On the panel

Panel member Ivor Frank insists the institutional child sex abuse inquiry will succeed, despite being mired in controversy

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The largest ever inquiry into the sexual abuse of children in England and Wales is battling claims it is unmanageably large and already failing in its remit, two years after Theresa May, then home secretary, set it up to examine the failures of institutions to recognise and address child sexual abuse going back decades.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) was launched after the Jimmy Savile abuse scandal came to light in 2012 and revealed widespread exploitation by prominent media and political figures over a long period, as well as the inability of institutions and organisations to safeguard vulnerable children.

Frank says there are a lot of  “vested interests in not allowing the inquiry to succeed”

“There has not been anything of its kind in UK history, in terms of scope and size,” says IICSA panel member Ivor Frank, a human rights barrister with more than 30 years experience. A public inquiry, he admits, is usually about a single issue over a relatively contained period.

“We’re an inquiry about multiple institutions over decades. That makes it different, but it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

But, Frank says, it’s important to remember there are a lot of “vested interests in not allowing the inquiry to succeed”. The institutions being investigated by the £100 million inquiry include the police, social services, schools, hospitals and religious organisations, as well as high-ranking politicians.

“There are reputational and commercial implications for a number of very substantial institutions, as well as some individuals, who would be only too pleased if the inquiry did not succeed.”

IICSA was set up as a panel inquiry supported by experts, similar to the Hillsborough Independent Panel. But last year, after objections from victims and survivors about the panel’s scope and its independence from those being investigated – and the resignation of its first intended chairs – it was reconstituted as a statutory inquiry, giving it increased powers to compel sworn testimony and examine classified information.

Former panel member Alexis Jay is now chair of the inquiry, its fourth in two years. She accepted the position after judge Dame Lowell-Goddard unexpectedly resigned in August, amid controversy and accusations that she made racist remarks while head of the inquiry, which she denies. Lowell-Goddard said she had stepped down “with regret”, also citing the inquiry’s “legacy of failure”.

The inquiry under Jay – a former social worker and academic whose 2014 report exposed the extent of the Rotherham abuse scandal – will build on the work Lowell-Goddard began, Frank says. “Jay has a first-class reputation in terms of digging for the truth when it comes to this issue.”

How will her strategy be different from her predecessor? “The focus is to make sure we get the job done in a reasonable amount of time so victims and survivors are not kept waiting for the outcome. On the other hand, the purpose of an inquiry is to enquire. You don’t know where that will lead you, so it may take longer than the original prognostication.”

The inquiry’s aim is to produce an interim report in 2018 and a final report in 2020. But it has been dogged not only by the loss of three chairs but the resignations of other legal staff as well, and opposition to Jay’s appointment from some, concerned that as a former social worker she is too close to people she is supposed to be investigating.

Frank is adamant that the inquiry is not being derailed. Yes, it’s frustrating to see damaging reports, he says, but he’s positive the public will continue to have faith in the work being done.

“In due course, I hope we’ll be able to persuade people that the negative headlines are wrong. We’ll do that by getting on with the job.”

One in six adults in the country today experienced child sexual abuse in their youth, says Frank, and that must have an impact on them in their personal lives and their interaction with other people. “The impact on the individual is lifelong – there is a very high incidence of self-harm, of anti-social behaviour, all of which has a consequence not just for the individual but for society as a whole. There is a need to remedy that as much as possible.”

Frank adds that there are people who say, even now, well, what’s all the fuss about? “I’d like to think there are a diminishing number of people who think that way, but I believe that responsible people think it is our duty to protect our children, because they are our future.”

What about the suggestion there should be a victim on the panel? “One of the consequences of being a statutory inquiry is that any member of the panel must not have a direct interest in the investigation.” This has caused controversy, he admits. “It means it is not possible to have a victim as a panel member.”

And despite the huge scope of the inquiry, many victims and survivors don’t think the remit is wide enough. “There are some people who are excluded from our terms of reference who are quite angry about it.” These people include those who were below the age of consent in terms of homosexual abuse, when that was 21, but were above the age of 18. “The inquiry is limited to child sexual abuse and they feel unfairly excluded. I have some sympathy with that.”

