The judge in charge of the public inquiry into child sex abuse vowed that “no-one, no matter how powerful” will be allowed avoid its scrutiny as it emerged that the wide-ranging investigation could take as long as a decade to complete.
Justice Lowell Goddard, the New Zealand judge brought in to head the inquiry after her two predecessors resigned over concerns about their links to the Establishment, said it would be the “largest and most ambitious” public inquiry ever established in England and Wales. Its scope would stretch across five key areas of society from “the corridors of power in Westminster to children’s homes in the poorest parts of the country”, the judge said.
Speaking at the formal opening of the inquiry in central London, Justice Goddard said she would name individuals and institutions who were found to have been involved in or covered up the sexual abuse of children after concern from victims that highly-placed perpetrators of abuse or institutions would escape being held to account. Among the organisations the judge said could expect to be scrutinised were Internet Service Providers over the distribution of online child abuse imagery and insurance companies, who must answer claims that they historically obstructed admissions of liability in abuse cases.
The inquiry was announced last year by Home Secretary Theresa May following the unveiling of evidence of a high-level cover-up of historical abuse by public figures, including Westminster politicians. Its remit is to look specifically at public and private institutions and whether they responded correctly to allegations of sexual abuse - as well as those responsible for that abuse - rather than cases that occurred solely within families.
In a move designed to underline the determination of the inquiry to peel back the layers of state secrecy, the Attorney General Jeremy Wright QC announced that there would be immunity from prosecution under the Official Secrets Act for any current or former public servants prepared to testify about cases of sexual abuse. Investigators will have access to the files of MI5, GCHQ and Special Branch as well as being able to call evidence from the intelligence service personnel.
But the announcement of the scope of the inquiry also brought concern that it could take it beyond the five-year period within with Justice Goddard said it was her “hope and expectation” that its work could be completed, with a report issued each year summarising evidence and preliminary findings. Keith Vaz, the chairman of the House of Commons’ home affairs select committee, said the inquiry, which as a first year budget of £17.9m, was a “once in a lifetime opportunity” which he believed could take up to a decade to complete.
The judge acknowledged that the task facing her and an advisory panel of leading experts on abuse was “daunting” but she emphasised that sexual crimes against children over generations had left “permanent scars” on both victims and society at large.
Justice Goddard said: “This inquiry provides a unique opportunity to expose past failures of institutions to protect children, to confront those responsible, to uncover systemic failures, to provide support to victims and survivors in sharing their experiences and to make recommendations that will help prevent the sexual abuse and exploitation of children in the future.”
Vowing to ensure a vast array of institutions from the NHS to the media, and Parliament to churches, would be encompassed by a “comprehensive, inclusive and thorough” inquiry, she added: “We must put difficult questions to politicians, bishops and other faith leaders, headteachers, police officers, regulators, inspectors, and public officials of all kinds… No one, no matter how apparently powerful, will be allowed to obstruct our enquiries into institutional failings, and no one will have immunity from scrutiny by virtue of their position.”
The formal opening of the inquiry follows a fraught and bungled beginning which saw its first two chairwomen forced to resign. Baroness Butler Sloss, another leading judge, stepped down a week after the inquiry was announced beause her late brother, Sir Michael Havers, was attorney general in the late 1980s - a crucial period during which there is alleged to have been a high-level cover up of abuse by VIPs.
Her replacement, now former Lord of Mayor of London Fiona Woolf, also stepped down over concerns about her links to former Home Secretary Leon Brittan, who has since become the subject of allegations that he was involved in abuse.
Although the inquiry will not have the power to convict anyone of a criminal offence, the judge said the inquiry had to power to make “findings of fact” that named individuals had abused children and that institutions had failed in their duty of care to victims.
Pointing out that as many as one child in every 20 in England and Wales may have been abused, Justice Goddard said the inquiry would also look at whether there had been systematic “under-recording and mis-recording” of abuse by police and other agencies.
The inquiry will focus on five areas, including abuse by prominent individuals and within education and religious institutions, as well as the response of the criminal justice system to incidents of abuse. Each area will be overseen by Justice Goddard and one of her four-strong advisory panel.
It is not known which particular cases will be looked at in depth but the inquiry will liaise with Operation Hydrant, the Scotland Yard inquiry into abuse by influential individuals. Possible cases include the abuse by Jimmy Savile and the former Liberal Democrat MP Cyril Smith. Justice Goddard said the allegations against Labour peer Lord Janner would no longer be considered by the inquiry now he is to face criminal proceedings.
The work on each area will be split into three “projects” overseen by senior barristers. A “research” phase bringing together all extant information on each sector will be followed by “truth hearings” at six regional centres during which survivors of abuse will be able to testify in private about their experiences. There will then be a final phase of public hearings in which witnesses, including victims if they are invited and wish to do so, will be asked to testify.
A separate consultative panel has been set up for victims and survivors but Justice Goddard said it will not take part in public hearings. The first evidence hearings are expected to take place later this year.
The NSPCC, which will provide a telephone counselling hotline for victims who come forwards to give evidence, said those who had suffered needed to be the first priority of the inquiry. Chief executive Peter Wanless said: “Many victims of abuse have been waiting too long for an opportunity to speak out and get justice. Many of them will have harrowing stories to tell so we want to make what could be a tortuous journey as easy as possible.”
Key players: Who’s who in the advisory panel
* Malcolm Evans A professor of public international law at Bristol University who has worked on human rights for the UN. His work has focused on torture and freedom of religion and belief.
* Ivor Frank A barrister with experience in child protection, human rights and family law. He was brought up in care himself. He has advised the Home Office on issues of forced marriage and international child abduction.
* Alexis Jay Now a visiting professor at Strathclyde University, she led the inquiry into the sexual exploitation of girls in Rotherham, South Yorkshire. She worked for over 30 years in local government.
* Drusilla Sharpling Previously chief crown prosecutor in the London area, she was until recently responsible for child protection issues within Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary.
* Lead counsel, Ben Emmerson QC A leading barrister and human rights lawyer who has more than 20 years of experience of litigation and also represents Marina Litvinenko, the widow of Alexander Litvinenko, at the inquest into his death.