How To Strengthen The Rights Of Victims

Richard Scorer is Head of the Abuse unit at Slater & Gordon lawyers and acts for victims in the Rochdale child sexual exploitation case. He was a Labour Parliamentary Candidate in 2010 and currently serves as a Labour councillor in West Yorkshire. He is also the author of Betrayed: The English Catholic Church and the Sex Abuse Crisis, published this year by Biteback Books. Twitter: @Richard_Scorer

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Keir Starmer, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, is heading a Labour group aiming to strengthen the rights of victims in the criminal justice system. What recommendations should he make? I believe we need 3 major changes:

1: Better court processes

As Starmer says, from the point of view of victims the criminal justice system is “hardly fit for purpose – for many victims, the adversarial journey through our courtrooms is such an ordeal that most vow never to repeat it”. In the Rochdale child sexual exploitation case, some of my clients were cross-examined – in the hostile environment of a courtroom packed with their abusers- by no fewer than 11 defence barristers. Although convictions were secured, the experience was exceptionally distressing for the victims. How can we achieve justice if victims are too scared to testify?

This can change for the better if we implement a reform which was originally recommended more than twenty years ago: taking children and vulnerable adult witnesses out of the formal criminal trial process altogether by videotaping their entire testimony, to include cross examination and re-examination, before trial.

This change is long overdue. We already have some ‘special measures’ to assist vulnerable and intimidated witnesses in the courtroom: things like screening witnesses from the accused, the removal of wigs and gowns , and giving evidence-in-chief by video link or in private. But due to opposition from some lawyers, not all the special measures proposed by the Pigot committee in the late 1980s were implemented. Currently, a videotaped interview of the child witness is admissible at trial as evidence-in-chief (subject to the trial judge’s discretion) but the child is still required to attend trial for cross –examination. That cross-examination, of course, will typically take place many months after the original video-taped interview, so that the current regime can actually place the child at even greater disadvantage.

In a lecture in March 2013 the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, was clear that there is an urgent need to introduce video recorded cross examination and re-examination of child witnesses. It can and should be done without delay.

We also need specialist courts for sexual offences. At present, judges, prosecutors and magistrates who hear sex cases are expected to have special training, but this does not apply to defence barristers. I have heard too many accounts of inappropriate questioning at trial: a defence barrister at a child sexual exploitation trial at Stafford Crown Court asked of a teenage rape victim, several days into harrowing evidence, whether she had ‘repented her sins’. There have been other examples. Specialist courts and specialist training would help to address this problem.

2: Mandatory reporting

Starmer rightly says that this “cannot be left in the ‘too difficult’ box forever”. In many cases organisations and institutions have failed to report allegations of abuse to statutory authorities (i.e. police and social services), because – as in the Catholic Church and many private schools dependent on their reputation for their income – fealty to an institution can outweigh the responsibility to protect children.

Currently, in England and Wales (and Scotland) there is no formal requirement in law to report child protection concerns to the authorities. There are professional reporting obligations, for example for teachers or carers, which are emphasised through local and national guidance, and various inter-agency protocols. But the failure to report abuse does not constitute a criminal offence. One victim campaigner, discussing an abuse scandal in 2008 at a Catholic private school in West London, pointed out that “The amazing fact is that in failing to report abuse at the school to the police or social services, [the school] didn’t break any laws. It is possible for a headteacher to know for certain that a member of staff has raped a pupil on school premises, and the headteacher has no statutory obligation to report anything to anybody”.

Campaigners have argued for “Daniel’s Law”, named after Daniel Pelka, a little boy starved and beaten to death by his mother; his bruising and emaciation was ignored by his school. Daniel’s Law would make it mandatory for child protection concerns to be reported by professionals and organisations working with children, introducing clarity especially in circumstances of conflicting duty, where a teacher or cleric might be torn between child welfare and protection of the institution.

There are ample precedents internationally. Many states in USA, all Canadian jurisdictions bar one, and many Australian states have mandatory reporting laws. In Northern Ireland, s5(1) of the Criminal Law Act 1967 already provides for a criminal offence of failing to disclose an arrestable offence to the police, which includes most offences against children.

Some child protection charities have expressed concern that mandatory reporting might be counterproductive and have perverse consequences, if police and social services are swamped with inappropriate reports which drain investigative resources from genuine cases. This is a reasonable concern, although the difficulty in weighing evidence from overseas is that mandatory reporting laws come in many different forms. Some mandatory reporting laws apply just to professionals, others apply to the whole population. Reporting thresholds can also vary. However, there is evidence that where mandatory reporting laws are clear and consistent, they can be effective in raising awareness of abuse and the need to pass information to investigators.

In view of the legitimate concerns expressed by some child protection professionals, and the greater problems involved in formulating a law applicable to the general population, the best way forward would be a mandatory reporting law focussing on institutions, i.e. requiring disclosure to the authorities of actual or suspected abuse in an institutional setting. The reporting obligation would be a mandatory, non discretionary duty to report imposed upon a designated person within the organisation who has a legal duty to refer all allegations of wrongdoing vis-à-vis children to external authorities. Provided such a law is accompanied by clarity around reporting thresholds, and around the rules on confidentiality of information, it will help to prevent some of the appalling abuse in schools, religious organisations and other institutions which has recently come to light.

