Poisoned Chalice? More Like Lethal Injection

To lose one chair is unfortunate, and two comes under the heading of downright carelessness. But when a third incumbent hands in her notice it’s fair to ask whether the scope and scale of the inquiry into historical child sexual abuse is just too daunting for any single person, no matter how well motivated or qualified.


The fact that New Zealand judge Dame Lowell Goddard, only appointed in Feburary 2015, has resigned without offering the 3 months notice enshrined in her contract, suggests there was more amiss than this week’s press story alleging she spent three months of her first year back home down under.


Amber Rudd, the very new Home Secretary, was quick to say the inquiry would continue without delay, and that a new chair would be in post ASAP, presumably after hasty consultations with the very new Prime Minister, who originally appointed Lady Goddard.


Perhaps a pause for a long breath might make more sense. Assuredly the adult survivors of abuse would very properly be outraged at yet another hiccup in proceedings which took decades to get underway. And doubtless many would consider it yet another stitch up by an establishment, presumed links to whom led to their dissatisfaction with Goddard’s two predecessors, Elizabeth Butler Sloss and Fiona Woolf.


Yet arguably their all too real distress and very personal experience of trust being serially betrayed by familial or authority figures makes it difficult to be objective about what would now serve their own best interests.


The terms of reference for this inquiry embrace 60 years and cover 13 different areas of abuse including residential care, the Catholic and Anglican churches, Westminster, detention centres and high profile individuals like Cyril Smith and Greville Janner. The hearings for these have only just got under way. It’s difficult to see how all these disparate avenues can realistically feed into one easily managed road to justice.


In addition to which there is a Truth project, set up to allow victims to give anonymous accounts of their own experiences. While that might provide a belated safety valve for people who have nursed personal agonies internally for all their adult lives, it self evidently can’t be used in that anonymised form to bring perpetrators to belated justice.

It could perhaps continue good and necessary work detached from the quasi judicial inquiry.


There are hard choices to be made here, for not only has society failed to address this mountain of historical abuse – recent research suggested no fewer than 1 in 14 adults has indicated childhood traumas – but there are new and alarming threats which arguably demand real urgency to avoid a new generation of damaged adults.


The latest statistics compiled in Scotland and published earlier this year point to a rise in the sexual exploitation of children – the Internet Watch Foundation alone reported an alarming rise of 118 per cent in the number of illegal images of children being sexually abused year on year.


At the end of last month 77 people were arrested by Police Scotland after a 5 week operation found 30 million such images on almost 600 different computers. Meanwhile online grooming is a growing concern, with young people tricked into sexually compromising positions on webcam chats after which the abuser may threaten blackmail. A 17 year old boy from Fife is one of several in the UK who committed suicide after being misled into thinking he was skyping a teenage girl.


More traditionally the perpetrators are either members of the extended family, or family friends; just one of the reasons why so much abuse goes unreported by the children involved, and why, even when they summon the courage to talk, their testimony is too readily dismissed or disbelieved.


Conversely the appalling litany of abuse discovered in the Jimmy Savile investigation has prompted some people to come forward with their own allegations of other high profile or authority figures from their past. And while this is both welcome and healthy it suggests that an inquiry which has just lost its third chair in two years, will slowly sink under the weight of its own ambitions.


Think Chilcot. Think Bloody Sunday. Think of all the inquiries set up in good faith with the promise of government backing where months ran into years only for the lawyers for those whose conduct was found unbecoming to find ingenious ways of derailing publication.


And with this one there will be no shortage of establishment villains looking for somewhere to hide; no shortage of institutions looking for alibis and delays.


You’d imagine any new chair would be thinking this might prove a well poisoned chalice. Lord MacDonald, the former Director of Public Prosecutions in England, begs to differ. Yesterday he called it more of a lethal injection.