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What Theresa May Must Learn From the Butler-Sloss Mistake

21/07/2014 15:18 BST | Updated 17/09/2014 10:59 BST

On the 14th of July 2014 Home Secretary Theresa May sat before a House of Commons select committee to answer questions about the recently announced enquiry into alleged institutional cover-ups of child abuse. From the minute the enquiry's chair, Baroness Butler-Sloss, had been announced she had been a source of controversy. Her brother had been Attorney General during the time some of the alleged cover-ups occurred in parliament, and was reported to have been involved. The Baroness herself was accused of having deliberately excluded evidence from one enquiry into abuse within the church. By the time May took the stand, Baroness Butler-Sloss had demonstrated that she understood the problem, and had stepped down. By the time Theresa May had finished with her evidence, she had shown that she was sticking to her guns and that she didn't get it at all.

First of all, we need to consider the importance of trust to abuse survivors. Almost without exception abusers are people who have the trust of their victims. Sometimes they are friends or family members, sometimes they are professional people like teachers or priests, and sometimes they are people whose status gifts them a wider public trust. The abuse breaks this trust and leaves many -if not all- survivors with real difficulty trusting for the rest of their lives. Plenty of people remain weary even of the friends and family they have learned to trust and certainly of strangers and -often- of those in authority.

The reason for this is that a broader institutional trust is what protects the abusers. They are believed and survivors are not. This is a trend that needs to be completely reversed. I think we can all agree that what we want is justice for survivors and protection from abusers. To get justice for the survivors it is important that they feel safe to speak out about their experiences to people who will listen and believe. It's hard enough to talk about -and often even to remember- their abuse without feeling that they are talking to people who will simply dismiss them. The CPS and the Police have not been highly praised enough for their successful prosecutions of paedophiles, but their real miracle was supporting the survivors sufficiently that they felt able to testify at all. These trials also edge us closer to protecting future generations, because every conviction of an abuser reminds all the rest that victims are being heard and that they can no longer bank on being unquestioningly trusted, regardless of who they are.

So this is where the Baroness got it right and the Home Secretary got it wrong. The statement with which Butler-Sloss announced her resignation reflected clearly that she understood that there was a lack of faith in her reliability amongst survivors, and that this fact mattered to her ability to do the job. May, however, insisted that her choice was right for the job, even if others disagreed. What she seems unable to grasp is that if survivors don't trust her, or anyone else, then she is wrong for the job, regardless of her ability. If this inquiry does not fill survivors with the impression of comlete integrity, it will reinforce a widespread perception that institutions are places that protect the abusers and ignore the survivors. If survivors don't feel safe to speak, then abusers will continue to feel safe to abuse, and if those two situations remain then, in the long term, we have achieved nothing.

I read one or two facetious suggestions from journalists that the new person was going to have to be a 'paragon' and, implicitly, no such person existed. Well, welcome to the coalface guys. Welcome to dealing with the lifetime of problems that the legacy of abuse leaves. While you're at it do you have any suggestions on how to deal with self-harm, or flashbacks, or disassociation? Or perhaps we could just leave the sarcasm at the door. Yes, the person charged with heading this inquiry will have to display an unusual level of integrity for the sort of enquiry that would probably be labelled a white-wash at some point anyway. But if there is a real appetite for sorting this problem then that is what we need, and if Theresa May doesn't understand that, she won't be the right person for her job either.