The former Goddard inquiry: Is it time for victims to trust the system again?

Justice Goddard threw the inquiry into institutional child abuse into turmoil by resigning.Reuters

The Goddard inquiry into institutional child abuse, as we must get used to not calling it any more, has been beset by problems since it first started. It was a commendably ambitious plan to get to the bottom of what has been done to children in different kinds of institutions – including Churches. But it struggled to find direction and leadership after two eminently well-qualified chairs, Elizabeth Butler-Sloss and Fiona Woolf, resigned in succession because of allegations of conflicts of interest levelled at them by victims and survivors groups.

Lowell Goddard's departure came days after an update on progress which revealed a mixed picture. In spite of Home Secretary Amber Rudd's bullish declaration that the work would go on under a new chair, Goddard's deeply disappointing decision has given Rudd, new to her job, a huge challenge. She may, under her breath, be quietly cursing her predecessor, Theresa May, whose decision it was to set up the inquiry in the first place.

Now that Goddard has laid the groundwork, though, the picture for victims and survivors of child abuse ought to look very different. They were understandably and rightly suspicious of the 'establishment'. The big institutions, including government, were the ones responsible for the harm that was done to them. They had no reason on earth to trust them. But the time has surely come for that to change, in the interests of truth and justice.

Baroness Butler-Sloss was unacceptable because her brother had been attorney-general in the 1980s and had allegedly tried to persuade former Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens against naming an alleged paedophile on the floor of the House of Commons. Fiona Woolf was unacceptable because she turned out to have been an acquaintance of Leon Brittan, also accused of a cover-up.

Since then, though, it's become clearer that it isn't just the inquiry chair who's doing the work. It's a huge operation. Its 2015/16 budget is £17.9 million; it has hired 155 staff members; it is running 13 separate historic abuse investigations, and it is dealing with allegations from 2,000 abuse vicims so far. The idea that unpalatable findings could be covered up by a Machiavellian chair looks increasingly unlikely. There are simply too many people in the know, and there has been too much of a culture change, in the Churches as much as anywhere else: no one, now, could ever take an allegation of child abuse with anything other than the utmost seriousness. The days of bishops shuffling guilty clergy from parish to parish instead of reporting them to police are gone.  

Whether the inquiry needs a single controlling mind of the status of Goddard, Woolf or Butler-Sloss is a moot question. It is not the only option on the table; some argued before it began that it would be better served by a panel.

Whichever way forward Rudd chooses, she will have to reckon with victims groups that have so far effectively exercised a veto over political choices. It is vitally important that the inquiry works with the grain of survivors' concerns and carries the assent of those affected. But in these new and strange times, it's vital too that this veto should be used responsibly. More muddle and delay will not serve the purpose of justice and it will not make children safer.

For everyone's sake, it's time to trust again.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods