On 7 July 2014, Theresa May announced the inquiry into the way public bodies and other non-state institutions have handled child sex abuse claims. Unfortunately, it did not take long for controversy to arise, as we have blogged about previously. The next day, Theresa May appointed Baroness Butler-Sloss to chair the inquiry. However, her appointment was questioned due to claims that her late brother, Lord Havers, had suppressed the reporting of abuse claims in the 1980s when he was Attorney General. It was then reported that Baroness Butler-Sloss kept allegations about a bishop out of a review of how the Church of England dealt with two paedophile priests because she “cared about the Church”.On 14 July, Baroness Butler-Sloss resigned from the inquiry amid concerns that May had appointed her without due consideration.

Fiona Woolf has ties to Lord Brittan

On 5 September 2014, Theresa May announced that Fiona Woolf, the Mayor of the City of London, would head up the inquiry. Her appointment was in question from the start as she is a corporate lawyer with no apparent experience in child protection. There were further doubts raised by the survivor community after it became apparent on 7 September that Woolf had ties with Lord Brittan. The inquiry may need to question Brittan as in 1983, when he was Home Secretary, he was given a 40-page dossier by Geoffrey Dickens MP that detailed alleged paedophile activity in Westminster. The inquiry needs to establish whether this was followed up appropriately.

In spite of her links to Brittan, Woolf only considered that her appointment was untenable after it was revealed that her letter to Theresa May regarding her relationship with Brittan was re-written seven times. Keith Vaz, the chairman of the home affairs select committee noted that facts had been “amended” by the time it got to a final draft, and it appeared to show “a greater sense of detachment” from Brittan than earlier drafts.

Had Fiona Woolf been on the jury of a trial and Brittan been the accused, she would no doubt have declared her ties to him and the judge would have dismissed her. It is disturbing that Woolf did not appreciate that her links to Brittan made her inappropriate for the role, and quibbled over the letter of the law by arguing that her ties to Brittan did not meet the ‘close connection’ test.

Self-interest in the establishment

It is telling that Fiona Woolf commented that the new head of the inquiry would need to be “a hermit”. Survivors of child abuse are often mistrustful of authority figures, and understandably so. The apparent difficulty of appointing a head of the inquiry has reinforced the perception of the establishment as an elite club which is mired in self-interest. Theresa May deservedly faces heavy criticism for failing to take appropriate diligence in selecting a chair for the inquiry to ensure that these problems did not arise.

The survivors of child abuse deserve nothing less than a transparent and robust investigation, and they are entitled to have confidence in the head of the inquiry. Instead they have been treated to a media storm and an inquiry which feels like a whitewash before it has even begun. I hope, for the sake of my clients and all survivors of child abuse, that an appropriate chair for the inquiry is found swiftly and progress can begin without further delay.