The recent news that the Statutory Inquiry into Child Abuse would not be questioning individuals has caused confusion amongst the public and survivors, but a closer look at how Inquiries work reveals a concerning flaw in the process.
Home Secretary Theresa May confirmed this week that the nation’s Inquiry into child abuse would not “probe individuals”, but did not go on to clarify what she meant, leaving many baffled and angered by the revelation.
What is clear however, is this. The Inquiry has been tasked with looking into institutional and non institutional child sexual abuse. The current terms of reference will include Parliament, ministers and the Cabinet Office, as well as Government Departments, police, schools, local authorities and more. That ‘more’, is at the discretion of the Inquiry Chair – she can, if she so wishes, expand the list of organisations to include others.
We also know that the Inquiry has been set up to look at “the extent to which State and non-State institutions have failed in their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation; to consider the extent to which those failings have since been addressed; to identify further action needed to address any failings identified; to consider the steps which it is necessary for State and non-State institutions to take in order to protect children from such abuse in future; and to publish a report with recommendations.”
And whilst it is not part of the Inquiry’s remit to determine whether someone is guilty of a crime, whether civil or criminal, they are able to make findings of fact when it comes to determining any failures to protect children within the relevant institutions. This of course, means that the Inquiry will at some point be confronted with information that shows people either ignored established child abuse, or engaged in it.
With its new-found Statutory status, allowing the Inquiry to summon individuals to speak about what they know in relation to the department or institution they work or worked in, you could be forgiven for thinking that such powers might be used to secure reluctant witnesses who may have seen or heard about child sexual abuses, before the Inquiry. Or to question such witnesses in order to establish where the trail, as May puts it, begins and ends.
But in reality, this is not how the Inquiry is likely to work. Travel across to Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (their version of our child abuse inquiry), where a possible answer can be found. Their Public Hearings section explains the following:
“The Royal Commission holds formal public hearings to hear evidence about child sexual abuse within institutions. The hearings do not focus on individual cases, but instead focus on case studies of how institutions have responded to allegations and proven instances of child sexual abuse.”
Whilst our Inquiry is not a Royal Commission, much of our own Inquiry’s scope and remit have taken inspiration from Australia’s own investigation, and it is most likely that our public hearings will work in much the same way. In retrospect, what Theresa May may have been trying to explain, is that individuals will not simply be summoned to share their knowledge of child abuse within a particular institution or organisation, whether in person or through documentation. Rather, those who come forward will come specifically from institutions who were alerted to allegations or proven instances of child abuse, and will bring with them a case study on how their institution dealt with those allegations.
If this is indeed the way our Inquiry hopes to operate, it raises several very concerning questions. Who is going to prepare such case studies? How will the Inquiry know whether these studies are impartial, objective and complete? And if they are not going to summon individuals from institutions whose remits did not include dealing with allegations of child abuse, but who have a potentially deep and important knowledge base for the Inquiry, how will that information be sourced?
This takes us into yet more controversial territory. The Paedophile Information Exchange clearly falls foul of the above remit. It is unlikely that anyone who was abused by PIE members or a potential VIP paedophile ring would raise the abuse directly with their abusers. In any event, these organisations were not institutions as such. They were movements whose business was the promotion of child sexual abuse, the former being an open movement, the latter a criminal one.There is also the added complication of the abuse in those circumstances emanating directly from individuals inside the organisation, rather than being a scenario where victims sought help from departments designed to respond to such allegations. (A complication which may also arise inside approved institutions, but that’s another headache for another day).
And yet, PIE was a legitimate movement which was supported by several high-profile politicians during its time. It is so obviously important to understanding the culture and cause behind child sexual abuse in our country, that to leave it out altogether would be counter productive. Its omission would create a gaping hole in the Inquiry’s understanding of the phenomenon, not least of all because many of PIE’s alleged members appeared to be government officials, some of whom were tasked with crafting and advising on child welfare policy. But that is what the Home Secretary seemed to imply in her most recent statement. It has also fuelled fears amongst the public that senior politicians will effectively be shielded from any investigations which take place, despite May’s assurances that allegations would be passed on to the police.
We are still not clear on exactly what the Home Secretary meant nor whether the Inquiry will follow Australia’s suit on the Hearings front, but we very much hope that the Inquiry will find a way to accommodate investigations of those institutions which sit outside such a remit whilst potentially having played a significant role in the proliferation of child abuse in England and Wales.