Thursday, 8 September 2016

All the sex abuse victims must be heard

The historic abuse inquiry won’t listen to those who suffered if they were over 18 at the time. But they were vulnerable, traumatised, and their lives ruined

 Lowell Goddard, who resigned last month as chair of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. Photograph: Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images 

Even the fiercest critic of Dame Lowell Goddard must admit she’s got a point. Earlier this week, Goddard revealed why she resigned last month as chair of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. She sent a 10-page critique of the setup of the inquiry to the home affairs select committee, saying it was too big, took in too many institutions (church, councils, schools, Westminster, Medomsley detention centre – to name but a few of its 13 strands), was too complex, went back too far (60 years), would take too long (possibly 10 years), and was underfunded.

Many commentators have been too busy sniping at the New Zealand judge’s annual financial package of £500,000, her apparent failure to grasp key legal issues, the amount of time she has spent overseas in the past year, and the lack of progress, to acknowledge the one crucial fact: Goddard is right.

It was to widespread approval that Theresa May, then home secretary, announced the launch of the public inquiry in 2014. But what a mess it has been. Its remit was to investigate whether public bodies and other non-state institutions have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse in England and Wales. In other words, pretty much all child sex abuse that has or might have occurred over the past 60 years. It was a remit so broad as to make success impossible.

In her memo this week Goddard wrote: “I have recommended in my report to the home secretary that my departure provides a timely opportunity to undertake a complete review of the inquiry in its present form, with a view to remodelling it and recalibrating its emphasis more towards current events and thus focusing major attention on the present and future protection of children.”

This might well be the most sensible option. But it is crucial that historic institutional abuse should not be ignored. As May herself said only three months ago: “Perpetrators must never be allowed to think that their horrific acts will go overlooked or go unpunished ... Victims and survivors … deserve to be heard now, just as they should have been years ago, and they deserve justice, just as they did then.”

Nowhere are the failings of the inquiry, or the need to provide justice for victims, more apparent than in the case of Medomsley, home to some of the most horrific sex abuse this country has witnessed, in a 15-year period from the 1960s to the 1980s – when youngsters were sent to this detention centre in Consett, County Durham, for committing minor offences.

Throughout, the prison officer Neville Husband, who ran the kitchens, preyed on the children in his care. In 2003 Husband was convicted of abusing five young inmates, after pleading not guilty. Two years later Husband’s colleague, Leslie Johnson, a storeman at the Home Office-run centre, was jailed for similar offences. They have both since died.

The story of Medomsley was barely reported when the men were convicted. This was a time when Britain didn’t have much sympathy for bad lads who deserved whatever short sharp shocks were in store for them. Soon after a Guardian investigation in 2012, Durham police launched an investigation, Operation Seabrook. By last month it had heard from more than 1,350 inmates who say they were sexually and/or physically abused at the centre. The investigation has identified 31 surviving suspects, and sent files to the Crown Prosecution Service.

The stories we heard were unimaginable. Kevin Young told us he was taken out of the centre, a rope was put round his neck till he passed out and he was then raped by three or four men in Husband’s house. When he was released from Medomsley just before his 18th birthday, he went straight to Consett police station and said that he had been raped again and again. He was told that by making such a claim he could find himself locked up again. He has been suicidal, and has never managed to live in peace.

When victims like him heard about the police investigation they felt hopeful. But when details of the inquiry emerged that hope faded. Most of the men who were abused are now in their 50s and 60s. They have suffered long enough, and most do not have the mental reserves to wait a decade for the outcome of a public inquiry. More importantly, the alleged rapists are now old men. The longer an inquiry takes, the more chance they will have of evading justice. The very scale of the inquiry could let them off the hook.

While victims are hoping that the Crown Prosecution Service will charge some of the alleged perpetrators, the likelihood is that few will ultimately face a criminal prosecution. (The CPS only charges people when it believes it has a 50% or greater chance of success.) The reality is that for most victims the chance to be heard would come at the inquiry rather than in a criminal court. No wonder they were dismayed when they learned it could take a decade to reach its conclusion.

Even more perverse, though, is that they’ve learned the inquiry will hear evidence only from victims who were under the age of 18. It is believed that 80% of the 1,350 people who have claimed they were abused were 18 or over at the time, meaning at most 20% would be able to give evidence to the inquiry. And yet the age of homosexual consent (not that there was any issue of consent) for males was 21 at the time they were abused. Indeed, they had been sent to Medomsley rather than prison because they were young and needed protection. For their sins, they were raped by officers of the state while “innocent” members of staff simply looked away. At Husband’s trial, one officer said: “Husband used to keep one boy behind in the kitchen at night. We always felt sorry for that boy.” None were charged with failing in their duty of care.

