Barcelone, Mai 2002

Cults, Children and Harm : the Response of local Education Authorities and social Services Departments in the UK

Dr. Roderick P. Marshall

FAIR and Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College, UK

Legal and Philosophical Contexts

In the United Kingdom the rights of Children to be protected from abuse and harm is enshrined in the Children’s Act (1989) which includes statutory responsibilities on Local Authorities to protect children who are assessed to be at risk by placing them on the Child Protection Register. The Child Protection Case Conference will practically prevent further harm by establishing the safest environment for the child and this can include placing the child into residential care. The key message of the process is clear: the safety of the Child comes First.

In this context it is perhaps surprising that Local Authorities in the UK are almost completely unaware of the specific abuse emanating from cultic groups and are loath to acknowledge that group abuse is a specific form of abuse that can and does affect children in many ways. Why this discrepancy?

As in many countries there is a philosophical approach that underlies much practice which is enshrined in two maxims: Firstly evil or psychopathic behaviour resides in the individual and Secondly cultural diversity must be supported at all costs in a liberal democracy. The link between these statements is that if you root out the evil individuals you will protect people, including children, from abuse and will preserve the integrity of the cultural groups from which sometimes these evil people emerge. What is undoubtedly missing from such an approach is that the abuse perpetrated in certain groups is undertaken by more than one person and that it can be integrally embedded in the modus operandi of the group and also sometimes in its belief system.

The above approaches and some of the pitfalls of them can be illustrated by high profile cases of abuse the investigations of which have struggled with the group or religious aspects of the harm that has been witnessed and by specific case studies of the responses of local authorities to reports of abuse or harm in a religious setting.

The Victoria Climbie Case

The Victoria Climbie case in the UK is a terrible case of abuse going unfettered with highly tragic consequences. The long running enquiry into the death of Victoria has come up with a plethora of recommendations. Key amongst these is the need for communication between statutory bodies and within departments of local authorities. An additional tragic aspect of this case was the involvement of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in the last months of Victoria’s life.

To recap briefly on this case – Victoria Climbie was living in the UK with her great aunt Marie-Therese Kouao and her partner Carl Manning. The Church in question did attempt to provide care for Victoria who appeared as highly frightened and disturbed in these terrible months. However the enquiry into Victoria’s death has brought to light that the Church accepted and became actively committed to the idea that Victoria was "evil" and "possessed" and that she required an exorcism of the devil within her. Interestingly the cries of this abused and frightened child backed up this contention – Victoria said she was possessed by the devil and evil herself.

One of the key maxims emanating from the Children’s Act but also deeply embedded a lot of the time in Social Work Practice in the UK is to believe the child. This is not without qualification – if it can be shown that the child has been unduly influenced in what he or she is saying, particularly by a key parental figure, then this can be important evidence to cast doubt on the veracity of the child testimony. Children are, it is contended, particularly suggestible.

Thus whether to believe or not believe the Child becomes one of the hardest questions that practitioners face – it is often impossible to know where the truth lies. Protecting the child is the key priority quite understandably – and this results in the balance of probabilities often being used to err on the side of protecting the child from possible abuse even where the evidence is unclear. A series of measures – such as assessments with the key adults involved – can pave the way for establishing future safety for the child in the absence of a prosecution based on clear evidence of abuse.

This path to safety did not occur for Victoria Climbie. The added aspect of the Church’s involvement adds an extra dimension to the difficulty faced by practitioners in establishing the evidence of abuse on this case. After all – Churches do not lie or protect abusers do they? When the Church denied that abuse was occurring – that Marie-Therese Kouao’s allegations of abuse of Victoria by Carl Manning were fabricated – this can be seen to be directly connected in the minds of Church leaders to the statements by Victoria herself that she was possessed by evil. While the idea of possession by the devil and exorcism for many people may seem an extreme form of religious practice – the notion of religious freedom tends to water down the reaction to such things. It appears that the views of the Church while not being wholly accepted by the practitioners involved nonetheless provided a fatal buffer to uncovering what was really happening to Victoria.

Furthermore the actions of the Church in backing up the notion that Victoria was "possessed" was almost to legitimise the abuse that she was suffering – to be plain this was a case of "blaming the victim". After all if a child is evil and believes herself to be so – then the need to recognise or deal with this (the idea even if not the actual practice of exorcism) allows abuse to continue unacknowledged and unfettered.

Essentially the Victoria Climbie case is not a case of a Cultic group perpetrating abuse but is one of abuse perpetrated by individuals. That the abuse was unacknowledged and allowed to continue including partly as a consequence of the beliefs and actions of a Church goes directly to the issue of the sanctimony of religious beliefs which often goes unchallenged by public authorities. The shroud of religion can hide many problems as the awful cases of abuse in the Catholic Church indicate all to vividly.

It is also critically important that authorities can err on the side of acknowledging the rights and inherent goodness of a Church over the statements of a child or her aunt. Furthermore the idea of an exorcism can be seen as perhaps more of a legitimate practice when similar behaviour by a parent or carer would be seen as unjustifiable torment and abuse of the rights of the child. The Climbie case in summary flags up many of the key problems facing statutory bodies in the UK when the abuse and religious groups coincide.

Church Responses

The response of Churches in the UK to the problems and tragedy of child abuse has been notable and is welcome. Indeed the Churches Child Protection Advisory Service gave evidence at the enquiry and plays an important role in advising families, organisations and churches (across denominations) on providing a safe and abuse free environment for children. In his testimony to the enquiry David Person from the CCPAS stated that "Whereas it is undeniable that there are Churches and Christian groups which continue to be very lax with regard to safeguarding children, there are, on the other hand, many churches with high standards of policy and practice".

