Head of sex abuse inquiry has conflict of interest, say nuns

Picture: TSPL

Picture: TSPL

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TWO Catholic congregations at the centre of historical abuse allegations have raised accusations of bias against the chairwoman of a public inquiry set up by the Scottish Government.

Lawyers for the Congregation of the Poor Sisters of Nazareth and the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent De Paul argue the appointment of Susan O’Brien QC by government ministers showed an “apparent bias”.

Ms O’Brien has moved from adviser to decision-maker

Alastair Duncan QC

Both religious congregations ran children’s homes in the last century which became subject to allegations of abuse during the 1990s.

The Court of Session in Edinburgh yesterday heard how Ms O’Brien acted as counsel for former residents of Nazareth House in Cardonald in a 2008 appeal to the House of Lords which unsuccessfully challenged an earlier court ruling that the claims were time-barred, or made too late.

Alastair Duncan QC, representing the Catholic charities, told the court: “The particular concern that my clients have is that Ms O’Brien had acted for individuals alleging abuse against them, that she had supported the allegations that were made by appearing as counsel for those individuals and that she is now being asked to adjudicate on the very same issues.”

Mr Duncan said the allegations that arose in the House of Lords case were “almost certain” to be heard again at the public inquiry. On the same issue with the same parties, Ms O’Brien has moved from being an adviser to being a decision-maker,” he said.

“She was the adviser on how to take these allegations past the time-bar problem to a successful outcome for her clients against my client. She is now to be the decision-maker on that issue.”

The House of Lords case did not involve the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent De Paul but that organisation has also been the subject of allegations of abuse, the court heard.

The appointment of Ms O’Brien was announced by education secretary Angela Constance last month. The QC is due to take up her position from

1 July, with the inquiry expected to get under way in October.

Lawyers acting for the Scottish Government maintain that the legal challenge is “fundamentally flawed”.

Shona Haldane QC said Ms O’Brien had been acting as counsel in cases involving a time-bar and did not espouse a cause.

She said: “The well-informed observer would have that information to hand and would know to appear as counsel in a case is not the same as espousing or campaigning for a cause.

“She has not moved from adviser to adjudicator. This is not a dispute between the same parties. Ms O’Brien has been appointed as chair of this inquiry under statute and terms of reference which make it explicit her role is investigatory.”

The judge, Lord Woolman, reserved his decision in the case.

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