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Police ready to go undercover in churches to find abuse
The Metropolitan Police says it is willing to undertake covert operations inside churches if it believes children are being abused.
It comes after an increase in the number of reports that young people have been harmed because it is thought they are witches or that they are possessed by an evil spirt.
Scotland Yard says it has received 27 allegations of child abuse linked to faith beliefs in the past year. This is a slight increase, and police believe the number has risen because more people are coming forward.
But officers say they struggle to gather enough evidence because people are reluctant to speak out.
Detective superintendent Terry Sharpe told Premier he had already sent officers undercover into churches to gather enough information to secure a prosecution.
"It has happened. I obviously won't go into details about how we do it, but it has happened in the past," he said.
He added: "We will continue to do it if we can't get the evidence in any other way."
The attacks on children believed to be possessed include rape, being swung around and smacked in the head "to drive out the devil", and being dunked in water.
Several horrific child killings in recent years have been linked to extremist church beliefs including the murder of Kristy Bamu.
The 15-year-old was tortured and drowned by his sister and her boyfriend in 2010 because they thought he was a witch.
In 2000, eight-year-old Victoria Climbie (pictured) was tortured and murdered by her guardians because of their extremist beliefs.
Director of the Victoria Climbie Foundation, Mor Dioum, told Premier not enough had been done since her death to tackle the issue.
But he did say awareness had increased: "The traditional method to deal with it [spirit possession] was exorcism.
"Some of that can be quite physically or emotionally abusive.
"But over the last 10 years we've seen a shift from that physical abuse to prayers for children - so if you look at it from that perspective there's been a change in attitudes."
He added: "To a certain extent, we have overlook this type of abuse.
"I think what we did not do is to practically continue to develop methods to address this type of abuse.
"Now culture and faith for so long have not been included in child protection work. That's begun to change."
The Metropolitan Police says the figure of 27 is not likely to be accurate and that the crime is "vastly underreported".
"This is a hidden crime within families, within close communities who are very unlikely to report it," said detective superintendent Terry Sharpe.
He added: "If professionals have any concerns they need to report it straight away so we can conduct the enquiries we need to.
"And, if necessary, covertly conduct those enquiries to get the evidence to actually safeguard children, because at the end of the day child abuse is child abuse.
"Communities from all faiths and cultures condone child abuse, so we must not hide under sensitivity of faiths."
Simon Bass from the Churches' Child Protection Advisory Service said: "We are not remotely surprised that the Metropolitan Police alone has already received 27 referrals of this type this year, or three a month.
"We are pleased that the Metropolitan Police has undertaken such great work in this area, but we are convinced that this form of abuse is hidden, and that the statutory agencies across the UK are facing similar situations."
Bob Pull, community consultant at CCPAS, told Premier some churches weren't able to spot the signs of abuse.
He has written a book on the issue, Child Witches and Trafficking: Safeguarding Black African Children in the UK, which explains how churches can tackle the problem.
He said: "We need to start working, particularly with new and emerging Christian communities to make sure that whoever use our premises have good safeguarding procedures."
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