Overwhelmed by resignations and allegations of in-house bullying and sexual assault, the nation’s Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse is being widely described as a complete disaster but it’s a misguided view which fails to understand just how succesfull this Inquiry has been, and why.
The backdrop for these apparently awful events centers around a long and unpleasant history featuring UK Public Inquiries. A look at the National Archives reveals a staggering amount of inquiries in their many forms, but despite the sheer volume of investigations, a significant portion have been plagued with rumours of cover ups and consistent failings to implement the findings they make.
Unsurprisingly, government sanctioned inquiries as vehicles for change haven’t been well received: an independent survey in 2012, of 2000 members of the public, showed that 73% lacked confidence in the Public Inquiry process and were dissatisfied with the length and cost of the process. And in 2015, a report was published looking into exactly why Inquiries were failing the public. The report made several recommendations, including measures to improve impartiality and community involvement. Any assessment of the Child Abuse Inquiry then, must take this narrative into consideration, as well as a close look at the Inquiry’s subjects.
Survivors and victims of child sex abuse have known for a long time that if you want transparency and accountability, you have to fight for it. Many of these survivors have spent decades in conversation with a reluctant Government, trying to expose child abuse scandals and are hugely experienced campaigners, directly responsible for the creation of the Inquiry, which they urged the government to form through a series of Parliamentary meetings.This makes the Child Abuse Inquiry unique amongst Inquiries, as it provides the investigation with an invaluable asset – a large group of highly informed and deeply committed campaigners with a keen eye for inconsistency.
Survivors and victims were quick to notice that first Chair, Baroness Butler-Sloss, had close links to the establishment. Her brother, Sir Michael Havers, was attorney general at the height of the child abuse scandal in the UK and the Inquiry would have required her to investigate him. Butler-Sloss’s report into the Church’s handling of child abuse complaints was also highlighted by survivors who offered concerning evidence showing a bias towards the Church. Survivors’ pressure to stand down left Butler-Sloss with no choice. She resigned, and a second Chair was appointed.
Fiona Woolf’s appointment was also closely analysed by survivors. After she disclosed that she lived on the same street as Leon Brittan, and appeared to be friendly with him and his wife, more questions were raised. When pressure from MPs to get Woolf to stand down failed, a survivor launched a Judicial Review into Woolf’s appointment which led to her resignation.
Survivors and victims have not limited themselves to probing the fitness of Chairs at the Inquiry, though. Sharon Evans, a survivor who herself sat on the Inquiry panel, accused its most senior legal adviser of bullying her and of creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation at the Inquiry. Her allegations were rejected by the Home Office and she was dismissed from the Panel, but in raising this concern she contributed to a sequence of events that would ultimately lead to the investigation’s lead lawyer stepping down. Almost two years after her departure, the fourth Chair, Professor Alexis Jay, would suspend Lead Counsel Ben Emmerson over concerns about his conduct at the Inquiry and a further allegation of assault would further bolster Sharon Evans’ concerns.
Another area in which survivors have played a prominent role is that of securing investigations against institutions and individuals. In October 2014, victims and survivors hosted a conference in the House of Commons attended by Inquiry officials and politicians, which proposed that religious organisations should also be investigated by the Inquiry. The conference was a success, and the Inquiry subsequently added a number of religious bodies to their strands of investigation. Pressure was also placed on the government to include a look at child abuse allegations against the late peer, Lord Janner, a move that was acknowledged and led to the launch of a separate investigation into the peer at the Inquiry. More complaints over delays and a growing number of investigations slowing down the Inquiry were voiced through the media.
These events have been consistently categorised by politicians and the press as terrible failures which have prevented the Inquiry from carrying out its vital work, rather than a successful attempt at protecting the Inquiry’s mission – to uncover the extent of child abuse within the UK over decades, and to the present day. Whilst these developments have delayed certain aspects of the Inquiry’s work, and there is a real imperative to move quickly with so many individuals both accused of child abuse and with knowledge of failures already elderly and frail and in a growing number of cases, no longer alive, these setbacks actually represent a phenomenal success.
With every inappropriate chair and panel member removed, and every conflict of interest and bias uncovered, the Inquiry becomes purer, and more powerful. It also represents the best of democracy in action, at a time when so many of us have lost faith in a system which no longer seems to deliver on that front. This stripping down of the Inquiry to give it its independence back and protect its integrity can be attributed to survivors and victims tirelessly fighting for a world free from child abuse, and it is them we should thank for pushing the Inquiry’s transparency and accountability to its limits and in doing so, making it strong.