The resignation of Susan O’Brien QC as the chair of Scotland’s national child abuse inquiry is the second resignation to hit the investigation in a week, and poses huge questions about how quickly it will be able to proceed.
At the end of June, Professor Michael Lamb resigned from the panel, stating that the inquiry was “doomed” due to government interference. Those accusations have been echoed in the strongly worded resignation letter sent by Ms O’Brien to the Scottish Government.
Writing to Scotland’s deputy first minister, John Swinney, she said that “my position as the independent Chair of this Inquiry has been actively undermined by some Scottish Government officials for months.”
This follows a complaint from a child abuse expert, Dr Claire Fyvie. Stating that her efforts to deliver a professional service of support were significantly compromised, Dr Fyvie made reference to comments made by Ms O’Brien towards the end of a training session. Ms O’Brien had referred to comments from a survivor of child abuse who “described sexual abuse at boarding school as the best thing that had ever happened” to them. Dr Fyvie also questioned comments made by Ms O’Brien regarding evidence at the trial of a teacher accused of sexual offences, suggesting he “had simply had a hole in his trousers.”
Ms O’Brien accepts the comments were made, but in relation to the first accusation, states that she was simply accurately reporting, “without endorsing”, what a survivor had told her. With regard to the prosecution, there had been “a misunderstanding of what I knew about the case at the time, and my purpose in referring to it when discussing the reports with legal colleagues who had been prosecutors.”
Nonetheless, Mr Swinney said that the allegations “revealed views that were interpreted by an expert in child abuse trauma who witnessed them to indicate a belief system that is incompatible with the post of chair of such an inquiry” and caused him to initiate proceedings which could have led to Ms O’Brien’s dismissal.
With Ms O’Brien’s resignation following quickly on that of Professor Lamb, the abuse inquiry is now in danger of collapse. There is likely to be a significant delay before a suitable new chair is found for the inquiry, particularly if there is found to be any merit in Ms O’Brien’s comments regarding government interference. Such a delay is of benefit to no one; it is in all parties’ interests to have the inquiry conducted as swiftly and thoroughly as possible, so that all parties can move forward.
As it stands, all sides now face months of stalemate before any significant progress can be made, with further delays threatening the quality of already-aged evidence even further.