This Child Sex Abuse Inquiry Is a Chance for Survivors to Finally Be Heard
By Sandra Laville
March 9, 2016
| New Zealand high court judge Justice Lowell Goddard’s inquiry is a hugely symbolic moment for survivors of abuse. Photograph: Jack Taylor/AFP/Getty Images|
In a courtroom that has hosted some of the most significant and dramatic public inquiries of the last 20 years, a New Zealand judge will take her seat to begin a journey into one of the darkest corners of British life.
What emerges over the coming months and years in Court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice, will be difficult to face, not only for social workers, local government officials, teachers, religious leaders, senior politicians and the police, but for society as a whole.
The first of Justice Lowell Goddard’s 25 public investigations, in her independent inquiry into institutional failures to protect children over many decades in England and Wales, will focus on the late Greville Janner. The former Labour MP was charged with 22 sexual offences dating back to the 1960s, but died before a trial of the facts could take place in a criminal courtroom. It will be her job to decide, having considered the allegations, whether or not they are well founded, and to probe why so many children who have complained of abuse were left within his reach for so long.
For the few hours that she sits in court on Wednesday, Goddard will hear from lawyers, as most victims plan to stay away from what is a preliminary hearing. But for these survivors – vulnerable children in the care of Leicestershire county council, now grown into middle-aged men – and many others, it will be a hugely symbolic moment.
Solicitor Liz Dux, at Slater and Gordon Lawyers, who represents nine complainants against Janner, said they were pleased that the investigation had begun so quickly, after years in which he escaped the process of justice. “It is extremely important for them that this is beginning, it is their chance to be heard,” she said.
Being heard is something Goddard has promised victims. From the truth project, where thousands of survivors of sexual abuse are invited to give private testimony of their experiences, to the courtroom hearings, she has given assurances that they will be listened to.
The inquiry will expose the culture of denial and tendency to put institutions’ reputations above the safety of children
Away from the frenzy of media reporting about non-recent child abuse, Westminster paedophile rings and costly police investigations into long dead politicians, it is surely the independent inquiry that promises the best chance of peeling back decades of institutional cover-up and denials to find the truth.
“The investigations will, I believe, enable us to build a broad picture of how institutions have failed to protect children from sexual abuse … failures in criminal justice and law enforcement; in education and religion; in national and private service organisations; and in relation to alleged abuse by persons of public prominence,” Goddard has said.
The inquiry’s work is all the more resonant because it takes place amid what Goddard calls “urgent, contemporary issues” relating to how vulnerable and voiceless children are still being failed from Rotherham to Oxford .
If Goddard’s inquiry can do anything, it will be to expose how the culture of denial and cover-up and the tendency to put institutions’ reputations above the safety of children, are constant, timeless themes which have been present in abuse scandals over decades within the Catholic and Anglican churches, leading private schools, local authorities, the police, the prison service and within the BBC in its dealings with Jimmy Savile.
While Goddard is clear that she will listen to the testimonies of victims, the greatest risk for her behemoth of an inquiry over the next five years is that she will, herself, struggle to be heard. After years of revelations about the scale of Savile’s sexual abuse and the horrors which have unfolded in Rotherham and other British towns, the British public may have become inured to testimonies of child abuse. While the notoriously fickle media, which has shifted in recent months from bloodthirsty cries for justice in the so-called “Westminster paedophile scandal” to outrage that respected establishment figures have been drawn into the messy business of a police inquiry, is unlikely to report daily on the hearings. And it remains to be seen how fully the establishment responds to Goddard’s requests to see into its most secret corners.
We can only hope these are unduly pessimistic predictions. Goddard has what she admits is a daunting task ahead. It is our duty to those who have suffered for so long to pause and listen.