14/11/2014 10:31 GMT | Updated 13/01/2015 05:59 GMT

Ethical Responses to Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Inquiries - Why We Need a Slow Approach

Moral outrage comes easily when we hear the details of historical and recent child abuse and exploitation. The scale and consequences of events in Rotherham in particular leave most people scrambling for sensible comment beyond 'appalling', 'inexcusable' and 'something must be done'. But we need to do better.

Moral outrage comes easily when we hear the details of historical and recent child abuse and exploitation. The scale and consequences of events in Rotherham in particular leave most people scrambling for sensible comment beyond 'appalling', 'inexcusable' and 'something must be done'.

But we need to do better. We need a thoughtful ethical analysis to inform the formation and conduct of abuse and exploitation inquiries. Crucially, we require an approach that keeps the interests of survivors and their families at the heart of any deliberation. We need to take time and make space to engage with everyone involved. We need to listen to the perspectives of those blamed for inaction and to communities who may have turned a blind eye. And we need to exert effort to understand the individual, organisational and community factors that make exploitation and abuse possible over long periods. We need a longer view.

In short, we need slow ethics. Slow ethics is an approach that places value on: quality of engagement with local contexts over quantity of activities; taking time and making space to understand and consider explanations, over speed of response; on building relationships over following process; on human experience over targets; and on collaboration and dialogue over lack of engagement due to ill-informed assumptions and fear [See.]. In our view, this would include engagement also with survivors' and perpetrators' communities. Slow ethics would also include a commitment to appreciate and provide for the short and long-term health and social care needs of survivors of abuse and their families.

Theresa May recently apologised for the lack of a chairman for a historical abuse inquiry following two resignations. She said she would consult with survivors of abuse. The involvement of survivors of abuse in planning such an inquiry signals an awareness of the importance of their perspectives. The imperative to 'listen carefully and judge slowly' emerged as a key finding from a study I did some years on GP responses to child abuse [See]. This is an integral part of gaining insight. The report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham, chaired by Alexis Jay, gave voice to those generally rendered silent by the stigma of abuse or by the attitudes of people who treated them 'with contempt'. Some of the young people expressed views that they 'might as well be dead' and also that they felt 'loved' by the perpetrators.

It is clear that in the case of Rotherham, and historical abuse cases, individuals in some services designed to protect and care for children and young people, failed. Organisations charged with prevention, protection and care failed to listen to individuals and families with early reports of child sexual abuse deemed exaggerated. Communities failed too by turning a collective blind eye and perhaps not considering the activities to be the serious breaches of human rights they were and are. Inaction was defended on the grounds that accusations towards a particular group would be labelled racist. Such views must be challenged.

There is ample evidence of historical abuse and we know that, in the past, people were fearful of being disbelieved, blamed or ostracised. Many people are likely to have known about the sexual exploitation of children. Regarding the professionals involved we have to ask why so few spoke out in accord with a duty of candour? Why was there no questioning of targets that failed to prioritise the dignity and human rights of the Rotherham children? We need to take time to consider explanations for omissions and immoral activity. It seems there was fear of reprisals. Perhaps bystanders did not consider these children in the same way they would children in their own social of family groups? Perhaps concluding the Rotherham children were less worthy of attention and protection? Or perhaps they had not had space or time to reflect on the ethical components of their actions and omissions?

The problems in Rotherham could then have been due to moral indifference or inertia, to moral blindness, fear or a lack of a sense of social justice and citizenship. Integrating elements of slow ethics in professional education and practice could result in awareness-raising and challenging damaging professional views that these children are unworthy of care and protection. But this does not go far enough. There needs also to be regular conversations - in community groups of all faiths and none - regarding safe means to raise and escalate concerns, how to confront discriminatory and stigmatising attitudes and unethical priorities, to challenge misguided targets and to discuss how virtues such as wisdom, compassion, courage and integrity - key values of slow ethics - may be developed. Children who have been sexually exploited and abused, and their families, deserve better than we have done so far. We then have some chance of developing, to use the words of Mary Warnock, a society that we can praise and admire.

Ann Gallagher, Professor of Ethics and Care & Members of International Care Ethics Observatory Advisory Group, University of Surrey []