And if there was no institutional element in the child sexual abuse, he continues, it is outside the inquiry’s terms of reference. “We’ll never satisfy everyone and, as huge as our remit is, surprisingly, it’s not as big as it could be.”

The Savile revelations were a turning point. “That made people more willing to believe accounts of victims and survivors. More people have come forward as a result.” But, he adds, it’s important not to forget that victims and survivors groups had been “campaigning for decades and had simply not been taken seriously”.

“It is not possible to have a victim as a panel member.”

“The world has become slightly less willing to believe the bland promises from the powers that be that all is well,” says Frank, who spent time in the care system himself, between the age of three and 16. “I was not myself a victim of child sexual abuse. But you could not go through the care system and not be aware that all sorts of evil was perpetrated against children.

“My understanding of it is that my mother, a white lady, lost her husband, who was black, and looking after four little black babies in London in the 1950s was not an easy thing.”

While Frank doesn’t want to focus on his own experience, he believes his past means he has “a relatively empathetic response” to those who come forward and that they might feel encouraged to think that there is someone on the panel who has some understanding of what their experience has been.

Frank also says he experienced a number of the things that victims and survivors would have experienced, such as the separation of siblings, which can contribute to the possibility for sexual abuse to take place without it being disclosed. “I was separated from two of my siblings. It was not unusual.”

He says attitudes have now changed. “For many years, children were simply not believed. It was said they should be seen and not heard. There was even a time when the courts would say you cannot rely on the word of a single child, whose level of comprehension must be deemed below that of a credible age.”

Frank says there’s been a “complete shift” in the judiciary’s attitude towards vulnerable witnesses. “Instead of assuming that a witness who comes into court, often for the first time, should adapt to the court environment, the attitude now is the court should do much more to adapt to vulnerable witnesses.”

Frank is also on the steering group of the Truth Project, part of the inquiry that allows victims and survivors of child sexual abuse to share their experiences in private, safe sessions, where they will not be cross-examined. The information they give is anonymised and will help the chair and panel members reach their conclusions and make recommendations for the future. “It gives us a broad picture of the extent and type of the institutional failure,” Frank says.

People are encouraged to “tell us what they want to and no more”. Most don’t go into detail about abuse, Frank says, but give more details about the institutional failure after they had reported the abuse. “The main point of concern seems to be that abuse is stopped so other children don’t have to have the same experience.”

Frank urges people who have accounts to give come forward in confidence, but rejects the idea that the Truth Project offers a kind of group therapy to the nation. “We offer support to anyone who comes forward with a disclosure. But we are not offering a counselling service.”

So what for the future of the IICSA? “I can only hint at some of the things we are learning. The primary thing is that people who are in positions of authority have to be open to understanding how children communicate themselves. They’re not necessarily going to come with a written document setting out in detail everything that’s happened.”

The inquiry is undoubtedly a taxing and difficult subject that throws up many difficult questions, and “perhaps it’s partly for that reason that people have been unwilling to face up to it” for so long, says Frank. But, he adds, it’s a vital piece of work that needed to be done for a long time. “I feel very strongly that the children of our country deserve to be brought up in an environment where they should not be subjected to the risk or fact of sexual abuse.”

And how will society feel after the inquiry is complete? Will it have exorcised some of its demons?

“I think society will be proud to have dealt with a difficult subject in a mature way that reflects a true respect for their children,” says Frank, who describes himself as an “optimist by nature”, despite witnessing the darker side of human nature.

“As adults, we’ll all feel better for having looked after those who are most vulnerable.”

‘It’s about victims being granted the time to share their history’

A survivor says the Truth Project has been a vital platform for her to reveal how the care system cruelly let her down. Interview: Sophie Haydock

I was in care from the age of two to 18. My birth mother had seven children removed from her, because she neglected us and she served a prison sentence for that neglect. I understand that the NSPCC had to remove us from the family home. I understand that the state had to intervene in those circumstances, but they should protect children once they’re responsible for them. And they didn’t.

It sounds crude but basically, as a child you go into care and have to hand over all your rights to justice. If you’re wronged within the care system, there’s no safety net for you. There’s nothing. If anything happens to you, well, who gets punished? My mother was punished; others got away with it.

