The ‘overarching inquiry’ into institutional child abuse will trigger memories of trauma.
Headlines about 1,400 children in Rotherham having been groomed and raped should not be allowed to eclipse another home-grown scandal – the sexual abuse of thousands of children by members of the clergy. In common with the victims of the Rotherham scandal, victims of church child abuse have reported the crimes committed against them – and been ignored by the people who should have protected them.
That has now all changed in Rotherham, at least. The Yorkshire town’s shame has been laid bare in an in-depth report, published a few days ago, by professor Alexis Jay, a former senior social worker. Blame has been apportioned. The town’s Labour leader for the past 10 years has apologised and resigned, and there are calls for the police and crime commissioner and the director of children’s services to resign.
However, the many thousands of victims of church child abuse are still waiting for their plight to be recognised and addressed.
It’s been a long wait. Many of the complainants are now middle-aged. Many of them have died from drug abuse or suicide brought on by the traumas they suffered.
But the momentum has been building for the government to take the lead in investigating the scandal. Government ministers as recently as 2012 were asked to support a proposed inquiry into thousands of instances of child abuse by the Church of England, the Catholic Church and other respected religious institutions.
However, on 7 July of this year, home secretary Theresa May announced that there would, after all, be an ‘overarching inquiry’ into institutional child abuse.
On the same day, the Gazette published a profile of solicitor David Greenwood who has worked tirelessly to support victims of child abuse and to bring their tormentors to justice.
The inquiry got off to a shaky start with May’s choice as its chair, Lady Butler-Sloss, stepping down after just one week. The retired judge’s decision to step down was prompted, apparently, by her late brother allegedly blocking an investigation into institutional paedophilia when attorney general in the 1980s.
A shaky start notwithstanding, campaign group Stop Church Child Abuse (SCCA), which Greenwood chairs, is determined that the inquiry should achieve its aims.
SCCA held a meeting in London last week to discuss what input the group could give to the enquiry. The consensus was that victims who came forward to testify to the inquiry must have immediate, in-depth and free therapeutic help. Barrister Alana Lawrence said: ‘Survivors’ memories of the trauma will be triggered by the inquiry, potentially leading to suicidal thoughts. They will desperately need funding for adequate support.’
Sue Cox, a victim of child church abuse and co-founder of Survivors Voice Europe, a charity that helps victims of clergy abuse, said: ‘So what if it costs a fortune? Suicides, ill-health, alcohol and drugs addiction are already costing society a fortune. What the victims who come forward need is a blanket wrapped around them and being told that they are now safe.’
The meeting also unanimously agreed that, in Lawrence’s words, ‘nothing but the whole truth’ would suffice to meet the objectives of the inquiry. There had already been ‘too much closing of ranks’, delegates said, and too much ‘hiding behind canonical law’ to circumvent the law of the land.
Another delegate asked: ‘Why is so much child protection the responsibility of charities such as the NSPCC and not of the government, whose duty is to protect all its citizens?
‘When you visit the NSPCC website, the first thing you read is an appeal for money. Why is it constantly fund-raising while children suffer? Isn’t its cause important enough to be funded by the state?’
Greenwood asked the SCCA members what outcomes they would like to see from the inquiry. Answers ranged from a letter of apology from the perpetrators of the abuse through to a change in the law to abolish the ‘parallel system’ of canonical law, which has no prisons for offenders, but often simply allows them to move to a different diocese.
The adversarial system of court trials, a member said, is inappropriate for surviving victims of child abuse. ‘They are uniquely vulnerable,’ she said, ‘with a low sense of self-worth. And yet the defending counsel will set about destroying the claimant by trying to prove he or she is a liar.’
‘How about restorative justice as a form of redress?’ suggested Greenwood. ‘Or compensation?’ To which Lawrence replied: ‘What price a life shortened by abuse? Of course, some people will say that the victims are “only after compensation”. And why the hell not? They have been let down by us all.’
Churches do pay compensation – eventually. The Catholic Church has paid £1.51bn to US victims and, in the UK, a 2005 victim received a record-breaking £635,000 in compensation. The problem is, the churches refuse to accept full responsibility. They argue that they cannot accept vicarious liability for the crimes of their employees. They cite canonical law to avoid being subject to national law. And as one SCCA member put it, they ‘duck and weave’ to delay or avoid altogether any judgment against them.
Perhaps pressure from the government would encourage the churches to cough up more readily. But perhaps the inquiry - like the abuses – is destined to be swept under the carpet, too.