With the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse publishing its latest report today into abuse by organised networks, Richard Scorer writes that the likely findings will only strengthen the calls for the reporting of child abuse abuse to become mandatory in the UK.

The recent report from Germany detailing the cover up of clerical sex abuse by former Pope Benedict in his earlier role as Archbishop of Munich reminds us, if proof were needed, that the abuse scandal has infected the Catholic Church at every level. There is hardly a single senior Catholic leader who has not been credibly accused of safeguarding failings, and as in Munich many cases have involved the deliberate concealment of serious abuse.

In Benedict's case, the revelations are particularly ironic. Over many years Benedict has criticized other church leaders for failing to bring the full force of canon law (internal church law) to bear on paedophile priests. In Benedict's view, from the 1960s onwards, the church went soft on abusers: it became a "church of love rather than a church of laws".

According to Benedict the clerical abuse scandal in the Catholic Church could have been avoided if the church had policed itself more effectively, using its own rules. But we now know that one of the church leaders who failed to self police was Benedict himself. Faced with a scandal on home turf, he did what almost every other Catholic bishop did: he swept an embarrassing and reputationally compromising problem under the carpet.

Meanwhile, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) will issue its latest report today, this time looking at child sexual exploitation (CSE) by organized networks. Given what we know of the extent of CSE – the group Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation described it as a problem infecting every town in the country – we can expect that IICSA will identify continuing failings in efforts by police and social services to tackle the problem. So, despite years of reports and inquiries, child sexual abuse in its different forms – whether perpetrated by clerics or by organised street gangs – seems as pervasive and intractable as ever. How can we even begin to tackle it?

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After 25 years of representing survivors of child sexual abuse one thing is clear to me: cover up of abuse will continue as long as the law allows it to happen. Most people assume that the law now requires that knowledge or reasonable suspicion of abuse in "regulated activities" (in other words certain roles that involve working with children, like teaching or providing care) must be reported and investigated. In fact, the law – at least in this country – does nothing of the sort.

Whatever protocols might say, it remains perfectly legal, for example, for a teacher to know that a child has been raped, and to fail to report it. In this respect the UK is an outlier internationally. This has to change: we need mandatory reporting. In other words, we need a law, as advocated by the campaign group Mandate Now – which requires those responsible for the care of children to report any knowledge or reasonable suspicion of abuse – and report it to statutory authorities so that it can be independently investigated.

On the face of it, the scandals in the Catholic Church and those involving the sexual exploitation of children by street networks are different. Church scandals happen within an institution. They get concealed because the church wants to protect its reputation. Street grooming happens in the wider community. Reasons cited for the failure to tackle it include lack of resources, nervousness about community cohesion and misunderstandings about consent.

But mandatory reporting has a key role to play in tackling both types of abuse. Where abuse happens within an institution, mandatory reporting ensures that abuse is investigated externally so that the institutional pressures for concealment are avoided. But where abuse happens on the street or in families, mandatory reporting means that those who have care of children in regulated settings also have to report that abuse when they know of or suspect it. We know from international evidence that where mandatory reporting exists, the majority of referrals by regulated activities actually relate to abuse of children elsewhere than the regulated setting itself – usually in families or in the wider community. We also know that mandatory reporting – by bringing the problem to a head rather than allowing it to fester – is effective in preventing future abuse.

Having unpicked countless abuse scandals, I am certain that every single scandal now being examined by IICSA and other inquiries could have been stopped or mitigated much earlier if abuse which staff knew about or suspected had been reported and investigated early on under a mandatory reporting law. So if we want to end this awful litany of abuse, and protect children, this is the most important and urgent reform.

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