IICSA concludes with a demand for mandatory reporting of child abuse

Church Times [London, England]

October 20, 2022

By Hattie Williams

[See the IICSA report, executive summary, and summary.]

Inquiry publishes final report, concluding its investigation into 15 institutions 

Mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse must be enforced by UK law to protect the 13 million children in England and Wales from the “vile and degrading” abuse found within institutions across the country, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has concluded.

Its final report, which includes 19 other recommendations and covers all 15 of its investigations into institutional child abuse across the UK, was published on Thursday.

The executive summary describes child abuse as a “global crisis” which has been exacerbated in recent decades by the internet — the regulation of which is a key concern in the report. “The devastation and harm caused by sexual abuse cannot be overstated — the impact of child sexual abuse, often lifelong, is such that everyone must do all they can to protect children.”

It continues: “The sexual abuse and exploitation of children is criminal and morally wrong. There is no excuse for those who perpetrate this crime.”

The 458-page document is divided into two sections, beginning with 100 pages in which the experiences of the more than 7300 victims and survivors who participated in the inquiry are reported in their own words. The remainder of the report details conclusions and recommendations for change set out across 113 themes found within the inquiry’s investigations.

IICSA was established in 2015 as a statutory inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005, to investigate the extent to which institutions have failed to protect children in their care. It was originally chaired by Justice Lowell Goddard (News, 4 December 2015), but after her sudden resignation months later, Professor Alexis Jay took over (News, 12 August 2016).

As part of this work, investigations were carried out, and reports published, covering 15 areas, including the Anglican Church (the Church of England and the Church in Wales) (News, 6 October 2020); the Roman Catholic Church (News, 13 November 2020); and Religious Organisations and Settings (News, 3 September 2021). A further four reports were published on specific case studies, including a report on the diocese of Chichester and the case of the disgraced former Bishop of Lewes, Peter Ball (News, 10 May 2019).

Horrifying cases of physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual abuse are detailed in the first part of the report, including abuse perpetrated by clerics. Most participants had been abused by a family member (90 per cent) and most were aged between four and 15 at the time. Cries for help at the time had been ignored or dismissed, leading to fear and misplaced shame.

“Blame was frequently assigned to the victims who were treated as if they were unworthy of protection,” a summary of the report says.

One survivor of clerical abuse told the inquiry during its investigations into the Anglican Church: “I believe that a man who is a padre was a man of God and being in the army he was a higher rank than my father and so I didn’t think anyone would believe me.”

Summarising the findings of the Anglican investigation, the final IICSA report says: “In the context of child sexual abuse, the Church’s neglect of the physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing of children and young people in favour of protecting its reputation was in conflict with its mission of love and care for the innocent and vulnerable.”

THREE of the 20 recommendations made in the report are described as forming the “centrepiece” for the Inquiry’s work.

These are: a new law of mandatory reporting, making the reporting of known or suspected child sexual abuse a legal requirement of personnel who work in regulated activities (for example, churches, hospitals, schools, colleges, and nurseries); a national scheme in England and Wales of financial redress for victims and survivors; and the establishment of a Child Protection Authority.

Currently in the UK, there is no legal requirement to report an allegation of sexual abuse to authorities — even if the victim is a child. Under the Children Act 2004, a range of organisations are duty-bound to report, but there are no sanctions for not doing so, which the report is now recommending: i.e. a fine or custodial sentence. This is also the case in Wales.

A Bill which seeks to introduce mandatory reporting of suspected and known child sexual abuse to statutory authorities in regulated activities was introduced by Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson in July. The Regulated and Other Activities (Mandatory Reporting of Child Sexual Abuse) Bill is supported by lawyers representing survivors, and the pressure group Mandate Now.

The inquiry report states that its investigations had “demonstrated that systematic change is needed to ensure allegations of child sexual abuse are reported”. It refers to several cases in which no steps were taken by senior leaders to report known or suspected abuse — this was one of the inquiry’s key criticisms of the Anglican Church, revealing that clergy, bishops, and archbishops failed time and again to report disclosures of abuse to the statutory authorities or the police, often to protect the institution, with the consequence that perpetrators were free to continue to offend.

This touches upon the seal of confession, the priest’s obligation under canon law to hear a person’s confession of sin, or imagined sin, in complete confidence, so that nothing that the priest is told in that context will be repeated or disclosed under any circumstances. This is also the rule of the Roman Catholic Church.

IICSA’s recommendation would therefore require the General Synod to change canon law on the absolute confidentiality of the seal of the confessional to allow priests to breach the seal of confession to report abuse, or suspected abuse, of children and vulnerable adults.

The current Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy state: “If, in the context of such a confession, the penitent discloses that he or she has committed a serious crime, such as the abuse of children or vulnerable adults, the priest must require the penitent to report his or her conduct to the police or other statutory authority. If the penitent refuses to do so the priest should withhold absolution.”

A priest hearing the confession may declare absolution and give counsel, including guidance on repentance, amendment, and restitution. The disproportionate focus on the value of the welfare of the penitent over that of the child has been questioned throughout the IICSA hearings.

The recommendation for mandatory reporting was widely expected. Earlier this month, the House of Bishops commissioned a new working party of “theologians, church leaders, and safeguarding professionals” to carry out further work on the seal, taking IICSA recommendations into account (News, 14 October). A church statement later on Thursday confirmed that this recommendation would be included in its work.

A working party had been set up in 2014, but their report and interim statement published in 2018 did not reach a conclusion on whether the seal should be abolished, upheld, or amended — only that more training should be given to ordinands and priests on its use (News, 8 May 2019).

OTHER recommendations in the final IICSA report include a single core data set in England and Wales relating to child sexual abuse collected by social-care and criminal-justice agencies; a Cabinet minister for children; a public awareness campaign to challenge the “myths and stereotypes” about child sexual abuse; registration of staff in children’s homes with an independent body; increased DBS checks; the provision by Government of specialist therapeutic support for victims and survivors; and online age-verification, which the General Synod lobbied for in July (News, 12 July).

In the press conference, Professor Jay said: “Offending on the dark web involves a level of depravity that is hard to comprehend, such as the rape and violent abuse of babies and toddlers.” She called for urgent progress on the Online Safety Bill, which she said had taken too long to enact.

Another recommendation is the removal in UK law of the time limit for victims and survivors of child abuse to make a legal claim for compensation except where claims have been dismissed in court or settled — an issue that has affected survivors of non-recent abuse in church contexts.

Professor Jay described the “scourge” of child sexual abuse as a “national epidemic”. “The nature and scale of the abuse we encountered was shocking and deeply disturbing. This is not just a historical aberration which happened decades ago: it is an ever-increasing problem and a national epidemic.”

She continued: “The whole subject of child sexual abuse is mired in euphemism, obfuscation, myth, and stereotypes. So let me put this plainly — it is not uncommon, it is not contained within one sector of society, it is not always hidden, nor is it confined to girls. And nor is it true that it does not occur within ethnic minority communities. . .

“It is vile and degrading and its consequences are frequently lifelong for the victims.”