Almost 2,000 children identified as victims of child abuse linked to faith or belief in a year
The number of children known to have been abused in England over beliefs in witchcraft and possession has risen by a third in two years, figures show.
Almost 2,000 suspected victims were identified by authorities in 2018-19, but experts believe the real figure may be far higher because of a lack of awareness over the phenomenon.
Child abuse linked to faith or belief, which includes exorcism attempts and violence against suspected “witches”, has already resulted in several deaths.
It can see children neglected or physically abused using ritualistic beating, burning, cutting or restraint.
The phenomenon was identified as a factor by councils in 1,950 abuse cases in 2018-19, an increase of 20 per cent on the previous year and more than a third since 2016-17.
The National FGM Centre, which is responsible for witchcraft-related child abuse, said the rise was “alarming and unacceptable”.
“While it is positive that cases are being referred and affected children are receiving the care and protection they need, a lot more needs to be done to put an end to these harmful practices,” said head Leethen Bartholomew.
He told The Independent that it was unclear whether child abuse linked to faith or belief was seeing a real-world increase, or whether officials have improved the way they identify and record it.
“It’s a global issue – in the UK it happens across different religions and we even have cases where families have no religious belief whatsoever,” Mr Bartholomew said. “It can be difficult to spot.”
Children are often targeted because of physical differences or disabilities, mental illness, unusual skills or perceived bad behaviour.
The characteristics can be treated as evidence of possession, evil spirits or witchcraft, prompting abusive interventions by family members or faith leaders.
Mr Bartholomew said cases are often linked to misfortune in families, such as financial difficulties, divorce or illness, where children are scapegoated.
“People seeking explanations can look to the spiritual realm and there can be consequences for children,” he added.
“We know there have been some faith leaders and organisations involved, but some of the abuse happens in a family context. They diagnose and seek to resolve the problem themselves.”
Mr Bartholomew warned that despite waves of horror and outrage over the deaths of children killed over witchcraft beliefs, there has been “very little research” over the phenomenon in Britain.
“Victoria Climbie died two decades ago but awareness is still not at a level that compares to female genital mutilation (FGM),” he said. “It’s a taboo topic – people don’t want to talk about it and some believe that if you do you’re inviting evil spirits.”