far, 28 August). The dreadful deeds that have taken place in religious establishments responsible for teaching, instructing or caring for children over the generations is unconscionable. Under the badge of religious exceptionalism, evil people (mostly men) have wreaked huge damage on countless numbers of children, physically, emotionally and morally.

Now that the evidence of their misdeeds is being revealed, often through the bravery of victims who have succeeded in pulling back the curtain of secrecy and silence, we need to take a stand. We have acquiesced while the state stands back, allowing religion to occupy a place apart. Secular oversight is too often seen as unnecessary. We privilege religious schools, we take no interest in the fate of children consigned to their control, subjected to different codes of practice and, too often, the depredations of unscrupulous adults. We choose not to monitor the fate of children withdrawn from mainstream schools and educated in unofficial establishments, or “at home” by parents with religious intent.

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The Disclosure and Barring Service checks countless numbers of volunteers working with children in the open, public sphere, but sees no need to know what is happening in the private, religious domain. It’s time, as Polly Toynbee suggests, for us to rethink the religious presence in our legislature and be unequivocal as to the right of all children to receive the same level of protection decreed as necessary and required by the law of the land.
Gillian Dalley


• Polly Toynbee rightly highlights the shame of abuse within religious institutions, but takes the argument too far in launching a familiar attack on faith in general. She overlooks that many of the great social reforms have been led by religious figures, including William Wilberforce’s battle against slavery, Elizabeth Fry’s prison reforms and anti-apartheid campaigners such as Trevor Huddleston. Movements that have helped thousands of people have been founded out of the roots of faith, like the Salvation Army (William Booth) and the Samaritans (Chad Varah).

The NHS, whose 70th anniversary we mark this year, was inspired by the thinking of William Beveridge, but also influenced by the archbishop William Temple, who held this office from 1942 to 1944. Faith has and can be a catalyst, inspiration and motivator for social change.
Zaki Cooper

Trustee, Council of Christians and Jews

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