The challenges associated with the investigation of non-recent claims of sexual abuse

In Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, an investigation by Impartial Reporter journalist Rodney Edwards has resulted in over 60 people disclosing that they were abused.  They have alleged abuse against a number of people, with 12 women alleging abuse against a former primary school principal.  The story has taken a greater prominence with the intervention of Lord Morrow, a DUP peer.  Lord Morrow had met with one of the complainants in 2016 and went to the police with her as a support.

He says that since then there has been a lack of contact between the PSNI and the lady in question. He has asked why it has taken so long to progress these enquiries and why no arrests have been made.  While the former principal has died, others named in the investigation are still alive.

He has suggested that if the PSNI resources are not available then the NCA could be brought in to boost the available resources and give comfort to the victims that their allegations are being investigated. He described the PSNI investigation as “lacklustre” and showed a “semi detached approach”.

Detective Chief Superintendent Paula Hillman has invited Lord Morrow to meet and to receive a briefing on the investigation. She hopes to assure Lord Morrow that their investigation is not as described and that the well trained officers in the Public Protection Unit are handling things professionally.

She said “we remain absolutely dedicated to gathering all relevant information and evidence in relation to all reports made to us in the Fermanagh area and signposting victims to support services.”

The Public Protection Unit receives reports of child abuse (historic and recent) on a daily basis and it is the highly trained officers in the PPU who deal with these reports.

This story resonates with the problems faced by the Metropolitan Police in the Carl Beech (“Nick”) case and can be a warning to all organisations and institutions that the past is never really that far behind us. It also emphasises the developments in understanding across society of the impact of abuse on people and the necessity for proper training for those tasked to deal with these issues.

In addition to specialist police and social services needed to ensure that those who come forward are treated properly and can feel safe to report their claims, there are a small number, such as Carl Beech, who have abused the trust created to advance their own aims. The use of experienced investigators can enable the core truths from victims to be isolated from confusion created over the years.  The hurt caused and the passage of time will inevitably undermine the accuracy of memory and so it is of the utmost importance that all complaints are investigated sensitively and thoroughly.

Institutions and organisations can help the police, victims and themselves by taking a proactive role. Reviewing archives and records to ensure they are up to date, any gaps are identified and an understanding as to why and how the gaps came to exist should be prepared. Check to see if there was ever any concern about staff members who left the employment under a cloud and did they accept a severance package with an NDA attached?  Are there records of staff/visitor/client complaints about others and how were those handled?  Contrast older complaints and disciplinary investigations against how you would manage those complaints today.

Preparation now could make a significant impact on assisting any future investigations and minimising the delay and on going hurt of historic complaints.

Fintan Canavan, Partner, BLM

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