Friday, 5 December 2014

Still failing the victims of child abuse

Almost 30 people – mostly victims of historic childhood abuse – have informed the UK Home Secretary that they have lost confidence in the government’s inquiry into the issue, even before it has actually got under way.

The actions of the individuals in snubbing Westminster’s inquiry is understandable.  Westminster is at the heart of the British establishment and that very same establishment stands accused of being central to a paedophile ring that abused vulnerable children over many years.  That Home Secretary Theresa May has twice appointed people to head the inquiry who have strong links to the British establishment and individuals who could form part of an investigation is just one reason victims of abuse are losing confidence in the proposed inquiry.

Other concerns expressed by victims and their legal representatives include that the terms of reference of the inquiry do not go far enough.  They insist the UK Government and the establishment should be investigated over cover-ups of paedophiles in their ranks: that, even after two inquiry heads have stood down, there remain other conflicts of interest among members of the panel: and that the investigation should look back as far as 1945 – the current cut-off date is 1970.

Until the concerns of victims are fully addressed, there remains the belief that Westminster’s real intention is not to uncover those who abused children, but to keep a lid on the shocking truth as much as it can.

Ten years ago, to the week, I took part in a Scottish Parliament debate on Institutional Child Abuse.  The issue was brought to the Parliament by the Public Petitions Committee, of which I was then a member.

The Committee had received a petition from survivors of childhood abuse, which called for a public inquiry into what they had suffered and those who had abused them.

On the day of the debate, then First Minister Jack McConnell issued a public apology to children who had been abused after being placed into care by the state: this was the first apology of its kind by anyone representing government in Scotland.  While the country had been run directly from Westminster, a blind eye had been turned on the matter.

It is a disgrace that, ten years since victims lodged their petition calling for a public inquiry, they are still waiting.  It is also a disgrace that the British establishment at Westminster is so enmeshed in the historic abuse of children that victims have little confidence a London-based inquiry would deliver answers, convictions of abusers and closure for those who were abused.

On looking back at what I said in that Scottish Parliament debate ten years ago, I feel real anger that a decade has elapsed and victims are still having to fight for their voices to be heard and for those responsible to be held to account.

Scottish Parliament
Official Report
December 1st 2004

Debate on Institutional Child Abuse

Campbell Martin (West of Scotland):

In 1999, the Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told the Dáil:

"the test of a true democracy is to be found in how it treats its weakest and its most vulnerable members."

On that criterion and on the testimony of far too many Scots who spent time in the care of the state, Scotland has historically failed Bertie Ahern's democracy test.  For generations, Scotland has failed that test because we have failed to listen to the hundreds of people across Scotland who as young children were placed in the care of the state and were abused in our care.  Back then, while they were being abused, the state failed to protect them - the state let them down.  Since then, by failing to listen to them and to offer the solutions they need, successive Governments have compounded that original failure.  I hope the First Minister's apology today finally brings to an end those days of failure.

We know that some of the children who were abused while in the care of the state are in the public gallery today.  Of course, we will not recognise them as children, because they are now adults.  However, in quiet moments and at times of sadness or stress, those adults are again young children.  The memories, the nightmares and the faces have lived with them.  While they were young, vulnerable children, we as the state failed to protect them.  Because of that, we as the state have saddled them with burdens that most of us, thankfully, cannot even begin to imagine.  They do not need to imagine those burdens, because for them abuse was a reality.  They lived it and continue to relive it.

Those children, now adults, need to be able to talk about their experiences.  They need to be able to know that the people to whom they talk will understand what they are talking about and will believe them.  They need to know that the people to whom they talk will help bring closure to what has been a lifelong nightmare.  I believe that a public inquiry would do that.  That is why Chris Daly and the people behind petition PE535 have asked for a public inquiry.

There is too much denial on this issue.  At the meeting of the Public Petitions Committee of September 29th, the minister accepted that institutional child abuse had happened.  We all know that it has happened; we have living proof that is the case.  Surely if those responsible are to be held to account and those who are abused are finally to have closure, we need a public inquiry with the full powers necessary to investigate every case and organisation.

Of course, some people who were abused do not want that aspect of their past to be raised in public and we must respect their position.  A public inquiry would not compel people who had been in the care of the state to come forward to speak about their experiences - it would be for them to make that decision.  However, for those who need finally to put the nightmare behind them, having the option of speaking about their experiences and knowing that the forum to which they speak has the power to act are absolutely essential.

In Ireland, the most significant action that enabled historic institutional child abuse to begin to be addressed was an apology by the Taoiseach. He said:

"On behalf of the State and of all the citizens of the State, the Government wishes to make a sincere and long overdue apology to the victims of childhood abuse for our collective failure to intervene, to detect their pain, to come to their rescue."

An apology from the state is for that collective failure; the First Minister made such an apology for Scotland today.  However, another apology is necessary - one from the organisations that ran the institutions where the state placed children.  Those organisations need to accept their historic responsibility and they need to apologise for their failure to intervene and to protect the children.  Until that happens, we cannot move on and we cannot offer closure to the children who were abused.

The response by the Catholic Church in Scotland to an inquiry last week from The Herald newspaper about whether it would be prepared to release files it holds on the subject was particularly unhelpful.  The Herald reported a spokesman for the church said that: "it had never run children's homes in Scotland."

Apparently, its children's homes: "tended to be operated by autonomous orders of nuns or brothers."

I suggest that, when a young child is being abused by a nun or a priest, the corporate-speak distinction between an autonomous body and the headquarters organisation is not the first or most important thing that goes through that child's mind.  Like every other organisation that had care of some of Scotland's most vulnerable children, the Catholic Church must face up to its responsibilities and co-operate fully in all attempts to bring to justice those who abused children in care.

The cloak of secrecy has to be lifted and we need to get to the truth.  We need to know which organisations were responsible and we need to know that the individuals responsible for abusing children in care will be brought to justice, even if they are now old - we need to know they will pay for their crimes against Scotland's children.  Equally, the people who committed the crimes need to know that, although the abuse might have happened years ago, it has not been forgotten and they have not got away with it.  One day - I hope very soon - the children's time will come and the abusers will pay for their crimes.

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