The so-called professionals let me down catastrophically. I had documents, including letters, that proved they’d let me down. The judge at the Truth Project read one of those letters. In it, the doctor had noted that I was “possibly heading towards nymphomania”. I was a child of around five years old. A doctor wrote that. That was the kind of ridiculous things they were saying at the time.

I grew up with a sense of shame. I was blamed for my own tribulations, so didn’t feel I could go for help. They basically said I was responsible for my own demise. It’s embarrassing. It’s not pleasant. You don’t want to contaminate people. If people can live their lives without any of this knowledge, that’s a bonus. Now, I feel like I’ve got a PhD in anger. And trust is a huge issue for me.

The Truth Project is a wonderful platform for child victims to tell their story. The whole atmosphere is calm, caring and professional. They made me feel very welcome, and experienced counsellors met me before the session and had a chat with me afterwards to make sure I was OK. My history means I have to keep a lid on my anger. But I knew I didn’t need to be angry with people at the Truth Project, as their hearts were in the right place. They put me at ease straight away. They said I was free to say as much or as little I wished. It was a non-judgmental opportunity to provide an unchallenged account of my history. It’s about the most open platform you could wish for.

It’s bad enough that the abuse happened, but what’s worse is the way so many of us were treated afterwards

I don’t expect people will go to the Truth Project and give yards of detail about their abuse. It’s too difficult. I couldn’t do it. Abuse happened. Nobody really wants to talk about that in front of strangers, however kind they are. I’d prepared an impact statement in advance so I didn’t leave out any important points. I was invited to read it out loud. It was important to me that blame wasn’t all put at the door of probably untrained care staff. I complained not about the care authority who looked after me in the children’s home. My beef was against all the professionals: childcare, the psychiatrist, doctor, head of childcare department. They were the people who let me down.

I also spoke about the way I thought the inquiry should go, and the things I thought should be implemented. I’d like to see institutions start from the base point, which is “this is not your fault, this should not have happened”. Then they can build from that with treatment, programmes and procedures to make sure the child recovers as well as can be expected. Importantly, no victims need to feel they will be out of pocket, as all legitimate expenses are settled on the day. The anonymity of the building is reassuring, too.

My impact statement was quite powerful, and the judge commented on that, on how moving it was. I wasn’t there bleating on that I’d been abused. I was there because there were no structures or processes in place to protect me. Children are the most vulnerable group in our society – but children in care are a stage further down that road of vulnerability.

The period after I’d spoken to the Truth Project I found emotionally debilitating. I’d been running on adrenaline for three years with my case, which I won, then I was working towards the Truth Project. Then it was all finished and there was, for me, a definite “so what now?” period. But a counsellor at the project rings you a week after your appointment to check you’re OK. And I was able to say to her, to be honest, I’m really not, I can’t tell you how bad I feel.

She was sensitive and able to put me in contact with people who could offer help, so there are safety nets. The first time she made a phone call she missed me, and she kept ringing until she reached me. She said it was very important to make sure that everyone who engages with the Truth Project is OK afterwards. That was crucial.

While it was a very difficult action for me to take, I was impressed with the whole process. As many victims as possible need to be encouraged to attend the Truth Project, because it’s down to us that changes are put in place for the future. The inquiry’s results will depend very much on what we tell them. They can’t sort anything out if they don’t understand how it happened, where it happened, and the procedures and processes that weren’t in place to protect the victim. I feel like I had to go to the Truth Project in order to stand up and be counted.

It’s bad enough that the abuse happened, but what’s worse is the way so many of us were treated afterwards. It impacts on the rest of your life. You never, ever get over it, and what’s even worse is being blamed for it. It’s crushing, it really is.

The Truth Project and inquiry are not about changing the horrific past of sexual abuse, but about victims being granted the time to share their history. There will always be sexual abuse of children. I feel sure that’s just one of the wicked ways of the world.

But I think if we are brave enough and we go and tell our stories, and tell the inquiry what we think and how we were treated, then processes and procedures can be put in place that will make life easier for victims in the future.

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