Many of the victims only spent a few months in Medomsley. Yet it ruined their lives. Now they want the chance to describe what happened, and how there was a culture among staff of turning a blind eye.

John McCabe says that he was raped repeatedly in his six months at Medomsley – by Husband and by other men who have never been prosecuted. But he will not get his chance to tell his story to the inquiry because he was 18 at the time. That is why he and other Medomsley victims have told their lawyers they will boycott the inquiry.

In Goddard’s memo this week, she said she hoped her resignation would provide the opportunity to reassess the remit of the public inquiry. McCabe is one of many former Medomsley inmates who want to see the detention centre separated and given a public inquiry of its own. “I cannot stand by and see victims, who were detained by the state and abused by the state at Medomsley, stand before an inquiry that is not fit for purpose,” he says. As far as McCabe is concerned, only once they have all had the opportunity to have their say can they start to repair themselves.



Hundreds of alleged abuse victims threaten to boycott Jay inquiry

Former inmates at Medomsley detention centre in Consett, County Durham, where abuser Neville Husband preyed on children and young adults over a 15-year period from the late 1960s onwards,
have written to their lawyers stating that they want to withdraw from the inquiry after learning that it will not hear evidence from people who were aged 18 or over at the time they were abused.

The inquiry has been beset by problems. This week Dame Lowell Goddard, the third chair to resign, sent a 10-page critique of its setup to the home affairs select committee, calling for a complete review and remodelling to focus it “more towards current events and thus focusing major attention on the present and future protection of children”. She said the scope of the inquiry, including every state and non-state institution, meant that “the terms of reference in their totality cannot be met”.

On Wednesday the inquiry was further undermined when another group of victims, Shirley Oaks Survivors Association, threatened to pull out after suggesting that the independence of the inquiry had been undermined by the fact that the new chair, Prof Alexis Jay, had spent 30 years working in social services.

Shirley Oaks was a children’s home run by Lambeth social services in south London where hundreds of children were allegedly abused in the 1970s and 1980s. Now the Medomsley group, who make up the biggest single strand of the inquiry, are demanding a separate public inquiry, and say the truth will only come out if all victims are heard.

Husband, who ran the kitchens at Medomsley, was convicted in 2003 of sexually abusing five young inmates in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. He was jailed for 10 years and died in 2010.

Following a Guardian investigation into Medomsley in 2012, many more of Husband’s victims came forward, and in 2013 Durham police launched Operation Seabrook, a “criminal investigation into allegations of sexual and physical abuse perpetrated by staff against detainees at Medomsley”.

It is the biggest investigation the force has undertaken, with more than 1,350 former Medomsley detainees who claim they were abused having being interviewed.

In May, Durham police announced that “all of the surviving main suspects, 31 in total, had been identified, interviewed and prosecution files submitted for advice.” Charges are likely to be brought in the near future.

John McCabe, a spokesman for hundreds of the alleged Medomsley victims, said 80% of those interviewed by Durham police were aged 18 or over at the time they claim they were abused. In July he received a letter from the inquiry team stating that it would not be taking evidence from such victims as they “were not seen as children”.

McCabe said the Medomsley victims could not be divided, and he has written to the 26 lawyers who represent the victims asking them to boycott the inquiry if it will not hear from the over-18 group. He pointed out that at the time he says he was abused at the centre, in 1983 when he was 18, the age of consent for gay men was 21.

“We were sexually abused under the age of consent, so how can they say they cannot take evidence from more than 1000 young people who were abused while in the care of the state?” he said. McCabe said he wished the inquiry well but “in its present format it is not fit for purpose and we are urging Medomsley victims to boycott it”.

David Greenwood, of Switalskis Solicitors, who represents 300 former Medomsley inmates, said he was supportive of the child abuse inquiry but would argue that all Medomsley victims should be heard.

“These young people were imprisoned by the state and were completely powerless at the time they were abused,” he said. “My clients are currently asking for a boycott. However, I will argue that the inquiry should take evidence from all Medomsley victims irrespective of their age at the time of their abuse. If the inquiry rejects my argument, my advice to my clients may change.”

A spokesperson for the abuse inquiry said: “The inquiry is bound by its terms of reference, which are set by the Home Office. Under its terms of reference, a child means anyone under the age of 18.

However, the panel will consider abuse of individuals over the age of 18, if that abuse started when the individual was a minor.”

The Home Office has not responded to the Guardian’s request for a comment.