Preying on minority communities

An isolated case of 'exorcist' child abuse has brought out all the old assumptions about African backwardness.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

What should be the response when a woman is found guilty of cutting her young niece with a knife, beating her with a belt, and rubbing chilli peppers into her eyes?

Perhaps an expression of horror, and satisfaction at the successful conviction. But in a recent case in the UK, the defendant was from Angola, and committed the abuse because she thought that the girl was a witch. The aunt and two accomplices with whom she shared a flat in Hackney, London – a woman, Sita Kisanga, and Kisanga’s brother, Sebastian Pinto – were found guilty after a three-week trial at the Old Bailey.

The case quickly became a careering bandwagon, on to which police, social services and the media leapt. This was understood not as the criminal actions of one woman, but as a sign of the barbarity of Africans in general. Articles speculated about the dozens, even hundreds, of African children being subjected to mystical abuse behind the closed doors of north-east London. The Metropolitan Police has set up a special six-person team, ‘Project Violet’, to tackle ritualised child abuse in London’s African communities.

Because the defendants attended an evangelical church in Hackney, their crime apparently implicated the whole African spiritual infrastructure. ‘Ban these witchcraft churches’, called Diane Abbott in the London Evening Standard on 7 June. According to the Abbott, MP for Hackney North, churches should be registered, opened up for monitoring, and shut down ‘the minute any child connected to their congregation is abused’.

Yet there is little hard evidence to justify these wild claims. It seems to be the accusers who are possessed with ideas of mass, ritualised child abuse – not London’s immigrant communities.

Only one person has really studied the question: Dr Richard Hoskins, a theologian at King’s College, London, who advises the Met on this issue and gave evidence at the court case. He was quoted in news reports saying that this is a matter of grave concern, and that this case is ‘the tip of the iceberg’.

How many cases does Dr Hoskins know of in total? Six, he tells me, five of which are in London and one in Bristol. Meanwhile, those involved in Project Violet say that they are still trying to establish whether it is a problem at all: ‘it is difficult for us to identify the scale of the problem’, said the project leader Detective Superintendent Chris Bourlet, adding that it was difficult to get the measure of such a ‘hidden crime’ (1).

According to an article in the Sunday Telegraph on 5 June, a Met intelligence report identified 31 similar cases over the past five years in London, five of which led to charges – and called for ‘ritualised abuse’ to be made a new category of crime with stiff penalties. But if that’s the case, few others in the Met seem to know about it. ‘I need to find out where they [the Sunday Telegraph] got their information’, the press officer in charge of Project Violet told me.

African evangelical churches do indeed practice exorcism. But to judge by all the shock-horror coverage, you would think that they were the only ones. Dr Robert Beckford, lecturer in African Diasporan Religions and Cultures at Birmingham University, notes that ‘all the Abrahamic faiths and African religions believe in evil and exorcism, including the Archbishop of Canterbury’. Dr Beckford argues that recent reports exhibit a ‘demonisation’ of African communities on a par with ‘nineteenth-century images of West Africa. The idea seems to be that these are illiterate people from West Africa, so they’ve got to be crazy’.

In the minds of Western policymakers and journalists, African religious practices are dark and dangerous, and so apparently run seamlessly into child abuse. Look at all that shouting and swaying – is it any wonder it all ends in knife cuts and belt marks? But this misses the fact that for many of these churches, exorcism is an everyday practise that involves no physical harm to those involved. ‘I believe the problem has been exaggerated’, says Joel Edwards from the UK Evangelical Alliance. ‘It’s very important to realise that deliverance ministry is not a synonym for child abuse.’ Some respond by suggesting that exorcism can itself be abusive, though it leaves no physical marks. ‘Men gather around the child shouting, in theory at the demon’, argues Dr Hoskins. ‘But this is distressing for a very young child.’

Behind the call for a crackdown on churches lies the idea that Africans are volatile, and easily brainwashed by overbearing pastors. In the view of Diane Abbott: ‘Once the powerful “pastors” of these churches declare a child to be possessed by demons, it opens the door to abuse and even death.’ Dr Hoskins agrees, telling me: ‘These people are often vulnerable, and are easily manipulated by those in power, in the name of God. Exorcism is a very powerful business for those doing the exorcism, who take people into a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil.’ He notes reports that one of those convicted in the recent case was ‘in the bottom one per cent of people in terms of education’.

