The Guardian view on the child sexual abuse inquiry: unbearable truths

The Guardian [London, England]

October 20, 2022

The findings of a seven and a half year process must lead to rapid action. The price of past mistakes has been huge suffering

Seven and a half years after it began, the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse has delivered its final report. The testimony of victims, said Prof Alexis Jay, was “almost unbearable” to witness. The stories uncovered have been of limitless cruelty, deviousness and negligence. The inquiry’s course has been rough. When she was appointed in 2015, Prof Jay was the fourth person in the job. Some survivors and lawyers withdrew their cooperation from a process they saw as an establishment stitch-up. But a vast amount of evidence was presented, including by 6,200 victims and survivors. The findings must now be confronted.

These include vicious behaviour by many individuals including priests, teachers and foster carers. But the reason why child sexual abuse became the scandal that it did is that so many institutions were complicit. Again and again, those with information and knowledge that abuse was happening chose to remain silent. Sometimes, for example, in both the Catholic and Anglican churches, senior figures chose to protect abusers by enabling them to move positions rather than be exposed. In the case of Jimmy Savile, who preyed on young women for years while working for the BBC, a whole organisation closed ranks.

In light of these betrayals, it is no wonder that a law obliging those in positions of trust to report child sexual abuse is backed by many victims and survivors. Some other countries have such laws, and the inquiry recommends that the UK should too. The next prime minister should take this idea seriously and conduct a thorough consultation. Given the chronic failures of the criminal justice system, particular in relation to sex offences, it would be a mistake to think that forcing people to go to the police could be a quick fix. The experience described by Daria Aspen earlier this week is just one example.

Other recommendations may also prove challenging. There are few people more deserving of financial help than those who had their childhoods destroyed by abusers. But it is not clear that the institutions responsible for historic cases would fund the new compensation scheme that is proposed, and it may be that reforming the existing scheme is a more realistic first step. The proposal for new watchdogs in England and Wales should also be looked at. But there are other urgent spending priorities, including public services on the brink of collapse – with all the risks that entails for existing child safeguarding arrangements.

The registration of children’s home staff, a ban on the use of pain-inducing restraint on young offenders and the creation of a cabinet-level minister for children (which the UK had under New Labour) are all sound measures that have been argued for by children’s rights groups before. Children in care homes are four times as likely as other children to be victims of abuse. The report also rightly urges ministers to get on with meeting their online safety promises.

Greater public awareness is needed of a problem that the report says is still prone to be dismissed as a “moral panic”. Above all, authority figures across society must be persuaded, whether by new laws, training or other methods, not to turn a blind eye. “At worst, within some institutions, children have been treated as commodities,” the report says. Any temptation to think such horrors lie safely in the past must be resisted. The huge recent rise in reports of online abuse suggests that the overall position is getting worse rather than better.