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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Child Protection

Friday, September 13, 2013

During the debate in the House of Commons Meg made the following speech.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting a debate on this important issue.

In my speech, I shall concentrate on the issue of sexual abuse of children in religious institutions. I have met survivors of abuse and their advocates on a number of occasions. They endured terrible suffering, and they seek justice. They have called for an independent commission of inquiry into the sexual abuse of children by clergy in religious institutions, not just in schools.

A public inquiry or similar process would undoubtedly bring the systematic abuse of children into the open, and would outline the lessons of their experiences. An inquiry would highlight the betrayal and abuse of trust by religious institutions - institutions that are meant to look after the spiritual and moral welfare of children.

Time and again, children and vulnerable adults were betrayed by those whom they trusted. Even today, victims struggle to be heard. Known abusers are defended by senior clergy. Some parents prefer to believe the priest rather than their own child. There are cover-ups, witnesses are fearful of coming forward, and members of some faiths are reluctant to go to the authorities because they do not belong to the same faith.

I have looked into the issue in my capacity as Chair of the Child Protection All-Party Parliamentary Group, and have concluded that, while it is essential for us to find some way of ensuring that victims are heard and believed, a public inquiry may not be the best way of ensuring that we do what we need to do to protect children today.

I support other Members’ call for an overall inquiry, and indeed I have written to Ministers about the issue, but now we can do better. The Government can show that they are listening and understanding by addressing current failings.

Reasons for sexual abuse are found not in the teachings of any faith or religion, but in individuals who take advantage of the power, position, trust and authority vested in them by an institution.

There is evidence that faith leaders are taking some steps to ensure that cases are not covered up, and that they are establishing robust safeguarding policies that includes support for victims. There have been changes in the way in which the Catholic Church and the Church of England deal with sex abuse cases, especially following the Nolan Report and the more recent Butler-Sloss review. The Bradford Council for Mosques and the Bradford Safeguarding Children Board have worked together to produce a paper entitled “Children do matter”.

The Methodist Church has a safeguarding policy, and has issued a joint statement with the Church of England on guiding principles. The Methodists are undertaking a systematic review of sexual abuse cases dating back to 1950, in order to establish exactly what happened and what the response was. That is an excellent move, which I would like other faiths to emulate. Lessons can be learnt, and our children can be better protected.

However, there is also evidence of continuing denial. Recent reports have suggested that a year ago, Cardinal Keith O’Brien blocked a similar review of abuse in the Catholic Church in Scotland. We need to look at the behaviour of faith institutions, and to ask whether the proposals for change are sufficient and the pace of change fast and widespread enough. We need to understand that part of the abuse by people who represent faiths stems from the fact that we expect more of them when they are looking after our children. This is not just the abuse of trust that we see elsewhere; it is a fundamental betrayal of the beliefs held by members of those faiths.

Organisations, including religious organisations, can and must do all that they can to protect children, deter paedophiles, and ensure that perpetrators are stopped and face justice. They must change a culture that minimises both the prevalence of abuse of children and its effects.

I was disturbed to discover from the internet that an organisation called Catholic Voices, which seeks to portray the Catholic Church positively in the media, is minimising the issue of abuse by Catholic priests. Its argument is that it is much more prevalent in society in general than it is in the Church. Does it not understand that organisations which are in regular contact with children must ensure that those who work with children in their name are their responsibility? Those are astonishing statements from a religious organisation that should be doing all it can to prevent abuse. Contrition and action are what is needed, not denial and deflection.

It is not just the Catholic Church that needs to do more. The Church of England has only just apologised for the scandal of the abuse that took place in Chichester, and there are worrying reports from other faiths. A new book by a Muslim woman describes abuse that she suffered at the hands of her Imam, and there has been a Channel 4 documentary about alleged cover-ups by Rabbis in some Jewish communities. However, this is not just the responsibility of religious organisations. We must ask whether the law and the guidance are sufficient to protect children in religious institutions today. Are we being complacent, and therefore complicit, when we say, as the children’s Minister said in a letter to me, we encourage organisations to continue to improve their practices to ensure that today’s children are kept as safe as possible”?

The duties of all schools to safeguard and promote the welfare of children are made clear in the Education Act 2002, which - along with additional guidance - places a statutory duty on all schools to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, and states that all schools should have a child protection policy and child protection procedures in place. The re-launched guidance entitled “Working together to safeguard children” states that safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility, which is welcome.

Safeguarding is clearly the responsibility of everyone, particularly those who work with children. However, the list in paragraph 8 of the introduction makes no specific mention of anyone who holds religious office. The only mention of faith organisations appears at the end of chapter 2, which deals with organisational responsibilities. Faith institutions must be in the mainstream throughout documents on safeguarding.

Two other documents, “Safeguarding children and safer recruitment in education” and “Dealing with Allegations of Abuse against Teachers and other Staff”, specify a duty to report abuse that is proven, but the institution concerned can make a judgment on whether there is not a case. Clearly judgments must be made, but we also need to have better oversight of the systems in schools and a mechanism to check that cases are being reported appropriately.

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): Given the tragedies that have occurred in the Catholic environment, I hope the hon. Lady has not overlooked the fact that the hierarchy of England and Wales, through the Archbishop of Westminster in particular, has set up a safeguard arrangement, which is being followed through effectively.

Meg Munn: What I am saying is that it is the role of organisations to do precisely that, but I am coming on to question whether faith organisations are taking that seriously. When an organisation within the Catholic Church puts on a website the other side of the coin on abuse and talks about minimising it, surely we can expect our faith organisations to say, “Not in my Church, not by my priests,” and to do everything they can to ensure that, rather than saying, “Well, it’s not as bad as it is elsewhere.” That is not an acceptable attitude and speaks of denial and deflection. That is what I am saying.

I know that the Department says that it does not specify in relation to faith schools because they can be of different types, but I worry that this is not clearly understood by those who run faith organisations. The make-up of local Safeguarding Children Boards as set out in section 13 of the Children Act makes no mention of religious organisations and “Working Together” is silent on the issue. The Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation action plan contains no specific action to work with religious institutions to address the issue. We treat religious institutions differently when we do not name them.

I believe there is more we need to do. The Children’s Minister in correspondence with me has said he believes that Mandatory Reporting - the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) - is already in place. He states that any organisation must refer cases to the Disclosure and Barring Service and failure to do so is a criminal offence, but this relates only to issues about staff. Is it really clear, particularly for religious organisations and voluntary organisations, that they must report suspected instances of abuse to the relevant agencies?

Some countries have Mandatory Reporting, and I know that that is not the answer to all the problems, but I understand that those campaigning for Mandatory Reporting are outraged, as we all should be, that a perceived gap in legislation means that a more senior member of a religious organisation believes that it is all right to move the person on, or ignores concerns, or makes up their mind to deal with the matter in house. This is not acceptable.

Child abuse is the scandal that we must tackle. I fear that the Department for Education is complacent and must urgently review law and guidance to ensure that it is an explicit requirement on religious organisations. Specific reference to all religious and faith institutions and their duty to safeguard children and vulnerable adults must be made in all appropriate legislation and guidance to leave no room for ambiguity. We cannot be reluctant to deal with the problem for fear of accusations of discrimination and prejudice. We owe it to children to take action.

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