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One Year On: The Battle for the Heart of the Child Abuse Inquiry Continues

16/07/2015 10:40 BST | Updated 15/07/2016 10:59 BST

This week marks the one year anniversary of Baroness Butler-Sloss standing down as head of the British government's much vaunted inquiry into child sexual abuse, yet survivors of abuse are still not happy. Are they just being awkward or they engaged in a battle for the inquiry's very heart?

The inquiry has had a turbulent start, with survivors also rejecting Butler Sloss' replacement, Fiona Woolf, as both were deemed by survivors to be members of the Westminster establishment. Survivors feared these appointments signalled the inquiry becoming a cover-up rather than an exposure of establishment figures who may have flouted the law or protected others.

Survivors have also had to endure months of fighting for the inquiry to be put on the right footing, and it was only in March of this year that the inquiry was given statutory power to compel witnesses to give evidence.

However, that same month, inquiry chair Justice Lowell Goddard also announced that survivors who have disclosed their abuse (as opposed to the estimated 11.7 million victims of child sexual abuse in the UK who have not disclosed their abuse) were to be excluded from the inquiry panel as they 'lacked objectivity'.

The chambers of Michael Mansfield QC is supporting the survivors' two grounds for judicial review.Mansfield is well known for his involvement in a number of prominent and controversial inquiries and inquests such as Bloody Sunday and the Hillsborough disaster.

In a press release, Mansfield Chambers explains its motivation for supporting survivors: "Firstly, that the survivors of sexual abuse are excluded from membership of the inquiry panel because of a claim that they will lack the necessary objectivity. It should be noted that this bar to membership of the panel in fact only targets survivors who have disclosed their abuse; this of course serves only to punish and stigmatise survivors."

The second point relates to the involvement in the inquiry of the Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel (VSCP), described by Mansfield Chambers as "so limited as to be meaningless". Originally created to position survivors at the centre of the inquiry, the VSCP would meet with the inquiry team on only two days per month and not have access to the inquiry papers.

Phil Frampton from the Whiteflowers campaign group says many survivors have objected to the NSPCC charity being given a prominent role by government in the inquiry's early stages, pointing to a conflict of interest as the charity had previously run children's homes and had long term involvement in the care system. It could, therefore, potentially be subject to complaints from those who had been in the charity's care.

Frampton points out some survivors are also angry that under the stewardship of Justice Goddard, the inquiry has again given the NSPCC a prominent role by awarding it the contract to run the inquiry's helpline. He says: "Once again the inquiry trots out platitudes declaring that abuse survivors will be at the heart of the inquiry while at the same time expecting survivors to make contact via an organisation that may have been at the heart of their abuse experience; an organisation that may also be summonsed before the inquiry for failures and misdemeanours in this regard," he says.

Is it any wonder then that many survivors have lost all faith in the process and view the inquiry as nothing more than an expensive PR stunt on behalf of the government?

Mr Frampton believes the importance of the inquiry actually delivering for survivors has to remain paramount: "Honesty and transparency are absolutely critical. Survivors of child abuse, particularly those scores of thousands who passed through the care system, experienced for years many of those in authority attempting to intimidate, pressurise and deceive them into not publicly identifying abusers and their protectors.

"For any ongoing support for and commitment to this inquiry, it must be demonstrated to be both transparent and ruthlessly determined to seek out the truth and deliver justice. There is a growing suspicion that the inquiry has been constructed in order to convince the public that the inquiry is 'doing something' and 'listening to survivors' yet the reality has been very different", he says.

As a result of these concerns, Whiteflowers and other survivors have set up Survivors of Organised and Institutional Abuse (SOIA) to represents survivors and ensure that the Inquiry meets their needs. SOIA has secured representation from Michael Mansfield Chambers and Public Interest Lawyers to enable presentation of its views and to become a 'core participant' of the inquiry. This will allow for legal representation to ensure full disclosure of the inquiry materials and the proper questioning of witnesses in the public arena.

SOIA is seeking justice, full redress and support for survivors, and effective protection for current child victims of organised and institutional abuse. To this end, it insists it is crucial that child abusers within the establishment, and those who may have covered up for their crimes, are brought to justice.

Phil Frampton argues: "The state's failure to protect children at all levels, from the smallest local authority to the highest level of central government, points to a system failure to ensure that those empowered at the highest level to maintain and deliver justice possessed the necessary will to ensure that the law was applied equally to all.

"Instead, they were allowed to put their narrow personal interests before those of child victims and survivors. This state system failure has resulted in a catalogue of decades of harm to survivors and lack of protection for children. This includes allowing child abusers to remain at large and terrorise survivors, their families and supporters; the failure to deliver adequate restorative measures and support; and a chronic failure to combat the stigmatisation and denigration of survivors' psychological well-being.

"The failures had, and continue to have, an extreme and catastrophic impact on those survivors who had been, or remain in the care of state and other institutions or facing organised abuse. The failure to protect them has been further compounded by representatives of the state or the institutions either contributing to, or failing to combat, widespread smears on those care survivors who disclosed their abuse.

"The outcomes damaged the reputations of those who survived institutional and organised abuse, and also affected public perceptions of care survivors as a whole. In turn this impacted upon survivors' employment prospects and their chance of obtaining sympathetic support from social services and equal treatment and equality before the law," he says.

Maggie Mellon chairs the Policy, Ethics and Human Rights Committee of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and is supportive of SOIA's bid to be recognised as a 'core participant': "If survivors are not core participants, who on earth is? It is vital that, in this inquiry they have fought so long and hard for, survivors have their own voice and are not spoken for, or about. BASW applauds those social workers who have stood with survivors, opposed the abuse of power, and are preparing to give evidence to support survivors' testimony. Equally we recognise that some social workers, with other adults in powerful positions, have played a role in denial, collusion, and in the actual abuse of children. We know that this is not a matter of historical interest but has huge current relevance to how we work today", she says.

SOIA is seeking to ensure that survivors not only receive remedies for past system state failure, but also that processes and measures are put in place to ensure that today's and future survivors will receive sympathetic support and protection. It is also conscious of the future.

Phil Frampton points out the need to protect today's children: "Processes need to be put in place so that the state will never again protect and give succour to those who abuse children, but instead resolutely bring abusers and those who have covered up their crimes to justice. This will then allow new generations of children to spend their early years free from the physical and psychological consequences of organised and institutional abuse."

Survivors' patience has been tested enough. In a post-Savile climate it is easy to accuse survivors of jumping on the bandwagon, but that would be to deny the lived experience of hundreds, thousands, millions of people, all unconnected and from very different walks of life, yet who are all recounting the same stories of abuse over and over.

The horror of what has happened to them may be so far beyond most people's comfort zone that we simply choose to blank it out but doing so makes us all culpable. We have to hear what survivors have to say, even if the truth hurts.