IICSA: A first-hand reflection

02 April 2018, Matt Cooper, Thirtyone:eight

In March the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) held its three-week public hearing into the Anglican Church as part of its wider investigation into institutional failures regarding child abuse. A few weeks earlier, at the Church of England’s General Synod, Peter Hancock, the lead bishop on safeguarding, said: “This will not be an easy couple of years: we will hear deeply painful accounts of abuse, or poor response, of cover-up. We will, as our friends in the Anglican Church in Australia did, feel a deep sense of shame.” He was right. As the hearing drew to a close, these words were echoed by the Archbishop of Canterbury who took to the stand to give evidence. In his closing remarks to the hearing, Justin Welby said: “I have learnt to be ashamed again of the Church.”

The IICSA Anglican public hearing, which finished on Friday 23rd March, has received much coverage in the media over the last few weeks. Publications such as the Church Times have provided daily reports of what was said, whilst an online live video stream has allowed people to follow the evidence as it has been presented. Transcripts of the days hearings are available online.

As a result, much has already been written on the faults and failures of the church and on the potential recommendations that might come as a result. But what is the experience for those involved in the Inquiry? What is it like to attend a government hearing of this kind? Matt Cooper, CCPAS’s Content and Communications Officer, went along to the second day of the hearing to find out what goes on.

It was a grey and damp Tuesday morning. The rather unassuming premises of the inquiry were not easy to find. Except for a couple of signs on windows, the building looked much like any other city office block. On entering, we had to pass through airport style security, with metal detectors and x-ray scanners, and were then ushered upstairs to a viewing room adjacent to main public gallery.  This room was for the public to view the hearings on a TV screen with another screen providing a live text feed. About 20 people, mainly journalists and lawyers sat waiting, whilst several bishops and clergy stood talking together at one end of the room about the events of the previous day. The inquiry started promptly at 10.30am by hearing evidence from a witness identified only as AN-A15 to protect her identity. We listened via a TV feed with a three minute delay which was interrupted on several occasions in order for identifying information to be withdrawn. This witness spoke of the impact the abuse she had experienced as a child had on her, her parents and family, her education and on her ability to trust others. She also told of how she felt ‘terrified’ in having to testify against her abuser at the age of twelve, and the lack of help and support she had received during the process. When this first witness had finished giving evidence, we were allowed through into the main hearing room.

It was not like a courtroom, but more like an open plan office, with rows of desks. We were sat directly behind the witness box and there was another screen which provided live text of the proceedings and displayed some pieces of written evidence. To the left in front of the witness sat the chair of the Inquiry, Professor Alexis Jay, and the three panel members. Opposite the panel, across the room from them, on the witness’s right side, sat the two QCs along with their legal team. Apart from the witnesses, these were the only six people in the room to speak during the day. The majority of the talking was done by the witnesses and the QCs interviewing them. At the end of each session, Professor Jay would halt the proceedings and either ask a question to the witness or invite her panel to ask any questions.

We heard from a second witness, Philip Johnson, who was another abuse survivor. He was questioned regarding the abuse he experienced from Roy Cotton, who died in 2006 and was never prosecuted. Mr Johnson also told of how he was abused by Colin Pritchard, who was convicted in February. The inquiry then went on to focus on Mr Johnson’s dealings with the police during the 1990s in an attempt to bring justice.

Lastly, we heard from a third witness, Shirley Hosgood, a former Safeguarding Advisor for the Chichester Diocese. She was the first diocesan employee to give evidence to the inquiry. Her role was to oversee the child protection policy within the diocese. Part of her questioning involved showing the inquiry emails and letters she had sent and received many years before as part of her safeguarding work.

At the end of each witness’s time giving evidence, they were asked if they had anything else to say to the panel. In response Mr Johnson talked about the need for cultural change, rather than changes to structure. Mrs Hosgood also spoke of having a change in the culture, as well as automatically putting the welfare of children, victims and survivors at the centre of safeguarding issues and matters.

The proceedings finished promptly at 4.30pm and we were asked to all rise as the panel left the room bringing the day’s hearing to an end.

We left, with a real sense of the weight of responsibility that people working in safeguarding hold.  We were reminded of the complexity of the task involved and the challenges that safeguarding workers face. Cultural change can be slow, but it is necessary to create places and communities that are safer for us all. Thanks to the brave individuals that continue to campaign and call for change, many of whom are survivors themselves, change is coming. But in the words of one of the first witnesses we heard it is seen by many as “too little, too late.”

The final report will be published by Alexis Jay after the last public hearing in July which will review all the material presented and give her findings and conclusions on both the Anglican church case study and that of Peter Ball. Back in 2017, Alexis Jay told CCPAS that: “I am passionate about making sure children are kept safe and that is why I took on the role. The Inquiry will have a renewed focus on making recommendations to keep children safe in the future, whilst learning from past institutional failings.”

Aerial view of a group of people looking at the camera

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