Police in London will receive training on helping children accused of witchcraft and sorcery, with plans to expand the training nationwide if it proves effective.
Detective Superintendent Terry Sharpe, head of the Metropolitan Police’s Religious Violence Unit, said officers on the street were rarely equipped to spot the signs that a child might be in danger, and needed better training.
“We’re very well aware that usually the first person on scene is going to be the young cop with two or three years’ service who probably has no understanding of this whatsoever,” he said. “We’re not naïve enough to think this is just happening in London. It is happening in Birmingham, it’s happening in Leeds, Manchester and other big cities across the country.”
The 28-year veteran of the Met is an expert on child abuse investigations and heads Project Violet, a unit specifically set up to tackle religiously motivated violence such as witchcraft abuse and female genital mutilation.
He was speaking following the conviction last month of a woman and her boyfriend who beat 15-year-old Kristy Bamu to death because they believed he was a witch.
The case shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the prevalence of the belief in sorcery within some immigrant communities, and raised questions about whether authorities were doing enough to tackle such abuses. Senior officers admit the crime is under-reported and are trying to examine ways to encourage victims to come forward.
Project Violet has put together a booklet which will be circulated to all police officers in London, and recruits at Hendon Police College will be given extra training. The booklet details the kind of language and terms used by people who accuse others of sorcery, and advises on what officers should look for to gauge whether a child is at risk.
In June the Department of Education will roll out a “national action plan” to encourage police, teachers, social workers and medical professionals to take a more proactive role in looking out for witchcraft victims.
During the trial of Kristy Bamu’s killers, no links to churches that promote belief in spirit possession and exorcisms were established, but previous cases have shown some pastors persuading people that their children are witches.
Det Supt Sharpe said he wanted local officers to pay closer attention to unregistered churches that spring up in residential streets. “It’s the non-registered churches that concern us,” he said. “Once we can identity those we can start to engage with them. There are all sorts of potential safeguarding issues, especially if children are attending.” He defended the police’s record on pursuing people who carry out female genital mutilation, a practice common within some Middle Eastern and African communities where a girl’s clitoris – and sometimes her labia – are removed with appalling consequences. The practice was made illegal in Britain nine years ago but there has never been a successful prosecution.
Det Supt Sharpe said an enormous amount of preventative work was now done each year, especially in the run-up to the summer holidays when girls were most at risk of being mutilated. But he said convictions remained difficult because intelligence was not being passed to police.
Calling on community leaders and professionals to come forward when girls are attacked he said: “If we’re informed we will investigate it rigorously but we need to be made aware of it. We’re looking to convict people involved in this, but until we get that intelligence we require to prosecute it is very difficult for us.”
Religious crime: The young victims
In the past 10 years there have been 81 Metropolitan Police investigations where a child was abused over allegations of witchcraft. Of those, 57 resulted in criminal prosecution. Since 2008, 166 girls in London have come forward saying they may be at risk of forced genital mutilation.
The 15-year-old French teenager was beaten to death by his older sister and her boyfriend because they believed he was a witch who was bringing bad luck on their family. Eric Bikubi and Magalie Bamu were convicted last month after a trial that was so horrific the jury members were excused from ever having to serve again. Det Supt Terry Sharpe led the investigation into Kristy’s murder.
The first case that really brought witchcraft allegations to national attention. Eight-year-old Victoria was tortured and starved to death in 2000, partly because her guardians thought she was possessed. A pastor had previously told her killers that she had demons inside her. Her death and the failure of many agencies to stop the abuse led to a public inquiry which produced major changes in child protection policies in England.