3: Attitudinal change

But we also need a change of attitude towards victims throughout the criminal justice system. This may seem a more nebulous objective but it is fundamental. In Rochdale in 2008, the credibility and reliability of victims of child exploitation was assessed by reference to ill-informed stereotypes about whether the girls concerned (who were often in fear for their lives) reported abuse quickly, whether they returned to their abusers, whether they had previous criminal convictions, and whether their recollections were affected by drugs or alcohol. On that basis, prosecutions were rejected on credibility grounds. As a lawyer who works with some of those victims, I can testify to the subsequent change brought about by the leadership of the Chief Crown Prosecutor in the North West, Nazir Afzal, whose determination to improve the response to victims of child sexual exploitation resulted in multiple criminal convictions in cases which previously had been considered hopeless. Traditional prejudices about victim behaviour were challenged head-on. Following public debate about the Rochdale cases in 2012-13, the CPS under Starmer revised its internal guidelines for prosecution of sexual offences, to ensure that prosecutors are not misled by myths about how ‘real’ victims behave. As Starmer’s successor Alison Saunders has emphasised, that shift has to be constantly reinforced. Attitudes amongst prosecutors matter as much, if not more, than changes in court processes. If both happen, we can ensure that victims of sexual offences have a fair chance of getting justice.

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Richard Scorer is Head of the Abuse unit at Slater & Gordon lawyers and acts for victims in the Rochdale child sexual exploitation case. He was a Labour Parliamentary Candidate in 2010 and currently serves as a Labour councillor in West Yorkshire. He is also the author of Betrayed: The English Catholic Church and the Sex Abuse Crisis, published this year by Biteback Books. Twitter: @Richard_Scorer

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Slow Burn

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In praise of Simon Danczuk

Simon Danczuk has led the front pages this week with his explosive account of how an MP could hide a lifetime of abusing children.

The Westminster reaction to his Cyril Smith allegations? Embarrassed coughs.

Simon Danczuk

Good on Simon for having the courage to speak his mind. Since his 2010 election, itself a feat of endurance, he’s demonstrated a forensic mind and a canny eye for a story. He represents a diminishing Westminster breed, a ‘character’ who speaks with an authentic voice and with conviction. In the bland world of party slogans and ‘lines to take,’ he stands out. I admire him.

And despite these qualities, maybe even because of them, I hope our colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party are rallying round to support Simon. Because he’s about to realise what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the liberal establishment at its most savage.

Our central concern should always be the survivors of sexual abuse.

Yet the daggers are already being sharpened in the salons of North London. ‘How can he serialise in the Mail?,’ ‘Why is he criticising Labour people?,’ and ‘He’s not a proper journalist’ are just three of the attacks I’ve heard whispered in the last few days.

This is an attempt to undermine the substance of his argument: that career child abuser Cyril Smith covered up his activities with the collaboration of colleagues in Westminster and beyond. Since then the fog of collective amnesia has enveloped his party and anyone ever associated Smith.

I’ve not yet read Simon’s book but I saw the report of television journalist Liz MacKean, who was one of the first to highlight that Special Branch intervened so that Cyril Smith died avoiding the justice which his victims deserved.

As Simon pointed out on Radio 4 yesterday, Smith is not the first MP to be named as a child abuser. Two former ministers have named Sir Peter Morrison as a ‘well-known pedarast’.

There are three things that need to happen in relation to these serious allegations.

First, all the child abuse inquires in local authorities, the NHS and other public institutions such as the BBC must be wrapped into one national independent review of historic abuse cases. In Australia, they’re having a Royal Commission. We could adopt the same practice. MPs of all parties have written to the PM urging him to make a decisive move in the right direction.

Secondly, let’s acknowledge what the police privately admit: investigating child abuse is hopelessly under-resourced. Worse, whistle-blowers in the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre tell me their work is being diluted as the National Crime Agency (NCA) absorbs them into the new organisation. Recent parliamentary questions have yielded obfuscated answers on how many dedicated specialist investigators with arrest powers are working full-time on abuse inquiries. One whistle-blower told me that a very senior director at the NCA said child abuse is ‘not their priority.’

What also needs to happen is for political parties to unite on child abuse. They need to work with campaign groups who wish to see the law changed so we have mandatory reporting of suspected abuse in regulated settings such as private boarding schools. There’s a remarkable man called Tom Perry who runs the organisation Mandate Now- he needs our support.

I’ve already documented my reasons for asking the Prime Minister about an historic case of child abuse in October 2012.

Since then, there have been numerous arrests and people are facing charges, so I have to be careful what I write.

But I can say there have been some shocking claims made, many of which police are investigating.

Labourlist.org

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Saturday Night Song!

Better late than never!

 

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Op Pallial: 19th Arrest

Or at least I think it’s the 19th arrest.

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A man has been arrested over abuse allegations at a Suffolk boarding school and interviewed as part of a separate inquiry in north Wales.

The 62-year-old man from Barnsley, South Yorkshire, was arrested on suspicion of indecent assault at Kesgrave Hall, near Ipswich.

