Forty years of public scandal has "forced" the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches to admit they have a problem of child sex abuse, the latest hearing of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has been told.
"No current Catholic or Anglican leader would come before this inquiry now and seriously try to maintain that clerical sex abuse scandals had never happened," Richard Scorer, representing several core participants, told the first day of the hearing into child protection in "religious organisations and settings".
But he added: "In some, if not many, of the settings here, there is no such admission. Indeed, there is clearly a deep reluctance on the part of many religious leaders to admit that they even have a problem at all."
He said the evidence from the Catholic and Anglican hearings is clear: "Self-regulation doesn't work."
The hearing was due to run for 10 days but was postponed indefinitely as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic after just one day.
Scorer said that many of the communities being examined in the latest hearings can be relatively closed and isolated from the secular world. The hearing will examine Baptist, Methodist and other church organisations, along with Jehovah's Witnesses, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim groups, youth groups, camps, religious educational settings and more.
He said: "The Catholic and Anglican Churches are rightly criticised for their failings on sexual abuse, but those churches, at least today, are much more integrated into wider society than many of the organisations you are examining now and this has significant implications for child protection.
"To take just one example, in the Catholic Church of today, a diocesan safeguarding commission will typically include professionals with experience in secular organisations like the police, social work, teaching and law, a commission might include non-Catholics. By contrast, when you think about the Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, the idea of a circuit or region of that church having a safeguarding commission staffed by secular professionals is totally inconceivable.
"It wouldn't happen, because the Jehovah's Witnesses' leadership regards the external world, the secular world, as corrupt and evil and not as a source of useful guidance and expertise. The Jehovah's Witnesses are, of course, entitled to hold the beliefs they do, but it has to be recognised that this belief system has important implications for child protection. It means that in many of the settings you are examining, secular expertise and child protection norms will not readily be welcomed voluntarily."
Scorer urged the inquiry chair, Professor Alexis Jay, to "treat with scepticism" any arguments for self-regulation based on religious freedom.
He said: "None of our clients want the state to dictate what people can believe. But, as you know, religious freedom is not an absolute right. It can be legitimately abridged to protect the rights and freedoms of others and there are few rights and freedoms more important than the right of children to be free of sexual abuse. 22 Where children are at risk, the state has a legitimate right to require action to protect them. Most institutions in wider society now expect to be held accountable and particularly in regard to safeguarding."
He added: "Religion cannot be treated differently to any other part of society... pleas for religious freedom are really pleas for religious exceptionalism.. and should be rejected."
Fiona Scolding, counsel to the inquiry, said in her opening statement, said that "some individuals do use religious organisations as a route to be able to be with children without suspicion, and they groom and perpetrate sexual abuse upon children in these settings. The power and influence of those in positions of religious leadership or the way that the community operates itself can lead to such abuses being silenced or ignored."
There are no reliable statistical surveys to identify the prevalence of sexual offending against children in religious settings. According to statistics published by the Office of National Statistics in January this year, around 7.5 per cent of all adults in England and Wales experienced sexual abuse before the age of 16, which is around 3.1 million people.
Of the 183 individuals who have spoken to the inquiry's Truth Project who had been sexually abused by either religious staff or within a religious organisation, most related to the Church of England and the Catholic Church, in line with the general population demographic. Of other religious organisations, around 11 per cent of those who have spoken to the Truth Project were members of the Jehovah's Witnesses.
The investigation is focussing on the measures religious organisations employ to keep children safe from sexual abuse and to handle safeguarding concerns.