Children need to be listened to

Derry-based journalist Paul Gosling.

Derry-based journalist Paul Gosling.

The abuse of children is one of the most awful cruelties imaginable. Yet it is commonplace.

An astonishing 50,000 children have been identified as having been sexually abused in England and Wales in the short period between April 2012 and March 2014. But that is just the reported number. The actual figure, according to the Children’s Commissioner, is likely to be around 450,000.

Those figures were produced for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) which is investigating the cases of institutional abuse in England and Wales. Northern Ireland has its own investigation, the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, which has just finished hearing evidence and will report at the beginning of next year. That inquiry heard about the abuse of children in Derry at Nazareth House and at St Joseph’s, Termonbacca.

Northern Ireland’s inquiry also heard about the sexual abuse of children by Father Brendan Smyth and at the Kincora’s Boys Home in Belfast. It has been alleged that some of the abuse of children at Kincora was carried out by establishment figures from England, where they were also alleged to have abused children. It is because of the crossover of similar allegations against the same people in the two jurisdictions that campaigners complained (unsuccessfully) that the two inquiries should have been brought together - at least with regards to Kincora.

But, while Northern Ireland’s inquiry is drawing to a close, the inquiry in London has barely begun. The English and Welsh inquiry is now on its fourth chair - Professor Alexis Jay - and has yet to start hearing detailed evidence. It had been intended that IICSA would consider whether senior politicians had got away with abusing children because of their status and influence.

The focus was to have included scrutiny of allegations against two individuals: Sir Cyril Smith, who had been chief whip for the Liberal Party in the House of Commons, and Lord Greville Janner, a senior Labour MP and peer. Both these men are now dead and neither was prosecuted, despite serious allegations being levelled against them while alive. The family of Lord Janner says it will initiate legal action to seek to prevent IICSA hearing the allegations against him. Some 33 individuals told the police they were sexually abused by Janner and the police say the allegations are credible. These accusations have been strongly denied by Janner and his family.

A key question is whether the status of people such as Janner and Cyril Smith - and, indeed, Brendan Smyth - protected them. In our book, Abuse of Trust’, we considered the case in Leicestershire where two local politicians - Frank Beck and Colin Fiddaman - were able to use their status to influence policy to their advantage and reduce oversight of the children’s homes they ran. It is alleged that Janner abused boys who were resident in some of the homes that Beck ran.

One reason why children were institutionally abused over decades is clear. The abusers had status, while the children did not. Children made allegations and many ran away from residential homes: when they did, the police refused to believe them and returned the children to what was called care’, but which was all too often no such thing. Meanwhile, politicians (and a priest such as Brendan Smyth) had a status that protected them from serious investigation and prosecution. The lesson is that children need to be listened to - while the words of politicians should not always be believed.

It would be easy to say that these issues are in the past, that Janner, Cyril Smith and Brendan Smyth are all now dead. But that view would be wrong. They are all public figures of the recent past, as is Jimmy Savile - while Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall and former Radio 1 DJ Chris Denning are all alive and recently convicted. The belief that literally hundreds of thousands of children across the UK are sexually abused each year demonstrates that this crime is not just serious, but is also ingrained. Children can only be protected if society is more willing to listen to and believe them.

* Paul Gosling is co-author of ‘Abuse of Trust’ (Canbury Press).