Pearson goes on in a later paper to state that the following examples inhibit the "identification of children in need…

It is perhaps appropriate that the practitioners in Social Services Departments and Local Education Authorities learn some of the above lessons also – the debate is already occurring with a perceived need to address the cultic and religious aspects of the whole range of abusive practices and traditions.

Ritualistic Murder Case

Another high profile case in the UK which has raised different but related issues to the Victoria Climbie case is the finding of a boy’s torso in the River Thames in London with the limbs removed. Police and other authorities view this killing as a ritualistic murder and one which is a "muti" killing – a form of human sacrifice which is practised in southern Africa. Muti is the Zulu word for medicine. The muti killings result from the belief that body parts form a potent ingredient for traditional forms of medicine for healing both minor and major ailments.

This case has drawn further attention in the public’s minds to the fact of ritualistic abuse which has been somewhat discredited since the 1980s investigations into alleged satanic ritualistic abuse in the UK which did not result in clear evidence. It also draws attention to the awkward question of what is acceptable as a cultural difference and the existence of moral absolutes. Similar questions have also been faced since the world’s attention was fully directed at the plight of women under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Both the Climbie and Muti cases in London have profound implications for Social Work and Education practice when this intersects with extreme forms of religious beliefs and groups – in other words it raises very clearly the question of cultic groups even though the word "cult" has rarely been used in these contexts. This raises the question of whether we need a new vocabulary. The word ‘cult’ may be too loaded or too inflammatory?

What Children Experience – We need to Know and Understand

What is emerging is that the care professions need to learn more about the phenomena of cults or whatever label is chosen to describe these groups. Interestingly the problems that children face in cults which are abusive are not dissimilar to those experienced by children in an abusive family. These problems can be identified as under four headings:

  1. The child does not know their rights
  2. They do not know they are in a cult.
  3. They may know something is wrong and that wrong is being done but may not be able to articulate this.
  4. They may feel protective towards the cult and/or their parents.

Importantly the field of cult research has started to grapple with the issue of the different experiences of children who grow up in cults from birth or from a very early age compared to older children or adults who choose to join a group. Children raised in cults face particular challenges in attempting to leave not only the cult but also their family and everything that their life has been until that point. Where there is abuse in a group perpetrated against children who have grown up in the group the problem of articulation that most abused children have is increased due to the difficulty of articulating in the language which practitioners who do not understand the group’s beliefs will understand.

It is evident that ex-member survivors of abusive cults do not always see Social Services Departments as the first port of call either when still in the group or at the time of leaving or afterwards. This adds to the lack of knowledge amongst practitioners to the organised or ritualistic abuse which may be occurring within their own communities.

Social Services may be alerted to the existence of abusive behaviour via a school. In a case in the UK a teenager in a cult complained to teachers of being physically hit by her father. Teachers warned the father that if this happened again that Social Services would be contacted. Whether either the School or Social Services came to understand the cult related nature of these attacks is not clear. Again it is typical for abuse to be seen as a pathology as residing solely within an individual rather than as related to a group’s way of operating and beliefs.

The following case highlights the difficulties faced by children and the lack of assistance or help from Local Authorities to young people in this plight (the name of the person has been changed to preserve anonymity).

Sarah’s parents joined a cult when she was 10 years old. At age 15 she met some ex-members of her cult who had also been raised in it. Unknown to the rest of her family she stayed in contact with them and realised that she was in a cult. Talking to them helped her feel less depressed but soon she wanted to leave the cult. Although the cult she was in devalued education, she had persuaded her parents to allow her to do a course at a college that required her to work placements for a lot of the year. She received no financial compensation for the work placement. At age 16 Sarah was very keen to leave the cult, to do this she had to leave the family home. One of the ex-members offered for her to rent a room. She accepted this offer and moved in knowing that she would have to apply for housing benefit and she would not necessarily get this. She told her teacher at the college that she had moved out of home. Her teacher told her not to be stupid and move back home. She tried to explain to her teacher that her parents were in a cult. Her teacher really thought the best thing for her to do was to go back to her parents home and thus the cult. She chose not to stay in the cult and years later her parents remain in the cult. Despite making an effort to have contact with her parents very little contact remains.

The above case illustrates the problems facing young people who have been raised in damaging groups – in this case teachers effectively backed up the operation of the group in the name of the family – in this way the reaction to cults is sometimes akin to the problematic responses in decades past to accusations of abuse in the family context. In most cases today such allegations are taken very seriously and the integrity of the family takes second place to the overall safety of the child. In cases from cults though it can be much harder to convince practitioners.

Additionally ex-members may be able to get housing benefit and income support but if a sibling also leaves the group and then wishes to live them then their income is taken into account thus preventing the younger sibling from continuing with their education. As an unacknowledged group of people with specific problems and challenges ex-members of abusive groups are victim of rules designed without them in mind.

Closing Priorities

It is clear that education about cults and cultic abuse for practitioners in Social Services and Education Departments is the key priority. Alongside this priority however it must surely be time to openly debate, as practitioners are doing now, the relevance of the Childrens Act to this phenonema and the questions posed by the Churches Child Protection Advisory Service. Additionally the moral and philosophical questions about the nature of evil and abuse, where in emanates from and of the existence of moral attributes brings the challenge facing practitioners in to a clearly political domain. It is perhaps not surprising in the UK that few politicians have had the courage to take up these issues and run with them – now is the time to ask that alongside Social Workers, Teachers and Council Officers that Politicians also rise to this challenge in light of recent tragedies.