But surely those who commit child abuse are responsible for their actions? Were they not, we could hardly hold them to account in a court of law. As Joel Edwards says: ‘No pastor can police the behaviour of members 24/7. Ministers are responsible for what goes on in a working environment, but if somebody goes home and does something stupid, they aren’t responsible for that.’ Moreover, the idea that belief in exorcism leads to child abuse is akin to saying that following Nietzsche leads you to murder kids, in the manner of Moors murderer Ian Brady.

The hype about possession is being used to justify intervention into the spiritual and family life of African communities. Project Violet is less about dealing with actual cases of child abuse, than briefing Africans on how they should be relating to their kids. In the words of Chris Bourlet: ‘We will investigate crimes against children where appropriate, but our main aim is to prevent abuse in the first place.’ How does he plan to do that? By ‘[building] trust with communities and [emphasising] that child protection is everyone’s responsibility’ (2).

To this end, two outreach workers are already on the beat in east London, raising ‘awareness’ about ‘what child abuse is’. It’s likely that more is to come. Dr Hoskins calls for a committee ‘to investigate whether we need to register and regulate churches, and whether children in private foster care should be registered’. He even suggests that the campaign should be taken overseas, for example working with street children in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, because ‘we need to cut off the pool of belief in source countries’.

Racism is firmly beyond the pale today. But it seems that some old assumptions of African inferiority can still stalk beneath campaigns against child abuse. Debbie Ariyo, director of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, says that her office has been deluged by calls asking ‘Why, when anything happens to an African child, does the media go crazy?’. Notions that normally dare not speak their name can come out when kids are involved. For Ariyo’s part, she thinks that any risk to children calls for the suspension of liberal principles. ‘In general, you can’t stop people from believing what they want to believe; it’s a free world. You can do whatever you like in your garage. But where it concerns children, that has to be looked at. These practices need to be constantly monitored’.

Those involved are careful to avoid allegations of racism, and say that they are only responding to concerns from ‘the community’. Dr Hoskins tells me that he was pleased by Abbott’s outspoken column: ‘None of us can dare say it, but if she says it, great. The police are being incredibly careful; they can’t afford to be accused of being racist. It’s great when people from the community are saying these things.’ Well, Abbott is black, but she’s hardly from the ‘community’ in question. Born in London, she was educated at Harrow County Girl’s Grammar and Newnham College, Cambridge, then worked her way up through the civil service and the media (3). Meanwhile, Debbie Ariyo, who is often quoted as a spokesperson on this issue, worked as a senior policy adviser in the Department of Trade and Industry for 13 years.

Of course, belief in exorcism is mystical and backward, and that applies as much to the Archbishop of Canterbury as to Hackney evangelicals. Over the past five to 10 years, Joel Edwards tells me, there has been an increase in ‘highly spiritual’ African churches, often organised in people’s front rooms or derelict buildings. The practice of exorcism expresses the fact that people feel themselves to be in the grip of malevolent forces – it’s a way of trying to fight back, and establish some control over their lives. It’s no surprise, then, that these ceremonies become more intense in more uprooted and marginalised communities. But these beliefs persist because of continuing social marginalisation. There’s not a jot that Met re-education programmes can do about them.

In one sense, it is African evangelical churches that give new arrivals a grounding in the wastelands of east London. Similar churches sprung up in British cities in the nineteenth century, to provide comfort and communion for a dislocated urban working class. In the African evangelical church off the main street in my part of Hackney, the pastor told me that his mission is to ‘hold the youth together, and show them how God wants them to become responsible citizens’. The church seeks to give them morals and an anchor, to stop them spinning off into trouble.

Given this fragile context, Project Violet could be walking into a minefield. There is also the fact of denominational rivalry, which no doubt fuels some of the circling accusations. There are precedents for this. Accusations of Satanic child abuse between 1988 and 1991 led to children being removed from their homes in Rochdale and Orkney. Yet it turned out it was Evangelical Christians, resentful of new religious movements, who had sparked the rumours (4). (The resonance of this issue is indicated by the fact that, over 10 years after this case was dead and buried by a government report, investigations have again been opened up.)

Individuals who commit child abuse should be tried and punished. But we should expose the myths of African witchery – and the draconian regulations that they could feed.

(1) Quoted in Sunday Telegraph, 5 June 2005

(2) Metropolitan Police Press Briefing

(3) See Diane Abbott, on the Guardian Unlimited website

(4) Report dismisses Satanic child abuse as a myth, Hugh Muir, Daily Telegraph, 3 June 1994

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Topics Politics


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