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Following recommendations from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), reporting observed or suspected child sexual abuse will be mandatory for those working with children in England. The home secretary has said that professionals such as teachers and carers will face the ‘full force of law’ if they fail in their duty to protect. The legal duty to report, or ‘mandatory reporting’, will also extend to those working in positions of trust and in regulated activity with children.

As part of its response the Government announced the launch of a call for evidence on the mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse and how a legal duty to report would affect children, organisations, workplaces and volunteers. The consultation is open until 14 August 2023.

Protecting children must be a core concern for all those with a duty of care and in a position of trust working with children. But what does mandatory reporting mean in practice for churches considering the home secretary’s commitment to introducing it across the whole of England? 

First, some background. The Government’s position on reporting child abuse has been based up until now on statutory guidance, Working Together to Safeguard Children, which says, ‘anyone who has concerns about a child’s welfare should make a referral to local authority children’s social care and should do so immediately if there is a concern that the child is suffering significant harm or is likely to do so.’ However, failure to report would not result in prosecution as there has been no legal requirement to report child abuse. 

The inquiry’s recommendation on mandatory reporting

Mandatory reporting would place individuals with particular roles and responsibilities – to be known as ‘mandated reporters’ – under a statutory duty to report child sexual abuse where they: 

  • receive a disclosure of child sexual abuse from a child or perpetrator or 
  • witness a child being sexually abused or 
  • see recognised signs of child sexual abuse 

Child sexual abuse should be interpreted as any act that would be an offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 where the person abused is a child under the age of 18. When a child is sexually abused, they're forced or tricked into sexual activities. They might not understand that what's happening is abuse or that it's wrong. Sexual abuse can happen in person or online. 

Mandated reporters don’t have to report when the child is aged between 13 and 16 years old and it’s reasonably believed that: 

  • the relationship between the parties is consensual and not intimidatory, exploitative or coercive  
  • the child has not been harmed and is not at risk of being harmed 
  • there is no difference in capacity or maturity between the parties engaged in the sexual activity concerned and there is a difference in age of no more than three years. 

These exceptions should not, however, apply where the perpetrator is in a position of trust or where the child is under 13 years old. 

The inquiry recommended that mandated reporters should report to either local authority children’s social care or the police as soon as possible, and that those who fail to report where they witness child sexual abuse or receive a disclosure from a child or perpetrator should face criminal proceedings. 

Who are mandated reporters?

  • A mandated reporter is any person working in regulated activity with children (under the Safeguarding and Vulnerable Groups Act 2006). This includes roles such as scout leaders and youth workers. 
  • A mandated reporter is any person working in a position of trust (as defined by the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022). This includes roles such as teachers, doctors, social workers, sports coaches, foster carers, faith leaders, and police officers. 

Will mandatory reporting help victims and perpetrators to come forward?

Since April 2016 certain public bodies in Wales have been under a duty to inform the local authority if they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child with care and support needs is at risk of abuse, neglect or other kinds of harm. 

Those in support of mandatory reporting laws often reference countries where it already exists, claiming that making failure to report child sexual abuse a criminal offence has helped to better protect children. The way these laws are implemented varies in terms of who is covered by the reporting duty, what has to be reported and the extent of criminal sanctions for non-compliance.

Mandatory reporting laws have been adopted in some form by most countries worldwide, including 86% of European nations, some states in America, Canada, and Australia.  

However, mandatory reporting isn’t without its critics. The concluding report from IICSA said that mandatory reporting ‘should be an absolute obligation; it should not be subject to exceptions based on relationships of confidentiality, religious or otherwise.’

How does this square with sacramental confession in the Catholic Church, a central tenet of Catholic teaching, or in the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican Church? According to Church canon law, violating the seal of confession is a religious offence, and priests are supposed to defend the seal, even with their lives. 

Critics of mandatory reporting say that removing confidentiality would prevent children from speaking freely in spaces where they might have opened up, which would be a barrier to making a full disclosure at a later point when they feel ready to do so.

If they knew that what they said would have to be reported to authorities, they wouldn’t feel like there was a safe space to talk about their worries or any harm they’d suffered. Critics also argue that mandatory reporting would stop perpetrators or those who feel that they might offend, from coming forward for ‘repentance and reform’, which would hurt rather than help the prevention of child sexual abuse. 

