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5.1 Abuse Linked to Spiritual and Religious Beliefs


For additional reading, see Research Report RR750 by Eleanor Stobart: Child Abuse Linked to Accusations of “Possession and Witchcraft”, published in 2006 and the government guidance document Guidance - Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief: National Action Plan published in 2007 by the Department for Education and Skills.

DfE, National action plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief.


This chapter was updated in August 2018 to acknowledge that so-called honour based violence and forced marriage can be associated with spiritual and religious beliefs (see Section 5, Forms of Abuse).


  1. Introduction
  2. Definitions
  3. Concerns about a Place of Worship
  4. Incidence of Abuse
  5. Forms of Abuse

1. Introduction

The following key considerations can assist understanding of, and action to safeguard children from, abuse or neglect linked to a belief in spirit possession.

The key considerations are:

  • Child abuse is never acceptable in any community, in any culture, in any religion, under any circumstances. This includes abuse that might arise through a belief in spirit possession or other spiritual or religious beliefs;
  • Standard child safeguarding procedures apply and must always be followed in all cases where abuse or neglect is suspected including those that may be related to a belief in spirit possession;
  • Child abuse linked to a belief in spirit possession sometimes stems from a child being used as a scapegoat;
  • Underlying reasons for the abuse are often similar to other contexts in which children become at risk of poor outcomes due to factors such as family stress, deprivation, domestic abuse, substance abuse and or mental health problems;
  • Children who are different in some way, perhaps because they have a disability, an illness, learning needs, or are exceptionally bright, might be targeted in this kind of abuse;
  • In some cases, the child may be targeted because they will have been perceived to be 'spiritually' different;
  • Professionals with safeguarding responsibilities need to be able to identify links, where they exist, between individual cases of such child abuse and individual faith leaders as well as wider belief, faith or community practices;
  • Local agencies and institutions should also work to minimise risk of harm, by building trust and understanding of child abuse issues with local communities;
  • They should act if they have concerns about a child's welfare, and ensure that practices that lead to abuse that may be linked to a belief in spirit possession, or any other belief, are challenged and stopped;
  • People working with children should always take advice whenever they feel it is required from the Safeguarding Unit, in accordance with information sharing protocols and guidance. The fact that a suspected case of Abuse or Neglect may be linked to spirit possession can initially seem daunting. It is important to use the experience of the Safeguarding and Reviewing Unit.

2. Definitions

  • The term 'belief in spirit possession' is defined as the belief that an evil force has entered a child and is controlling him or her;
  • Sometimes the term 'witch' is used and is defined as the belief that a child is able to use an evil force to harm others;
  • There is also a range of language that is connected to such abuse, including the use of terms such as black magic, kindoki, ndoki, the evil eye, djinns, voodoo, obeah, demons, child sorcerers, and the spirit world;
  • In all these cases, genuine beliefs can be held by families, carers, religious leaders, congregations, and the children themselves that evil forces are at work;
  • Families and children can be deeply worried by the evil that they believe is threatening them, and abuse often occurs when an attempt is made to 'exorcise', or 'deliver' the child;
  • Exorcism is defined as attempting to expel evil spirits from a child. The rituals used can include beating, burning, scalding, cutting, stabbing, strangulation, isolation and starvation.

3. Concerns about a Place of Worship

Concerns about a place of worship may emerge where:

  • A lack of priority is given to the protection of children and there is a reluctance by some leaders to address the challenges of implementing sound safeguarding policies or practices;
  • Assumptions exist that 'people in our community' would not abuse children or that a display of repentance for an act of abuse is believed to indicate that an adult no longer poses a risk of harm;
  • There is a denial or minimisation of the rights of the child or the demonisation of individuals;
  • There is a promotion of mistrust of secular authorities;
  • There are specific unacceptable practices that amount to abuse.

4. Incidence of Abuse

  • The nature of the child abuse in such circumstances can be particularly disturbing and the impact on the child is substantial and serious;
  • The abuse may be carried out by the child's parents or carers or others in the family network, as well as by faith leaders;
  • There have been reported cases of individuals who present themselves as faith leaders/healers being paid by parents and carers to 'exorcise' children;
  • The belief that a child is possessed can be supported by faith leaders and the child, and in some cases the family may be ostracised by community members;
  • The child can come to hold the belief that he or she is possessed, which may be harmful in its self and can significantly complicate rehabilitation.

5. Forms of Abuse

The abuse usually occurs in the household where the child lives. It may also occur in a place of worship where alleged 'diagnosis' and 'exorcism' may take place. The most common forms of abuse include:

  • Physical abuse: In the form of beating, shaking, burning, scalding, cutting, stabbing, strangulation, semi-strangulating, tying up the child, or rubbing chili peppers or other substances on the child's genitals or eyes, or placing chili peppers or other substances in the child's mouth;
  • Emotional/psychological abuse: In the form of isolation, for example, not allowing a child to eat or share a room with family members or threatening to abandon them, or telling a child they are evil or possessed. The child may also accept the abuse if they are coerced into believing they are possessed;
  • Neglect: In the form of failure to ensure appropriate medical care, supervision, regular school attendance, good hygiene, nourishment, clothing or keep the child warm;
  • Sexual abuse: Children abused in this way may be particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, perhaps because they feel powerless and worthless and feel they will not be believed if they tell someone about the abuse;
  • Honour based violence and forced marriage can be linked to forms of abuse within spiritual and religious beliefs; 'so called honour based violence is a crime or incident which has been committed to protect or defend the honour of the family and/or community'.

See also: CPS, Honour-Based Violence and Forced Marriage and Merseyside Forced Marriage & Honour Based Violence.