The allegations date from between the 1970s and 1990s at the former school.

He has also been questioned by officers probing claims of historical abuse in the north Wales care system.

The investigation in Wales, Operation Pallial, is being led by the National Crime Agency.

BBC News

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Hampshire Chief constable Accused Over Investigation Into Stanbridge Earls School

This is very peculiar.

“The probe also focuses on whether officers from Hampshire police were instructed to “mislead” parents of alleged victims into thinking Operation Flamborough was an investigation into the sexual abuse of children.”

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THE Daily Echo can today reveal the full explosive details of an investigation into Hampshire’s top police officer.

The chief constable of Hampshire and Isle of Wight Constabulary, Andy Marsh, is facing a police probe from a separate force into claims he ordered a whitewash over the failure of police investigations into shocking sex abuse allegations at a Hampshire special school.

He is also accused of breaching confidentiality and contempt of court in connection with the same inquiry.

The complaints centre on Hampshire police’s investigation into allegations that a girl was raped and other pupils were sexually abused at the former Stanbridge Earls School near Romsey, which closed last year.

Daily Echo

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Betrayed: The English Catholic Church And The Child Abuse Crisis

Richard Scorer is Head of the Abuse unit at Slater & Gordon lawyers and author of  ‘Betrayed: The English Catholic Church And The Child Abuse Crisis’

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Media coverage of clerical sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church has tended to focus on Ireland and the USA.  In England, Catholic leaders have fostered the impression that the English church has been relatively scandal-free, and that such problems as did exist were eliminated by the Nolan reforms, a raft of changes to child protection introduced in 2001.

In my book Betrayed: The English Catholic Church and the Sex Abuse Crisis, just published (Amazon link is http://www.amazon.co.uk/Betrayed-English-Catholic-Church-Crisis/dp/1849546827), I interrogate that claim.  By examining the detail of cases over a 50 year period, I show that the patterns of  denial and cover-up that have characterised the Catholic abuse scandal in other parts of the world have been pervasive in England too.  Time and again, allegations about priests were simply dismissed or the priest was moved elsewhere where he would be free to abuse again. The protection of the institution was paramount, not the protection of children.

As a result of various scandals, in 1994 the Catholic church of England and Wales issued guidelines for dealing with clerical sex abuse. But these guidelines had no legal force within the church, and were  ineffective. In my book I give examples of how the guidelines were simply ignored by Bishops, resulting in paedophile priests being allowed to carry on abusing children.

Continuing scandals throughout the 1990s, particularly the case of Father Michael Hill, forced the English church to introduce the Nolan reforms, a further and much more comprehensive raft of changes to child protection in 2001.  Since 2001, the Catholic Church has maintained that it has ‘gold standard safeguarding’ in England and Wales. In my book I challenge that complacent view.

The Catholic Church in England is now better than it was at reporting new allegations to the statutory authorities, although many victims some would say the level of media attention leaves it with little option. A mandatory reporting law – requiring that any allegation of abuse is automatically passed to the police or social services- would ensure that there is no backsliding.  But there have also been flaws in the Nolan process. Nolan did not cover the whole Catholic church, so we have seen continuing scandals in Catholic institutions in the past ten years: at one Catholic (Benedictine) school attached to a monastery in West London, a monk was found by a civil court in 2006 to have sexually abused a child, but the monk continued to have access to children and subsequently went on to abuse another boy, offences for which he was later convicted.

Secondly, the church continues to resist support and fair compensation for victims, exploiting every possible legal loophole. For many years, the English church tried to argue that because it does not ‘employ’ priests, it bears no legal responsibility for clerical sex abuse.  That  legal sophistry was roundly rejected by the courts in 2012, but the church continues to fight cases aggressively.

Thirdly, the church has failed to laicise (defrock) convicted priests speedily and transparently as recommended by Nolan. To give just one example, 2 priests convicted and jailed in 2005 of sexual abuse of children at Ampleforth, the leading Catholic public school, were still appearing in the official list of priests of England and Wales in 2008, some 3 years after their convictions and seven years after the Nolan reforms were supposed to have taken effect.

Moreover, the Nolan changes are still not embodied in the law of the church.  In a review of the Nolan reforms in 2007, Baroness Cumberlege urged that  the Nolan package be given  ‘recognitio’ by the Vatican, i.e. recognised as part of the canon law of the church. Seven years on, this has not happened, so the Nolan treforms remain merely ‘recommendations’, not obligatory legal norms, and can be disregarded if a Bishop so chooses – precisely the problem with the previous set of guidelines in 1994.

It is unclear why ‘recognitio’ has not yet been secured. When I raised this point recently, Danny Sullivan of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission confirmed that he is currently in discussions with Rome about the ‘possibility’ of recognitio. But we are seven years on from the Cumberlege report which urged this. It’s unclear why.

The abuse scandals in the English church over the past few decades have left thousands of traumatised victims and many broken parishes. I hope the church is changing, but the jury is still out.

Richard Scorer is Head of the Abuse unit at Slater & Gordon lawyers. Email: richard.scorer@pannone.co.uk

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