THE announcement last week of a public inquiry into historical child sex abuse in institutions in Scotland was a landmark for all those who have suffered at the hands of paedophiles over the past 70 years.
OK, it took more than a decade and relentless campaigning from survivors to persuade ministers that previous piecemeal investigations were inadequate, and to agree that only an over-arching inquiry could ensure those responsible were held accountable and lessons learned.
And the decision merely to “take on board” calls for an end to the time-bar which prevents some survivors taking their cases to the civil courts could be viewed as further heel-dragging. At least the Scottish Government, unlike Westminster, immediately committed to a statutory inquiry with powers to compel witnesses to attend. And, unlike Westminster, it does seems to understand the importance of consulting survivors before it appoints a chair or sets terms of reference. Credit where it’s due.
Still, there are many hurdles to overcome before it can be said with any confidence this inquiry will be fit for purpose; indeed, one false move and it could still descend into the farce we have witnessed south of the Border.
It is six months since Home Secretary Theresa May – under increasing pressure to respond to a series of scandals involving powerful figures – announced her independent inquiry into historical child sex abuse (CSA) allegations.
Since then, we have seen the resignation of two chairs – Elizabeth Butler-Sloss and Fiona Woolf – amid claims they were too close to those under investigation and calls for other panel members to follow suit. The inquiry now appears to be in a state of paralysis. Last week, May said she was not on the brink of appointing a new chair – and it is still not clear exactly what the parameters for the inquiry will be.
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As the politicians flounder, the scandals keep on coming. On Thursday, the Met confirmed it was investigating claims of three child murders as part of Operation Midland, which is also looking into claims of CSA on military bases and elsewhere.
In Scotland – although there has been no shortage of CSA scandals involving schools and care homes – there has been less attention paid to the role of public figures. However, renewed claims by Susie Henderson that she was raped by an organised group of paedophiles including her father Robert Henderson QC and Tory MP Sir Nicholas Fairbairn put the spotlight back on the “Magic Circle” – a group of lawyers and judges said to have gone easy on gay criminals, and on Operation Planet, an investigation into allegations that vulnerable teenagers (some from children’s homes) were abused at a property in Edinburgh.
One of the challenges for the Scottish Government will be trying to strike a balance when it comes to setting the terms of reference. Too wide and it could be unwieldy; too narrow and it will be worthless. If, for example, it confines itself to investigating what happened within institutions and ignores the targeting of vulnerable children by groups of outsiders; or if it neglects to look at historical failings on the part of the police and Crown Office with regard to the Susie Henderson/Magic Circle/Operation Planet inquiries, then it will neither bring a sense of closure nor guard against the same thing happening again in the future.
Another challenge for the Scottish Government will be keeping the survivors on side. Years of being dismissed and Westminster’s failure to treat them as equal partners in the process has, understandably, left them hostile and defensive.
In Scotland, a degree of trust had been established with Education Secretary Mike Russell, and survivors are dismayed at having to forge a new relationship with his successor Angela Constance. Similarly, shadow justice secretary Graeme Pearson, who was also instrumental in pushing for a public inquiry, has been replaced by Hugh Henry. There are already simmering tensions, with the suggestion the survivors are being pushed to accept a particular solution as opposed to being listened to.
Yet some of the onus for fostering a good relationship must lie with the survivors themselves. Clearly, they are not a homogeneous group but, volatile and still traumatised by their experiences, they are prone to internecine feuding and Twitter spats. They too need to exercise a degree of restraint if they want to make sure the process doesn’t get derailed.
Despite all this, there is much cause for optimism: survivors – led by Fort Augustus survivor Andi Lavery – have drawn up a potential road map which was previously praised by Russell; it lays out a structure for the inquiry (possibly co-chaired by a judge and another expert) and with a panel of survivors sitting alongside the main inquiry. It has suggested terms of reference and a set of goals, which would include findings on institutional and/or state failings and redress for those affected.
Constance has already confirmed the government is setting up a survivor support fund to ensure “efforts to get to the truth don’t compound the damage already done” and that where crimes were uncovered, abusers will face the full force of the law.
Much could go wrong between now and April when the appointments and terms of reference are due to be announced. But if it can avoid the pitfalls there is an opportunity here for the Scottish Government to shine, to demonstrate its determination to expose the truth about the scale of organised CSA and finally to provide a degree of justice to survivors, who have waited far too long for their voices to be heard.
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