Monday, 19 November 2012

Government must shed light on the darkness shrouding child abuse with wide ranging enquiry

A Prime Minister recently announced a wide-ranging inquiry into child sex abuse saying "Any instance of child abuse is vile and evil thing. There have been too many adults who have averted their eyes to this evil. There has been a systematic failure to respond to it and to protect children".

For UK citizens who have listened daily in recent weeks to the deeply depressing revelations about Jimmy Saville, the Bryn Estyn children's home and others in North Wales and last week's news that a former Church of England Bishop and a priest have been arrested on suspicion of sex abuse in the late 1980s and early 1990s, you might think that the quote above is from David Cameron.

In fact it was made by the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, as she recently announced a Royal Commission into child sex abuse, the institutional responses to abuse, the potential complicity of those institutions and the response of the police. Similar state level inquiries are already under way in Victoria and New South Wales.

The precise remit of the commission is still to be determined but it is believed that it will cover a broad range of institutions from the Catholic and other Churches, boys scouts and sports groups and child welfare agencies. The founder of one child protection charity in Australia, Hetty Johnston of Bravehearts, has said that the Commission should be as broad as possible: "The royal commission needs to include not only the churches. It needs to include family and other courts, government organisations and other institutions, anybody who has a duty of care".

Having recently been in Australia attending and speaking at the Australian Lawyers National Conference, it is horrifying to see the similarities with recent events in the UK being played out on the other side of the globe.

In both countries, an unknown, but large, number of victims have been ignored or dismissed for decades. They have been forced to suffer in silence with their anger, hurt and fears. Meanwhile it is increasingly apparent that institutions and authorities, that children should have been able to rely upon and place their trust, have engaged in the systematic cover-up of the truth with a "look the other way" attitude towards cases of abuse and perhaps have even aided abusers.  That some of the victims of child abuse are to finally be given a voice to tell the truth will be greeted with mixed emotions by those that really matter - the victims themselves.

There is currently an internal BBC inquiry and the public inquiry into abuse claims in North Wales' children's homes is to be reopened.  But the UK Government should follow the lead of Australia and instigate a wide-ranging inquiry, rather than these narrowly focused investigations.

There will undoubtedly be those who will argue that inquiries are expensive, are frequently knee-jerk reactions to events and take too long (the child abuse inquiry in Ireland began in 2000 and only reported its findings in 2009).

But they are also an essential component of a democratic society when it is either proven or suspected that the normal institutions of government have failed to protect the innocent or seek justice for the victim. If the institutions of justice have failed to do their duty and protect society, it is sometimes necessary to by-pass those very institutions and implement an independent review of the evidence and historical and current events.

I sincerely regret that child abuse is unlikely ever to be eradicated, but we as a society must do all we can to prevent abuse in the first place and seek justice when it does occur. Society must be unafraid to look into its darker corners in the pursuit of truth.

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