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Churches challenge Channel 4 bias but condemn rogue pastors child abuse claims

Child abuse cover up?

Channel 4’s recent Dispatches programme, Britain’s Witch Children, picked an ugly scab from a deep wound: it highlighted the regular but hidden extent of the faith-based abuse of children within ‘rogue’ elements of African churches.

The programme exposed a belief in witchcraft by some UK African churches, where pastors allege that congregation members are possessed by evil spirits and bring bad luck into the lives of others.

Traumatic exorcisms follow the accusations with pastors allegedly charging large sums of money to perform ‘deliverances’. The programme claimed that children are often denounced as witches, leading to physical and emotional abuse and even death at the hands of their families.

The Evangelical Alliance, Churches Together in England and the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Services – all disappointed they were not approached to add context to the findings of the Dispatches investigation – promptly issued a joint response, which condemned “the abuse or encouraging the abuse of children, in particular, any church that brands children as witches or demon-possessed”.

Dr Joe Aldred, secretary of Minority Ethnic Christian Affairs, told OBV that he was not downplaying the problem that Dispatches had drawn attention to. He said:

“The vast majority of African churches in the UK do not subscribe to these practices. What angers me about the Dispatches programme is the way in which they – having highlighted a worthy problem that needs to be tackled – implied that this practice is representative of the 4000 African churches in the UK.”

Charity Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (Afruca) has called on the government to ban the branding of children as witches and is consulting on proposals for a new law. Afruca executive director, Debbie Ariyo, said:

“Our position at Afruca is always that culture and religion should never be a reason to abuse children. [Rogue pastors’] motives are monetary…the terrible consequences of their evil acts on children can no longer be ignored.”

“Branding a child as a witch is an incitement to harm and abuse children,” She continued. “It leads to physical and emotional abuse as well as neglect of the children in question. Of equal concern…are the abusive exorcism rites performed on children who are so branded by some pastors and other faith workers. These rites lead to extreme harm and suffering…and has caused the death of at least one child in the UK.” Concluded Ms Ariyo.

The belief in demon possession and the occult points to the prevalence of practices within the Christian religion on the whole; practices that are not just characteristics of ‘rogue’, African churches.

The Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican have a history of performing exorcisms. In March 2010, the Telegraph published an interview with Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s chief exorcist, who stated:

“His Holiness believes wholeheartedly in the practice of exorcism. He has encouraged and praised our work.”

Last month, US publication, the Huffington Post interviewed Exorcist writer William Peter Blatty, he said:

“The research I’ve done convinces me there were 2 or 3 cases in the 20th Century in which the Catholic Church in the United States, after exhaustive investigation involving internal medicine and psychiatry, authorized the ritual of exorcism.”

Dr Aldred highlights that,

“most of the mainstream churches that one would not associate with spiritualism rightly or wrongly acknowledge the existence or presence of demonic forces. The Church of England has an exorcising priest in each diocese.”

While a belief in divine and spiritual forces is at the root of all religion, activists agree that key measures are needed to eliminate the mechanisms used by charlatans to abuse vulnerable members of religious congregations. Exploitation in this way can lead to abhorrent practices which survive along generations because of normalisations such as branding regular unruly teenage behaviour as ‘spirit-possession’ – initiating queues of children being sent to services for ‘deliverance’.

While not an advocate of laws in this area, Dr Aldred feels that a three-pronged approach is needed to protect children from faith-based abuse. He concluded:

“Firstly, every church and church agency should provide training in child protection matters. Second, every church should register with a bona fide ecumenical agency for accountability. And third, churches that operate in isolation should be strongly discouraged and any pastor found abusing children should face the full force of the law.”

By Davina Kirwan

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