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Abuse inquiry defended after victims' group quits

The considered decision of the Shirley Oaks Survivors’ Association to withdraw from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, so shortly after the resignation of a senior lawyer, is another blow to this ill-fated investigation. However, it is also much more than that.

'Power, control and the creation of disbelief lie at the heart of child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation: the power of perpetrators to target and exploit vulnerable young people and to ensure that these young people are not listened or believed when they come forward to talk about the often extreme abuse that they have suffered. Abuse that can and often does cast long shadows in their lives, and that can lead to poorer physical health as well as anxiety, depression and self-harm.

'Shirley Oaks Survivors’ Association has 600 members who were young people looked after in residential care by the Borough of Lambeth from the 1950’s onwards. Unusually, they have formed a support and action group exactly because they had not previously been listened to or heard. A number of other enquiries and research studies have demonstrated that young people in residential care have been subject to high levels of sexual abuse (as well as physical and psychological abuse), and that this has often taken place through organised groups of perpetrators and the grooming or threatening behaviour adopted by them. At the time, these young people have often endured the abuse, because they were powerless, had no trusted adult to confide in, or just did not feel that their account would be believed in the face of the audacity and plausibility of perpetrators. This is one reason why enquiries into so called historical abuse are so significant. Not only do we hope that we will learn lessons for the future, but also we hope that there will be the possibility of social and criminal justice for victims and survivors. Anything less than this can in itself perpetuate the harm already endured.

'The situation in South London is therefore of crucial importance in these terms. In addition, it brings to the fore long standing concerns about political involvement and the role of key public figures, and the ways in which what was happening in Lambeth has been concealed.

'The Shirley Oak Survivors’ Association is reported as describing the enquiry as an ‘unpalatable circus’. Their fear is that those factors that lie at the heart of child sexual abuse – power, control and the creation of disbelief on the part of perpetrators may also distort the process and outcome of the inquiry.

'The tasks of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse are appropriately daunting and ambitious and they initially recognised the complex and deeply invested powerful influences involved in organised child sexual abuse and exploitation. If survivors have lost trust in the inquiry, then it cannot succeed, despite the best efforts of other participants. It must be time now to pause, rather than stumbling on, and, as Shirley Oak Survivors’ Association and local MP Chuka Ummuna have suggested, implement a drastic overhaul of leadership, structure and process."

Dr Christine Harrison, Centre for Lifelong Learning

18th November 2016