Lowell Goddard: my child abuse inquiry is not just targeted on the famous

The Guardian
April 3, 2016

Lowell Goddard hopes to report in 2020.
Photo by Ben Pruchnie

A number of commentators have in past weeks spoken out, inaccurately, about the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which I chair and the way in which the inquiry will conduct its work. I’d like to correct those inaccuracies, specifically that the inquiry relates to individuals of public prominence.

The inquiry is unprecedented in both size and scope. Let’s remember that it came about as a result of catastrophic failures of institutions to recognise and address the extent of child sexual abuse in England and Wales. Those failures destroyed the lives of children and left them growing up in a society that let them down.

We know of high-profile cases where abusers, such as Jimmy Savile, used their positions of trust to gain unfettered access to children. And in towns such as Rotherham, Oxford and Rochdale, we know that organised networks have targeted vulnerable children for sexual abuse. We also know that the widespread sexual abuse of children has taken place – outside the media spotlight – in the care system, in residential schools, in custody and in other institutional settings. And we know from recent research by the Children’s Commissioner that only about one in eight children who are sexually abused are ever identified by statutory agencies.

I have been asked to investigate institutions in England and Wales to identify the failures that may have contributed to the abuse of children. To discharge the challenging mandate in a timely manner, I have announced 13 investigations to date. Most do not relate to individuals of public prominence.

The inquiry is examining allegations of past and ongoing failures to protect children in schools, children’s homes, secure accommodation, local authority care, and the responses of institutions, including the police, health service, Crown Prosecution Service and religious bodies to allegations of child sexual abuse. We are also investigating broader issues, such as the role of the internet in facilitating abuse.

Over the past three weeks, preliminary hearings into four of these investigations have taken place: investigations into Lambeth council; Rochdale council; the Anglican church; and an investigation into institutional responses to allegations of child sexual abuse involving Greville Janner. Inevitably, in each investigation, we need to examine the conduct of individuals to determine the extent of any institutional failures.

Those who have claimed recently that the inquiry will consider only the perspectives of victims and survivors, and exclude those of others affected by allegations of child sexual abuse, are wrong. Counsel to the inquiry, Ben Emmerson QC, noted at the first preliminary hearing that the inquiry will need to remain sensitive to the particular needs of vulnerable complainants without unduly privileging their testimony.

At the same time, he said the inquiry will need to recognise the damage that can be caused by false accusations of sexual abuse, without hesitating to make findings against individuals and institutions if justified by the evidence. I agree with that analysis. I am committed to ensuring that we hear all relevant testimony. As I announced last November, the inquiry intends to explore the balance that must be struck between encouraging the reporting of child sexual abuse and protecting the rights of the accused.

As is standard practice in public inquiries, questions to witnesses will normally be asked by counsel to the inquiry, whose role will include, where necessary, the exploration of witness credibility. Affected parties will not ordinarily be permitted to ask questions of witnesses directly. But, as I said in my opening statement last July, affected parties are entitled to make an application to ask direct questions and I will grant those applications if fairness requires it. The task is to ensure that children are given the care and protection they need and deserve. The sexual abuse of children over successive generations has left permanent scars, not only on the victims themselves, but on society as a whole. It is the inherent right of every child to experience a childhood free of sexual abuse and intimidation – to be allowed to grow and develop without trauma.

There is no doubt that the inquiry’s task is immense. But the scale and magnitude of the problem of child sexual abuse means there is no easy fix. This is the opportunity to get to the heart of one of the biggest challenges for our generation. I truly hope that, through our work, we mark the beginning of a new era in child protection.


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