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Religious Abuse

Religious abuse can either describe abuse administered by a single religious figure or abuse on a wide scale, systematically imposed by a religious organisation. While much media attention has focused on the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church it is important to note that any religion can be infiltrated or exploited by an abuser, especially as most religions have many of the defining factors that result in institutional abuse.

Religious abuse usually manifests itself through:
Some of the typical settings for religious abuse are:
  • Within religious buildings, such as the vestry or robing room
  • In a car during a trip
  • In an abuser’s lodgings
  • On a holiday organised through the religious organisation


It is impossible to list all of the locations where abuse could take place, although the common denominator for abuse settings will be any cloistered location where the abuser can be alone with their victim.

Various papers and guidelines have been published by religious organisations as to the correct procedure to adopt when an allegation of abuse is made against someone within the religion.

Often counselling is offered, but rarely is an open offer made to compensate the victim, hence the need to instruct a team of experts such as our team of abuse law solicitors.

Secrecy In Religion

Abuse in religious organisations usually occurs because an individual takes advantage of their position of authority to abuse adults or children without fear of facing consequences or being reprimanded.
Many religions adhere to a strict hierarchy, promote a culture of secrecy and have many positions of authority, all of which are conditions that are synonymous with an abusive environment.

Typically, cloistered environments allow abusers to perpetrate their crimes undetected, especially if these environments require children to be alone with a form of authority, away from the protection of their parents.

Abusers operating within a religious organisation will normally meet their victims through the normal course of their work, before grooming and abusing their victim.

Much like other forms of child abuse, abuse committed by religious figures often remains a secret for many years.

Abusers will seek complete psychological control over their victim and may even use their faith or the wider religious institution to keep them quiet, for example a priest may warn of eternal damnation if their victim reports their crimes.

In order to preserve the reputation of the religious body, complainants in previous cases have been asked to sign confidentiality agreements, which are in essence hush documents that are designed to stop the victim going to the media and damaging the reputation of the religious body responsible for employing an abuser.

It is this veil of secrecy that embodies many forms of institutional abuse and is particularly prevalent in religions that feature a small close-knit local community.

Abuse In The Catholic Church

The child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church brought the issue of religious abuse into the media spotlight, with the scandal highlighting the extensive steps that religious organisations will take to keep abuse secret.

The abuse by, and criminal convictions of, priests in the Catholic Church lead to several leading legal precedent judgments in the higher courts concerning the scope of the responsibility of the Church for the criminal behaviour of priests.

Numerous legal arguments were put forward by the Catholic Church, namely that they are not responsible for the actions of their priests, because there is not a relationship of master and servant between the priest and the church.

It has been unsuccessfully argued that the role of a priest is an apparent ‘calling’, rather than a job, and that their income depends upon what is put into the collection on the Sabbath – as such, they are not answerable or paid for their work by the Diocese of the Catholic Church.

Following this argument, the Catholic Church claimed that their priests are self-employed individuals fulfilling a vocation, answerable to their congregation.

The transparency of such arguments has been defeated in a number of high profile appeal cases in the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. These defeats mean that the church is held to employ their delegate, and is responsible for their actions and as such as liable to pay compensation when they failed in their duty to protect children.

One of the biggest scandals that came from the revelations about abusive priests in the Catholic Church was the fact that a number of these abusers had been moved from parish to parish after facing allegations. These priests were revealed not to have been reported to the police, their crimes remaining undiscovered for many years.

The justification for moving abusers to different parishes has been alleged to have derived from the concept of forgiveness of sins by confessional priests, however this practice could be influenced by Crimen Sollicitationis, a document signed by the Holy Office that outlined a response to allegations of abuse; it rules that allegations should be kept strictly confidential within the Church and that even in cases where evidence was strong the accused will only receive a warning.

Abuse At Mosques & Sikh Temples

Figures suggest that, while Churches receive the most allegations of religious abuse, there are increasing cases of abuse taking place in mosques and Sikh temples.

A recent report showed that five new sex offences are reported to take place in religious organisations each week, and while most cases were at churches these figures also included abuse taking place at mosques and Sikh temples. As with most statistics purporting to child abuse, it is estimated that these figures do not reveal the true extent of new child abuse cases in religious organisations, as many incidents go unreported.

Older data from a BBC investigation showed that British madrassas – Muslim educational institutions where children typically take Koran lessons – had received 400 complaints of physical abuse over a three year period; yet again it was thought that this figure only painted part of the picture.

Responding to the investigation, leading Muslim figures admitted that families often faced pressure not to go to court or even make an official complaint that would be dealt with internally.

This veil of secrecy is trying to be lifted by Roshni, a charity based in Scotland, which was established after its founder witnessed a conversation in which senior Muslim figures suggested that an alleged abuser should be allowed to remain at a Mosque.

Abuse in Sikh Gurdwaras was fictionalised by the controversial 2004 play, Behzti – written by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti – which was forced off stage after violent protests took place outside the theatre running the play.

Protestors claimed that the depiction of sexual abuse inside a Gurdwara was unrealistic, however an investigation two years after the controversial play claimed that there is evidence to suggest that they were wrong; there have been various individual cases of abuse taking place in Sikh temples to highlight that abusers could also be operating within the Sikh community.

Orthodox Jewish Communities Hiding Abuse

Highlighting abuse within the Jewish community and the wider issue of religions trying to cover up crimes committed by senior figures, a dispatches investigation into a Strictly Orthodox Jewish Community in 2013 unveiled that a Rabbi told an alleged abuse victim not to go to the police, claiming it would amount to ‘mesira’ – an action in which one Jewish person reports another to a non-Jewish authority, which is forbidden by Rabbinic law.

This report, into the Charedi Jewish community of London, highlighted that, while there was no evidence that sexual abuse was any worse in this religious community than any other, the Charedi community’s child protection policies, or lack thereof, left many at risk from potential abusers.

Most shocking in the Dispatches investigation is the reaction to those who wish to report an alleged abuser. One family that did report an alleged abuser to the police were hounded out of the community and forced to leave – highlighting the cloistered, closely-knit way many religious organisations operate; in the same vein many felt that the biggest scandal in the Catholic Church’s abuse saga was evidence that there was an attempt by the Church to cover up the abuse.

The Dispatches investigation into child abuse is not the only time an Orthodox Jewish community has come under media scrutiny for its secrecy, in the U.S. a similarly closed Jewish community, the Hasidic community, was said to be plagued by child abuse allegations.

While children in these Orthodox communities are no more likely to suffer abuse than any others in another religious organisation, these attempts to hide allegations of abuse match a worrying trend in religious abuse.

Seeking Justice For Religious Abuse

Speaking out about religious abuse and uncovering the crimes of a figure within a powerful religious organisation can seem daunting but it is important to remember that you will be supported throughout the entire process.

Once you do decide to come forward and report the abuse you suffered in a religious organisations you should first report your abuser to the police, as ultimately seeing them prosecuted will bring the most complete sense of justice.

After the prosecution process you could seek a civil claim for compensation against the religious organisation itself, which failed in its duty of care, as they allowed you to fall victim to an abuser, who likely as not did not undergo adequate checks.

Bringing civil claims against a religious organisation can offer a similar sense of justice and closure to a criminal prosecution, as it allows you to seek an admission of guilt from a negligent religious organisation.

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