Bishop of Durham calls for independent public inquiry into institutionally-based abuse

“Powerful people have engaged in serious abuse and have worked with each other to create opportunities and share their vices and victims. As a nation we have to face up to the seriousness of institutionally based abuse against the most vulnerable in our society, both children and adults, which has gone on in the past and, sadly, continues today” – Bishop of Durham, 26.6.14

14.06.10 Bishop of Durham 5On 26th June 2014, Liberal Democrat Peer Baroness Walmsley led a debate in the House of Lords to take note of the measures being taken by Her Majesty’s Government to prevent and address the abuse of children and vulnerable adults. The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, the Church of England’s lead bishop for safeguarding, took part in the debate. He focused his remarks on needing to listen to the voice of survivors, and put forward a number of measures to reflect this need – including mandatory reporting by professionals, creating safe spaces for victims of abuse, and broadening the law to strengthen preventative measures. He concluded by calling for an independent public inquiry into institutionally-based abuse.

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, very warmly for raising this matter. In my role as co-chair of the Church of England and Methodist Church Joint Safeguarding Liaison Group and the lead bishop for safeguarding, I daily have issues regarding the abuse of children and adults at risk brought to my attention. Clergy and other church leaders across the nation lead churches in which those who have been abused seek comfort, strength and healing. The staff of church schools daily hear from the children whom they serve stories of abuse of all kinds. In my maiden speech during the debate on the gracious Speech, I welcomed the Government’s courageous decision to strengthen the law on psychological and emotional abuse in the Serious Crimes Bill. This adds to other areas where the law has been improved over recent years. The Care Act 2014 has moved us from “vulnerable adults” to “adults at risk”, helping to recognise that while some adults are permanently vulnerable—because of, for instance, age, illness or disability—others become at risk for a period of time. This recognition is undoubtedly helpful. So, too, will be the statutory duty to have local safeguarding adult boards.

Improvements have therefore already been made. The Private Member’s Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on online safety offers a further opportunity to help tackle the extremely serious issue of online abuse. I hope that the Government will support that Bill. Indeed, the extension of the offence of extreme pornography to include possession of pornographic images of rape and assault by penetration in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill will continue to send a message to the public that such abuse is unacceptable. The situation becomes ever more concerning with the use of the dark net, too. CEOP must be supported adequately to stay ahead of the game, so that it can discover innovative ways to unmask the users of paedophile sites and not be allowed continually to fall further behind.

I will focus particularly on the voice of survivors. This has been the deepest lesson for me, and for the church as a whole, over recent years. We have previously failed to listen adequately to the survivor’s voice. We must do so if we are to continue to improve the prevention of abuse of both children and adults at risk. Survivors have been calling for some years for the introduction of mandatory reporting by professionals. Far too many cases of abuse could have been prevented if professional people who had serious suspicions of abuse were required to report it to a relevant authority. There remains too much fear of whistleblowing or of being thought of as interfering. Mandatory reporting for professional staff would alleviate any doubts and prevent people from asking themselves, “Should I or shouldn’t I?”. Suspicions should not be brushed aside or left unheeded. The time for mandatory reporting has arrived.

Survivors also note the need for really good safe spaces, where those who have been abused can go to report their case and find the kind of support that they need. The Church of England and the Methodist Church are currently exploring how we might create such safe spaces. We are working with projects such as the Lantern Project on the Wirral and small, locally based survivor groups in Sussex, which have developed outstanding work. Work like this for survivors of abuse needs to be encouraged and supported more openly.

A further matter survivors have been calling for is the extension of the definition of “positions of trust” in the Sexual Offences Act 2003; the current definition is too limited in scope. Continued work is also required within the operation of the criminal justice system so that survivors and victims are enabled to share their stories in a supportive environment. There have been many good advances, but vigilance and continued improvement is required.

Finally, in listening to the voice of survivors one very strong message keeps being shared: “You can do all you like to improve your legislation, your procedures and practices to ensure the present and the future are better at prevention and in dealing with both survivors and abusers than in the past; but unless and until you face up to the reality of what has previously happened, you will never really change the culture of abuse within which we live”. In short, if we do not face up to past failures, we will never really improve the future. This is a lesson we in the church are slowly learning and seeking to tackle. We have a very long way to go.

The lessons of cases like Savile and Rochdale have highlighted that, in our nation, we have a long history of abuse within institutions. Schools, residential care homes, hospitals, the police force, churches and local and national political institutions have all been used by abusers to hide their wicked activities. Powerful people have engaged in serious abuse and have worked with each other to create opportunities and share their vices and victims. As a nation we have to face up to the seriousness of institutionally based abuse against the most vulnerable in our society, both children and adults, which has gone on in the past and, sadly, continues today.

The survivors are right when they say that if we want the future to be truly different and better we have to confront the past. I believe, as do many of my colleagues, that we need a fully independent inquiry that will fully examine the reality of institutionally based abuse in our nation over the past possibly as much as 50 years. This is needed so that we can understand why this happens, where responsibilities lie and what cultural, societal and institutional discourses and dynamics lie at the heart of these ongoing failings.

I know it will take time and will be costly to undertake, and I know that for both those reasons it will be argued against. However, I firmly believe that the true cost of child abuse and the abuse of adults at risk is far higher than any of us have ever been prepared to acknowledge in terms of the mental, emotional, social and physical health and well-being of very large numbers of our population. Justice, fairness and the very health of our society demands that we no longer hide away from this dark part of our story. We need an independent public inquiry and we need it very soon.

Baroness Northover:  …The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham noted the long history of abuse in our institutions, whether schools, hospitals, the police or even churches. My honourable friend the Minister of State for Crime Prevention, Norman Baker, is leading a national group of experts urgently to address missed opportunities to protect children and vulnerable people. He is assisted by members of the NSPCC, Barnardo’s and Rape Crisis. The group is looking at lessons that could be learnt from recent and current inquiries to see what should be taken forward.

There were noble Lords on either side of the question of holding a public inquiry. I note what the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, and the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, said, about following through on the reports that we already have, but I also noted what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said. What it comes down to is that nobody is satisfied with where we have got to; we have to ensure that we do better.

(via Parliament.uk)