Chris Marshall: Child abuse inquiry is far from perfect but we must make best of it

Later this month, judge Lady Smith will convene the preliminary hearing of Scotland's national child abuse inquiry. It feels as if the hearing has been a long time coming, taking place more than two years after the inquiry was announced by the Scottish Government.

The Jimmy Savile scandal and abuse allegations in football show how damaging the psychological effects are for children.
The Jimmy Savile scandal and abuse allegations in football show how damaging the psychological effects are for children.

It is almost a year since then chairwoman Susan O’Brien held a public session at a Glasgow hotel in which she made an emotional plea for survivors to come forward and give evidence.

Much has happened in the intervening months. Ms O’Brien has gone along with fellow panel member Professor Michael Lamb, who resigned citing government interference and describing the inquiry as “doomed”.

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Indeed there were points last year where the inquiry looked set to follow in the footsteps of its larger and more controversial English counterpart, which has lurched from crisis to crisis.

We can only hope that while all seemed chaotic from a distance, officials were nevertheless working to secure the evidence and testimonies of those for whom the inquiry matters most.

If there remain lingering doubts over the need for this inquiry, then perhaps information released yesterday will help dispel the last of them.

According to allegations released by the National Confidential Forum, a body set up by the Scottish Government in 2014, abuse was once systemic in schools, residential homes and hospitals.

A recurring theme among the 59 testimonies was the fear many had about speaking out to report the physical and sexual abuse suffered by themselves or others.

While some who contacted the forum were sharing experiences suffered 80 years ago, others were in care as recently as just five years ago.

A total of 38 allegations of abuse have been passed to the police to investigate.

The Jimmy Savile scandal and the more recent allegations relating to child abuse in football underline just how damaging the psychological affects of childhood abuse can be.

For survivors it is something they will struggle to come to terms with for the rest of their lives, often unable to discuss what happened to them with even close friends and family.

That Scotland has a national inquiry of this kind, where – after years of battling – survivors finally have our ear, is to be welcomed.

While many of those giving evidence are unhappy about the limited remit of the inquiry and its narrow focus on abuse suffered by children in care, it now seems the Scottish Government will not be swayed from its course.

It is a great shame many of those abused under the auspices of Church and State will have no recourse to the inquiry simply because they were not in residential care when the abuse took place.

But while the inquiry is far from perfect, we must now make the best of it.

Figures published last month showed the inquiry into Edinburgh’s tram project has already cost £5 million.

The child abuse inquiry will publish its own costs later this month, having already spent £2m by last summer.

In time, it’s likely the scope of the inquiry, with allegations dating back many decades, will prove to be very expensive indeed, possibly the most expensive inquiry ever held in Scotland.

For that to be money well spent, it must work hard to be seen as credible and trustworthy by those who suffered then and still suffer now.