Child abuse linked to witchcraft a 'hidden crime'

Incidents of child abuse linked to fear of witchcraft have been on the rise in recent years in London, where police and specialized charities have ongoing public awareness campaigns to try to prevent what one retired investigator calls a “hidden crime.”

Police unit focused on faith-based abuse has investigated more than 100 cases since 2005

Cases of child abuse linked to a belief in witchcraft in the U.K. include the 2000 death of Victoria Climbie, left, and the 2010 death of Kristy Bamu. (Metropolitan Police)

Retired Det. Supt. Terry Sharpe of the London Metropolitan Police flips through a series of photographs showing household objects covered in blood.

"You can't bring Kristy back," he says, showing the pliers, hammer and other items used to torture the teenager before he died from his injuries.

"But you may be able to save somebody else if you had that little bit of understanding, [that] knowledge, about what causes this form of abuse."

Retired Det. Supt. Terry Sharpe of the London Metropolitan Police reviews photos of the household implements used to torture Kristy Bamu in 2010. (Christy Somos/CBC)

Kristy Bamu was a 15-year-old who drowned on Christmas Day 2010 in London's borough of Newham.

He succumbed to his injuries after suffering days of beatings, cutting, psychological intimidation and having his teeth smashed out — all done by his own sister and her boyfriend to torture him into making a confession of being a witch, according to BBC reports.

Bamu is the last recorded case of a child dying from ritual- or witchcraft-related abuse in the U.K., a crime that is the subject of ongoing public awareness campaigns by London's police force and specialized charities.

"This is a hidden crime," Sharpe says. "Although I said to you we have 100 [cases] recorded, we know there are a hell of a lot more than that."

In 2000, eight-year-old Victoria Climbie died in London at the hands of her great-aunt, who believed that the child was possessed by evil. She was beaten, starved, cut, bound and made to sleep in a bathtub filled with her own excrement — with only a garbage bag for warmth.

Specialized task force

Following an abuse investigation in 2005, London's Metropolitan Police created a specialized task force called Project Violet — a  unit focused solely on investigating faith-based abuse that has probed more than 100 cases of child abuse in the U.K. since its creation.

Sharpe, who retired from the unit in 2016, rifles through his papers and points at statistics his former team has gathered over the years. 

"There has been a steady increase," he says, "but I put that solely down to the fact ... the work that we've done in raising awareness."

The reality is that we hold a mirror to ourselves and realize that perpetrators of crime exist in every culture- Richard Hoskins

Current case numbers were not available from the Metropolitan Police. But a BBC report in 2015 cited police statistics showing 60 cases linked to faith-based abuse in the first 10 months of that year, an increase from 23 in 2013 and 46 in 2014.

Sharpe says that because the crimes are of such a heinous nature, members of a religious or ethnic community often do not feel comfortable approaching police to report them, severely affecting the ability of officers to step in.

In the U.K., certain African communities have embraced Christianity after centuries of colonization and have woven traditional, pre-colony beliefs within it.

One of those beliefs is Kindoki, a pre-colonial, traditional cultural belief in witchcraft and spirits. Kindoki has been woven within Pentecostal Christianity in Africa and spread to the U.K. with the many immigrants who choose to make London their home.

In a 2013 BBC documentary Branded a Witch,  that branch of Christianity is shown to be thriving in the U.K. and in Africa.

'Strong beliefs'

"If you're looking for Africans, you'll find them in a place of worship — whether a church or a mosque — we know that they have strong beliefs in their religion and strong beliefs in their local religious leaders," says Oladapo Awosokonwre, program manager at the London-based charity AFRUCA.

Since Climbie's death in 2000, the charity has provided training for 9,000 parents, 800 children and 2,000 police and child services workers in the U.K. about abuse stemming from spiritual beliefs.

"They believe they are doing the right thing," Awosokonre says. "In order to save the child, to get the evil out of them, or to stop them from being witches, the parents or the church will exorcise them. To them, they are not starving or beating the child, but the spirit that is inside them."

Pliers were among the household items used to torture Kristy Bamu before he died of his injuries. (Christy Somos/CBC)

Sharpe likewise points to local church leaders as often being the catalyst for abuse initiated against a child in Africa and the U.K. 

"A pastor will stand at the front of the church, and be in the middle of the sermon, will stop and point at a child in the crowd and denounce them as a witch or say that they are possessed," says Sharpe. It is after that announcement that a parent or family member will agree that "deliverance" or exorcisms must be undertaken.

"The family is unlikely to report [abuse] because the pastor is all and mighty within that community and [the parents] have actually just handed the child over," Sharpe says.

"There was a case in the Congo where a female pastor presided over an exorcism of a child, and they were kicking [the child] in the stomach, because that was breaking the telephone wire to the devil."

In the U.K., the  2001 discovery of a headless, limbless torso of a young black boy in the Thames River sparked an international investigation that has yet to be closed.

No arrests

The little boy, named Adam by police investigators, was thought to have been trafficked to the U.K. to be used as a human sacrifice to bring luck or fortune, according to BBC reports and documentaries.

The boy's identity still has not been confirmed and no one has been arrested in connection with the case.

Awosokonwre and Sharpe both see the large number of  African churches in the U.K as the breeding ground not just for beliefs in Kindoki, but the deadly effects of "deliverance," or exorcism as well.

"One day a warehouse will be empty," says Sharpe, "the next day there is a church in there — they just pop up everywhere."

The 2011 U.K. census showed a doubling of African Christians in England and Wales between 2001 and 2011, with the number rising from 330,000 to 691,000.

A study published in 2016 by the London School of Economics showed that London boroughs had 240 black majority churches, making it the area with the greatest concentration of African Christianity in the world outside Africa.

"The problem is," says Sharpe, "with globalization, people travel all around the world now and they take those very [strongly] held beliefs with them."

Richard Hoskins, an expert on African spiritual beliefs who has previously worked with Project Violet, wants to be clear that Africans are not the sole perpetrators of ritual-based abuse.

'In every culture'

"All of us who live in the West, there is a tendency to typecast and to approach for example African traditions through the lens of [author] Joseph Conrad," he says. 

"We tend to think the heart of darkness is out there. It's in Africa in the darkest places furthest away from us. The reality is that we hold a mirror to ourselves and realize that perpetrators of crime exist in every culture, in every tradition and from every religion. And that isn't just political correctness, that is a genuine truth."

It is a sentiment echoed heartily by Sharpe.

Child abuse is child abuse, in whatever language.- Terry Sharpe

"Child abuse is child abuse, in whatever language," he says.

"People cannot hide behind cultural beliefs, if a child is being abused, that should never be accepted — by any culture or religion or belief."

To that end, Sharpe says that every major city across the globe should initiate a task force like Project Violet to raise awareness about these complex and covert crimes. 

"[Project Violet] is the advice area and expertise required when detectives investigate this type of crime [like the murder of Kristy Bamu] because it will happen again."


Christy Somos is a freelance journalist who splits her time between Canada and the U.K.