No religious loopholes for reporting abuse, NSS warns government
Posted: Mon, 7th Aug 2023
Mandatory reporting laws "must apply to all religious settings" including the 'seal of confession', says NSS
There must be no religious exemptions to laws requiring child sexual abuse to be reported, the National Secular Society has warned.
The NSS has told the Home Office it must resist religious lobbying for sacramental confession to be exempted from new mandatory reporting laws.
The NSS's warning came in response to a Home Office consultation on implementing a recommendation from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). IICSA recommended that people who work with children be legally obliged to report incidents of sexual abuse.
The NSS said mandatory reporting laws "must apply to all religious settings", including the 'seal of confession'.
During sacramental confession, which is held by the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations, an individual reports their 'sins' privately to a priest and asks for forgiveness.
In countries including Ireland and Australia, the Catholic Church has resisted laws which would require a priest who heard disclosures of child sexual abuse during confession to report the incident to the authorities.
The NSS said there is "ample evidence" many disclosures of child sexual abuse have been made in confession which, if acted on, could have prevented subsequent abuse.
Research has found that sexual abusers within Catholic clergy have used confession to disclose their abuse and absolve themselves of guilt, in the knowledge that their abuse would not be reported. This enabled the continuation of abuse.
Dynamics in other religious institutions may affect their willingness to report child sex abuse, the NSS warned. This includes the Jehovah's Witnesses' 'two witness' rule, in which elders of a congregation will only act if there are two witnesses to any 'sin' committed, including abuse.
The NSS expressed concern that the government does not appear to have accepted IICSA's recommendation to abolish the three year time limit for child abuse personal injury claims. It also said organisations where abuse has occurred should bear the cost of a victim redress scheme.
The NSS said other reforms are necessary to protect children in religious settings, including:
- Greater powers to tackle unregistered schools and a compulsory register for all children not in school.
- Ensuring all schools, including faith schools, teach inclusive and objective relationships and sex education, and removing the parental right of withdrawal.
- A review of the 'advancement of religion' charitable purpose, as it appears to enable religious institutions with repeated safeguarding failures to operate as registered charities and benefit from tax breaks.
NSS: Government 'must ensure religious privilege does not undermine mandatory reporting law'
NSS head of campaigns Megan Manson said: "We welcome the government's engagement with IICSA's recommendation to implement mandatory reporting laws for child sexual abuse. But such a law must have no religious loopholes.
"Close ties to the state, deferential attitudes and prioritising institutional reputation over the rights and well-being of children have all enabled child sexual abuse in religious settings.
"The government must ensure religious privilege does not undermine any new legal duties to report suspected child sexual abuse, no matter how hard some churches may lobby for exemptions."
The consultation closes on Monday 14th August. Responses can be submitted here.
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