Three people who tortured an eight-year-old girl in brutal exorcism rites because they believed that she was a witch are facing long jail sentences after being convicted yesterday of child cruelty.
Sita Kisanga, 36, Sebastian Pinto, 33, and the child’s aunt, who cannot be identified, were found guilty of subjecting the child to 15 months of beatings and starvation. The girl, who testified at the Old Bailey trial via a videolink, is believed to be among hundreds of African children in the UK subjected to ritual abuse because of a belief in witchcraft fostered by the growth of unregulated evangelical churches.
In the wake of this case — and the murders of Victoria Climbie and Adam, the boy whose torso was found in the Thames — Scotland Yard has established Project Violet to tackle such crimes. The team was set up partly because the abuse of the girl was uncovered through “luck and chance”.
Five other investigations — four in London and one in the South West — are currently ongoing. In each case families allegedly believed that their children were possessed and wanted them to undergo exorcism.
Directors of Social Services across the UK have been alerted to the dangers posed by the belief in witchcraft and told to take a proactive approach with fringe churches.
The 38-year-old aunt began crying shortly before the verdicts were delivered. Kisanga smirked and Pinto remained impassive. Judge Christopher Moss said that prison terms were “inevitable” when the three, who are related, return for sentencing next month.
The aunt was found guilty of four counts of cruelty for slapping the girl, hitting her with a shoe and a belt, starving her, rubbing chilli peppers in her eyes, cutting her with a knife, and zipping her inside a laundry bag to make her think she would be thrown away.
Kisanga, of Hackney, East London, and Pinto, of Stoke Newington, North London, were convicted of aiding and abetting child cruelty. The two women were cleared of conspiracy to murder.
The girl’s plight was uncovered when she was found barefoot on the steps of a council flat in November 2003, 15 months after she was brought to Britain from Angola by her aunt. The girl was taken into care by Hackney Council but returned to her aunt a month later. The first doctor to examine her missed 43 wounds and scars on her body. She later said that she did not notice them because it was late afternoon and the light was dim.
Only after the aunt and child moved house and Haringey Council reopened the case was the full extent of her injuries discovered. The girl was re-interviewed and told police that her aunt was committing the abuse. Hackney Council has now opened an inquiry.
Child welfare groups say that thousands of African children go missing from British schools every year. Because of transient inner-city populations and the sensitivity surrounding race relations, many of the children are impossible to trace. Concerns are rising that many, especially those attending fundamentalist churches, may be subjected to abuse.
Detectives say that they have no way of gauging the true scale of the problem. They remain wary of inflaming relations with ethnic communities and lack the resources to police every suspicious home or place of worship. Many of the new churches, which spring up under the control of self-styled pastors, mix a belief in ndoki [witchcraft] and sorcery with fundamentalist Christianity.
Pardeep Gill, a child abuse expert, said: “More people believed in witchcraft than didn’t and there are tons of these churches. Anyone can say he is a pastor. There are some who use witchcraft as a means of controlling congregations.”
Dr Richard Hoskins, who is a specialist in African studies and advises police, said: “It’s thought children can catch witchcraft by taking infected bread from a witch. The deliverance process requires fasting for three days then the confrontation begins.”
Kisanga had attended the Spiritual Warfare church, in Hackney, which observers say believes fervently in the need for permanent vigilance against the forces of witchcraft. Police say the pastor of the church was co-operative and disapproved strongly of the treatment of the girl.
Detective Inspector Brian Mather, who led the investigation, said: “This was a distressing case involving a child who suffered at the hands of adults who should have cared for and protected her. The girl is now healthy, happy and living with a foster family in London.”
Note: Also see "Confusion as Climbie church cleared over exorcisms"