The Child Sexual Abuse inquiry has suffered its fair share of controversy, but it is the way in which panel members have treated child abuse survivors which has caused it the most damage.
Baroness Butler-Sloss, the first person to be assigned the role of Chair for the Inquiry, and subsequently the first Chair to stand down, has re-emerged, this time to convince the public that she is still a right fit for the job.
This, despite concerns over a family connection (she is the late Sir Michael Havers’ sister, who was attorney general from 1979 to 1987 when controversy over the failure to prosecute child abuse cases may have arisen) and the fact that she has strong links to the Church, an organisation which has been thrust into the spotlight for the part its clergy has played in sexually abusing children.
And whilst fairness asks us to consider the possibility that Butler-Sloss may be able to carry out her duties as chair impartially, despite her family and church connections, the way in which she has handled investigations she has been put in charge of in the past casts a dark shadow over that presumption. So too, the way in which she speaks to survivors.
In 2011, The Diocese of Chichester was asked to report on allegations of paedophilia made against priests in their diocese. At the same time, Baroness Butler-Sloss was also asked to investigate these allegations, and whilst the Diocese’s effort, later known as The Meekings Report, included the name of several priests, Baroness Butler-Sloss was adamant that the name of the only bishop involved should not be made public. Bishop Peter Ball.
Butler-Sloss’s reasoning, which you can hear on this tape recording, included the view that to publicly name the bishop would detract from the connected survivor, Phil Johnson’s, case and would be seized upon by the press who would use this as an excuse to condemn the Church – and that this in turn would hurt Mr Johnson’s case. The logic of this, stemming as it does from one of Britain’s foremost legal minds, is hazy at best and certainly not the quality and clarity of thought you might expect from a senior judge. But it is the kind of thinking which can take hold of even the sharpest minds, when bias sets in and protective instincts take over. Butler-Sloss is even heard to say, during the conversation with Mr Johnson, that the anonymity of the bishop is important to her because she cares about the Church.
Bishop Peter Ball was subsequently named in the national press as well as The Meekings Report itself, and as you might imagine, it did not harm Mr Johnson’s case in any way. But more disturbing than the apparent judicial bias Baroness Butler-Sloss displayed in this discussion is the way in which she treats Mr Johnson, and her complete domination of the conversation, throughout the exchange. The real concern here, is the sheer imbalance of power so clearly visible, as Baroness Butler-Sloss bulldozes through Mr Johnson’s concerns, leaving him obviously anxious that any disagreement might lead to avenues of help being closed to him forever. Mr Johnson barely speaks during the conversation, whilst Butler-Sloss commands the course and character of the dialogue, entirely.
The opening comment by Baroness Butler-Sloss is telling. She explains to Mr Johnson that she wishes to speak to him prior to filing her report, but her primary concern is not to find out what Mr Johnson hopes will be included in the report, rather, what she hopes he will allow her to leave out. She says:
” What I… need to know, is whether you want me to put Bishop *bleep* in, and I’ll tell you why I raise the question, not because I like him, I’ve only met him once – the press would love a bishop.”
Baroness Butler-Sloss does not even stop to draw breath, or actually mean to ask Mr Johnson whether he would like Bishop Ball to be named. It’s a throw-away line, after which she plunges, with some fervour, into a persuasive one-way conversation as to why Bishop Ball should not be publicly outed.
In another awkward and clunky line of reasoning, Baroness Butler-Sloss goes on to say that the mention of Bishop Ball would simply detract from the two other priests named in the report and, rather sensationally, minimises Mr Johnson’s experience with Bishop Ball, viewing the experience as insignificant and therefore grounds for the Bishop’s anonymity. It beggars belief.
Baroness Butler-Sloss continues:
“I would rather not mention the bishop, but I don’t want to be unfair to you so I need to consult you on it.”
But by this time, the damage is done. Baroness Butler-Sloss has made it clear that she is against naming the bishop and wielding an enormous amount of influence, both in this conversation and as a member of the establishment extending support and help to a survivor, Mr Johnson is left with little room, and less trust, to express his true feelings on the matter. Mr Johnson tries to be diplomatic in his response, but as soon as Baroness Butler-Sloss feels Mr Johnson move away from her position, she interrupts him and continues to hammer her point of view without allowing Mr Johnson to ever respond to it.
As a concession, Baroness Butler-Sloss offers to write directly to the Archbishop of Canterbury naming Bishop Ball. And she does.
Another rather concerning aspect of this conversation stems from Baroness Butler-Sloss’s counter to Mr Johnson about having previously named Bishop Ball in public. She tells Mr Johnson that Bishop Ball is very old – and it almost seems as if she is trying once again to minimise the value of publicly naming him. Perhaps as a reflex action, she then goes on to say that she:
“wouldn’t mind [Bishop Ball] being humiliated.”
That is neither an appropriate mindset for a Chair, or judge, or reaction by anyone handling allegations of abuse.
And yet Baroness Butler-Sloss still believes she is an appropriate candidate to Chair the Abuse Inquiry, in spite of having had to stand down from the position once before and her clear mishandling of just one conversation, with one survivor. Multiply this kind of behaviour by a dozen, and what you have is an indefensible scandal in the making.
Her latest sentiments about survivors too, in which she asserts that they wish to run the inquiry (and are not fit to do so), suggests she is out of touch, not just with the finer points of communicating with survivors but the discussion surrounding the Inquiry in general. Not one survivor we have spoken with or read about has ever expressed a desire to run or Chair the Inquiry, simply to be listened to, something even our senior judges can’t seem to get right.
In the quest to find the right Chair for the Inquiry, we must not look back, only forward. The choice of Chair will have to be someone who is trusted by survivors and the public at large, and who stands independently from the establishment, making it a truly Independent Panel Inquiry. Baroness Butler-Sloss is not that individual.