The House of Bishops in the Church of England has commissioned a Seal of Confessional Working Party, bringing together theologians, church leaders and safeguarding professionals along with other advisers but has yet to give any firm details as to how they’ll implement IICSA’s recommendations. 

Victim and survivor voices

We must consider children who either never spoke up about their abuse because they didn’t think they’d be believed or taken seriously or did speak up but weren’t believed. One of the key themes to emerge from IICSA’s final report was that there were churches who had sacrificed the pain of people with lived experience of abuse at the altar of reputation. Power over people. Deference to authority.   

IICSA was the largest inquiry to tackle the subject of child sexual abuse in institutional settings and was different to other public inquiries in the UK in that it also set up the Truth Project, a national listening exercise.

This project invited over 6,000 survivors of child sexual abuse across England and Wales to share their experiences and their suggestions for change. More than one in ten survivors of child sexual abuse who shared their accounts with the inquiry's Truth Project reported sexual abuse in a religious institution. Of the victims and survivors’ forum, 88.6% supported mandatory reporting.  

Alexander Kubeyinje, National Director of Safeguarding in the Church of England, acknowledged that the church has failed in its safeguarding responsibilities, leaving many people feeling ‘a sense of betrayal, loss, trauma and injustice’.  

Mandatory reporting – the challenges 

In some ways all this discussion around mandatory reporting can be summed up simply with the statement that protecting children must be paramount in our homes, schools, and churches – no exemptions or concessions.

Children are the priority as a vulnerable group in society, and however we work out the details that must be our guiding principle. Richard Scorer, a lawyer specialising in child and adult abuse who represented the largest group of survivors in IICSA, said, ‘Mandatory reporting is essential and long overdue – survivors have been campaigning for it for years.’ 

Not as simple are the finer details for compliance and non-compliance. As Scorer goes on to say, ‘Achieving effective regulation of religious settings is a major challenge – even mapping the thousands of settings is difficult, let alone regulating them.’

Situations in which a child or perpetrator discloses abuse, or abuse is witnessed, are rare, but that doesn’t mean we can avoid the hard work involved in thrashing out the details to bring justice in those rare cases. The Government needs to undertake thorough and wide-reaching consultation on how best to legislate in this complex area.  

Concerns have also been raised, based on some evidence where mandatory reporting laws exist, of over-reporting, which can make it harder to identify children at risk and take swift action. Mandatory reporting as a law must be designed effectively if it is to work and must be implemented and resourced well.

Councils, agencies, and the police need sufficient resources to investigate reports, and victims and survivors of abuse must have the care and support they need so that they aren’t re-traumatised in the process, with enough funding available to make this a reality. Another of IICSA’s recommendations was financial redress for victims and survivors of child sexual abuse and exploitation.

If this is to come from churches themselves, what would the financial implications be for smaller churches without those kinds of resources? And if the state pays, the taxpayer picks up the tab – an implication that also draws its fair share of pushback.  

Church staff and voluntary workers in regulated activity with children or in positions of trust would need to build on and strengthen any existing training, safeguarding policy and procedures and must ensure there are no gaps so that no one gets left behind.

But policy and procedure, even with more robust reporting measures, won’t succeed in an environment where people don’t feel safe to speak up about concerns they have and where lack of transparency, accountability and unhealthy power dynamics create barriers to disclosure.

Policy and procedure must be seeded in healthy cultures where even the most vulnerable individual knows that they’ll be listened to with care and sensitivity, and that what they say will be taken seriously. Will removing confidentiality prevent children from disclosing abuse? However rare the cases may be where this happens, confidentiality should never be guaranteed where a child has been harmed or is at risk of harm. 

Opportunities to inform and shape better outcomes 

Thirtyone:eight’s work with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Safeguarding in Faith Settings and the following change in the law on Positions of Trust showed that by coming together and sharing our knowledge, we can inform change and help shape better outcomes for children and young people. In this period of consultation, churches have an opportunity to engage with the Government. It’s the youth workers, safeguarding leads, and children and family workers, who know the context and work with children and young people at the individual and community level. These voices need to speak up and be heard. 

When safeguarding is done well it’s life-changing and transformative. Protecting vulnerable people is a justice issue with solid biblical backing, and the church can and should lead the way. If you or your church needs safeguarding advice, call the Thirtyone:eight safeguarding helpline on 0303 003 1111. 

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