Chris Marshall: Child abuse enquiry set to commence

Historic child abuse enquiry gets underway tomorrow. Picture: TSPL.
Historic child abuse enquiry gets underway tomorrow. Picture: TSPL.
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AT LAST, the historical child abuse inquiry is about to start, writes Chris Marshall

FOR decades, survivors of historical child abuse have fought for a day many of them feared might never come. A day when they believe someone will be made accountable for the horrors visited on them by individuals and institutions who have so far avoided being brought to justice.

Many of the survivors are in now in old age, others have died, while some – frustrated at the lack of progress – have taken their own lives.

Finally, however, their day is coming. Scotland’s public inquiry into historical abuse begins tomorrow and the weight of expectation is huge.

The process will not be easy, neither will it be quick; the inquiry is expected to last five years.

Indeed, many of the more elderly survivors are likely to have passed away before the inquiry concludes.

But when chair Susan O’Brien QC gets her deliberations under way, it will mark a milestone for the many hundreds, possibly thousands, of people in Scotland who have been carrying this terrible burden.

And yet details of the inquiry remain sketchy.

It is not clear how much of the evidence will be open to the public, allowing the media to report details of what has happened. Survivors have also complained of being kept in the dark about the process to recruit members of Ms O’Brien’s panel.

The inquiry has already faced its first legal challenge after two religious groups – The Congregation of the Poor Sisters of Nazareth and the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent De Paul – attempted to block the appointment of Ms O’Brien as chair.

The challenge, which ultimately failed, alleged Ms O’Brien had an “apparent bias” after acting 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 claims for compensation were time-barred. The issue of the time bar, which currently prevents many victims of historical abuse seeking legal redress, is likely to run in parallel to the inquiry.

The Scottish Government has signalled its intention to remove the three-year time bar for civil actions in cases of historical abuse that took place after 1964.

Earlier this week, the Faculty of Advocates said it opposed the move. In a submission to the Scottish Government’s ongoing consultation on the issue, the Faculty said the existing system, where claims dating back more than three years are examined on a case-by-case basis, already provided “fairness to both parties”.

Despite the Scottish Government insistence that it intends to set aside the time bar, campaigners fear the final outcome could yet mirror that of the decision over corroboration, where ministers were forced into an embarrassing climbdown in the face of overwhelming legal opposition to scrapping the centuries-old principle.

A more pressing issue for a number of elderly survivors, however, is the matter of compensation.

Around 100 victims who believe they may not make it until the end of the inquiry are seeking so-called interim payments – something the government has yet to come to a decision on.

These issues will be resolved in time, one way or the other.

For now, campaigners must take comfort in the fact the inquiry is finally happening and that both the government and the police are at last taking their accounts seriously.

It’s an indication of how we have failed these people for so long that it took high-profile scandals such as the Savile affair for the authorities to sit up and take notice.