‘Lowell Goddard said in a memo to MPs that there was an inherent problem in the sheer scale and size of the inquiry.’ Photograph: Jack Taylor/AFP/Getty Images
Lowell Goddard has told us what we know – that sexual crimes against children are too big, too tolerated and altogether too much. Goddard, the New Zealand judge who resigned from the inquiry into historical child abuse last month, said in a memo to MPs that there was “an inherent problem in the sheer scale and size of the inquiry”.
None of this is a surprise for me or anyone who has been reading this blog for long. It is, however, very disappointing, to the point of maddening, that the US and Canada have completely ignored this tragic situation as though it were confined to the UK and Australia. We have our heads buried in the sand and our national media outlets are doing nothing to change that. It is to our great shame that we are letting another generation of North American children suffer the devastating consequences of child sex abuse, and the nightmare of knowing that little or nothing will ever be done about it.
It was set up in 2014 after a tsunami of scandal: the deaths of prolific but protected abusers, BBC DJ Jimmy Savile and Liberal politician Cyril Smith, and longstanding suspicions about other Westminster politicians. Speculation about organised networks of men sexually exploiting children amplified the clamour to do something. The inquiry announced 13 initial investigations.
Goddard is the third chair to step down, after the previous two appointees resigned. Her memo, drawing attention to the unmanageable scale of the problem, has encouraged cynicism and scepticism, but scale should be no deterrent. Nor should the shame that suffocates survivors of sexual assault.
Victims and survivors don’t expect and don’t get justice. The great American specialist in crimes of sexual domination, Judith Lewis Herman, warns that the perpetrator’s goal is to maintain domination by terrorising and shaming. It is this “dishonouring” of victims, she argues, that makes sexual abuse “so impervious to the formal remedies of the law”.
What Goddard and her inquiry have not been able to do, we as a society haven’t been able to do either: sexual crimes against children are ubiquitous and abusers act with virtual impunity.
Sexual abuse of children is one of the great issues of our time. (No, it's the greatest issue of our time). For decades it loitered on the doorsteps of institutions, with nowhere to go. Theresa May’s efforts as home secretary to launch the inquiry in 2014 revealed a rush to judgment and a faith that the great and the good – our own or somebody else’s – could get hold of this and control it.
They can’t. Unlike the Iraq war inquiry, or the Hillsborough inquiry, this is not about one time and place, but about everywhere: all bodies with any responsibility for children – from police to schools, churches, the justice system, the NHS, private schools and public charities – are implicated. Some have been named. I’m currently updating my book Unofficial Secrets, on the Cleveland child abuse crisis 30 years ago. It was a controversy about medical evidence of abuse and how to respond to it.
We need this inquiry to be brave
An inquiry chaired by Elizabeth Butler-Sloss – the same judge appointed in 2014 to lead the new inquiry, before she resigned under pressure over family links – was the defining moment in our era of child-abuse politics: it was a model of not-knowing, of not answering the questions on everyone’s lips. Although the Cleveland inquiry did not doubt the medical signs that were suggestive of sexual abuse, its report neither asked nor answered the question: were the children abused? And it thus created the context in which thousands of childhoods would be ruined. The government squandered a generation of professionals. And it denied justice – or if not justice, at least honour – to the survivors.
There are millions of us – survivors and professionals and their advocates – waiting, waiting, waiting for recognition and respect and the opportunity to participate in a cultural revolution. Goddard has suggested there should be a complete review of the inquiry she has quit, “with a view to remodelling it and recalibrating its emphasis more towards current events and thus focusing major attention on the present and future protection of children”. But to abandon the excavation of the past because it is too big and too hard – as Goddard seems to suggest – is to demand that we commit collective amnesia. It would mean “giving up on a better past” – in Herman’s phrase – for the millions who will suffer in the future.
The inquiry needs to be brave, to innovate. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission could be a useful model. It had a target, the old apartheid state, and a mission: to name the guilty men and validate their victims and cement a new consensus. Yet that commission was set up by a post-apartheid government, whereas we are not a post-sexual abuse society. And that commission’s brief – to address individual victims of violence and perpetrators – did not extend to the millions subjected to “social suffering” caused by apartheid.
The child abuse inquiry’s brief is not just to consider abuse in institutional contexts, but the experiences of anyone “failed by an institution”. Nevertheless, a historical inquiry into institutions ignores the place where most sexual abuse takes place – the family. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) in England calculates that 1.3 million children will experience serious sexual abuse in their families by the time they reach 18. In the past year the OCC has reportedly lost half its staff. That’s how committed the government is to abused children.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary expresses its worries, in report after report, that despite law reform and greater awareness raised by successive scandals, the police response to sexual crime is so routinely poor that it risks failing another generation of children.
We need this inquiry to be brave. When it reviews itself, as it will, it must insist on what it needs – more specialist and trained staff and more support for those staff, who may be shocked by their discoveries. It needs huge outreach – who in Gateshead, or Godalming knows that this might be a forum for them? And it needs serious investigative powers and resources.
Why not envisage an inquiry that prefigures permanent vigilance, that morphs into an inspectorate that reports regularly, is respected by those who need it and feared by its enemies; whose brief is to support collective self-discovery so that we are not doomed to be who we were.
We need this inquiry to do something unprecedented: to help transform a catastrophe into a catharsis.