7 years ago this month the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse was first announced. Cameron was PM, May Home Secretary and the Brexit referendum not even the teensiest cloud on the horizon. How time flies! After three Chairs, the Inquiry – under the chairmanship of its 4th Head, Professor Alexis Jay (who wrote the report on child abuse in Rotherham, published in August 2014) – has been quietly taking evidence and publishing a series of heart-breaking and devastatingly critical reports. Schools, councils (Rochdale, Nottinghamshire), the Catholic and Anglican churches, custodial institutions, children’s homes, sport, health: it feels as if nowhere was safe for children, especially some of the most vulnerable, those who were in the care of the state or institutions which should have been trusted. Now the latest report on Lambeth is out – here. It is a horrible read but this paragraph from the executive summary says it all:-
“It is hard to comprehend the cruelty and sexual abuse inflicted on children in the care of Lambeth Council over many years, by staff, by foster carers and their families, and by volunteers in residential settings. With one or two exceptions, a succession of elected members and senior professionals ought to have been held accountable for allowing this to happen, either by their active commission or complicit omissions. Lambeth Council was only able to identify one senior Council employee, over the course of 40 years, who was disciplined for their part in this catalogue of sexual abuse.”
Much of the commentary has focused on the political culture at Lambeth and its fights with the Thatcher government. In truth, Lambeth’s failings were more prosaic and all the more shocking because they are found in so many other institutions: knowingly employing adults who were a risk, failing to carry out any checks on volunteers wanting to work or be with children, failing to investigate when abuse was alleged or suspected, knowingly exposing children to situations where they were at risk and allowing suspected adults to leave without alerting future employers of their concerns.
Such behaviour by all sorts of authorities is all too common. It combines an indifference to the child’s suffering with a failure to speak up and act when speaking up and acting are the only actions which any decent person with a conscience should do. Let’s be blunt: this is not primarily a failure of a “system” or of “procedures“. The harm was done by those who abused. They chose to commit evil. But those who failed to do the right thing were complicit. It was a failure by individual people who knew or ought to have known: managers, social workers, elected officials, police, teachers, priests and countless others – all of them adults, all of whom found reasons for not acting and justified their inactions with endless excuses and justifications, some of them grotesquely inappropriate.
Take Cardinal Heenan, leader of the Catholic Church who, when told by the daughter of Lord Devlin of the abuse he was inflicting on her, believed her but responded “Better you than a mistress.” Or take Rotherham Council which decided, after 6 post-Jay reports, that not one single current or former council employee should be disciplined, the author describing the abuse of at least 1400 children as arising “more from cock-up than conspiracy“. Did no-one even think to point out to him how such a phrase might sound to the abused children?
One person was disciplined at Lambeth. One – after 40 years of abuse. No senior manager was disciplined at Islington Council, another council in whose homes children were serially abused. The leader of the council for 10 years when this was happening, Margaret Hodge, went on to a prominent career as an MP, even being appointed as Minister for Children in 2003 and becoming a Dame.
As the report on Lambeth put it – “a succession of elected members and senior professionals ought to have been held accountable“. Yes – they ought. Not just in Lambeth but elsewhere. They haven’t been. They won’t be. The victims see those who should have protected them walk away with no adverse consequences. They see those who tried to help them or who blew the whistle derided or ignored or forced out of their jobs. They see some of their abusers convicted. But they see most not prosecuted and they see no accountability among those who were responsible for their care and let them down so badly.
When these reports are published, there follows a wearingly familiar ritual: the current person in charge makes an apology, promises are made to strengthen procedures and training and, yes, you guessed it, that now hackneyed phrase is trotted out: “lessons will be learnt“.
Two lessons have already been learnt. One is by abusers – the chances of getting away with abuse are really quite high. Given the scale of the documented abuse, the number of those prosecuted and convicted is far smaller than the number who must have been involved. And even if convicted, it is very easy to start again under a different name – as this report of a loophole left open by the government, despite knowing about it for 17 years, shows. The second is by all those who knew and did nothing or turned a blind eye. There will be vanishingly few, if any, adverse consequences for failing to do the right thing. You have to be pretty unlucky to be disciplined. The more senior you are, the more responsibility you have, the greater the chances of avoiding any actual responsibility or criticism at all. A sense of real shame seems to be unknown. At worst, you can describe it, as Mrs Hodge did, as “our shameful naivety” its blend of apparent self-blame and disguised compliment – for isn’t it the innocent who are naive? – the perfect deflection.
There is a lesson for the rest of us too. If we say we want X (child protection and safeguarding of the vulnerable) but reward or fail to take action against or create the conditions for Y (safeguarding failures), we will get Y, no matter how much we say we want X. And until that changes, these shameful events will keep happening.