Thousands of Child Abuse Victims to Be Invited to Testify in Truth Project

By Sandra Laville and Owen Bowcott
The Guardian
July 9, 2015

Justice Lowell Goddard, the inquiry’s chair, says she will not shrink from naming individuals who have abused children and the institutions which allowed it to happen. Photograph: Home Office/PA

Thousands of victims of child sexual abuse are being invited to testify across the country in a truth project set up as part of the biggest public inquiry into criminality and corruption by public and private institutions in England and Wales.

Justice Lowell Goddard, the New Zealand judge appointed to run the long-awaited independent inquiry into child abuse within state and non-state institutions, vowed that no individual or institution however powerful would be able to obstruct her investigations.

The monarchy, government, politicians, church leaders, schools, hospitals and the media would all be examined, she said. Insurance companies which deny victims the truth to prevent compensation payouts, and internet providers who fail to tackle online abuse, will also be investigated.

While the inquiry – which has a budget of ?17.9m from the Home Office for the coming year – would not be able to convict people or punish them, Goddard said it would not shrink from naming individuals who have abused children and the institutions which allowed it to happen.

“The naming of people that have been responsible for the sexual abuse of children or institutions that have been at fault in failing to protect children from abuse, is a core aspect of the inquiry’s function,” she said.

Opening the inquiry at the Queen Elizabeth ll Centre in London on Thursday, the judge said: “This is the largest and most ambitious public inquiry ever established in England and Wales ... I am determined to ensure that it does not get bogged down in delays.”

In a key protection for those working in the police, security services or public sector the inquiry has received written assurances from the attorney general that whistleblowers who come forward with evidence or documents will not be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.

The inquiry will examine five key areas of state and non-state institutions:

People of prominence in politics, the security and intelligence services, special branch and the media

Education and religion of all faiths, including specialist education, religious schools and private schools

Police and the crown prosecution service, including failures to investigate and prosecute

Local authorities and voluntary organisations, including state-run children’s homes, foster care and adoption services

National and private organisations, like the NHS, the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces, internet providers, insurance firms and media organisations.

In public hearings a selected 25 cases in which particular patterns of institutional failings have been detected will be investigated in open sessions. These would include cases involving particular individuals who have been able to abuse across many institutions.

Goddard said the panel had security clearance to examine sensitive documents, and she vowed to hold as much as possible of the inquiry in public.

All allegations of child abuse will be passed to the police, via the overarching operation, known as Hydrant, which is coordinating more than 660 investigations across the country, including 261 into prominent individuals.

Perhaps the most ambitious part of the inquiry, however, involves the truth project. This will be similar to the Australian Royal Commission into child abuse, in which victims of abuse in the past, are encouraged to come forward and testify in private hearings.

The gathering of testimony, often from people who have never disclosed their sexual abuse before, will be run out of six regional centres across the country – and enable any victim of abuse in an institution to share their experience. A telephone hotline was opened on Thursday for victims to contact the inquiry, and a new website has been launched with full details of how to contact the panel.

Goddard said that victims would be able to bring friends, family or supporters with them.

The testimony of individuals will not have any direct legal consequences, or lead to any findings of fact in individual cases. The evidence will instead feed into the inquiry for analysis and be will published in an anonymised form.

Victims will also be invited to leave a short message as a legacy for the nation, which will all be published.

“Participation will be more than an exercise in catharsis,” said Goddard. “It will enable the inquiry to piece together a broader picture of the scale and nature of institutional child sexual abuse.”

In Australia, an average of 40 victims contacts the commission each week to give testimony, Goddard said. By the end of this year the commission will have held 4,000 private evidence sessions for victims.

Victims groups welcomed the start of the Goddard-chaired inquiry. Phil Johnson, of Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors, said: “Complacency by leaders of institutions within British society has enabled perpetrators to act in the way that they have.

“It is only through a full expose and the hearing of survivors experiences that real reform ... can be achieved.”

But some raised questions over whether perpetrators would ever be brought to justice.

Liz Davies, a social worker who exposed the Islington child abuse scandal in London, said she was disappointed at the lack of a separate dedicated criminal investigation running parallel with the inquiry and by the lack of investigative skills on the inquiry.

“Where are the retired police officers, where are the investigators to look at the organised element of this child abuse. I fear the perpetrators will be laughing today,” said Davies.

The inquiry – which Goddard said she hoped would be completed in five years - opened after months of delays and controversy over the two previous chairs, and an outcry from victims that it did not have the powers necessary to force people to testify. Goddard said no Thursday her statutory inquiry had the necessary powers and she was prepared to use them to force individuals and institutions to give evidence.








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