The Lost U.K. Child Abuse Testimonies

Child abuse inquiry
Lucy, now 25, who was groomed to be a rape victim starting when she was 12, poses for a portrait in Rotherham, England on Aug. 27, 2014. The town of Rotherham, England was plagued for years by organized child sexual abuse; Sarah Champion, a member of parliament for the town, has criticized Judge Lowell Goddard, leader of the UK's public inquiry of decades of sexual abuse allegations, for the country's mishandling of victim testimonies submitted to a government website. Tom Jamieson/The New York Times/Redux

Investigators probing thousands of allegations of child sexual abuse in the United Kingdom set up a website this past summer to gather evidence. They invited survivors to share their stories with the independent inquiry through what was promised to be a secure and confidential portal.

Many survivors did so. But somehow nearly three weeks of submissions were mysteriously deleted, "instantly and permanently," in what a notice on the site in October said was due to "a change in our website address."

That message caused survivors, support groups and members of the British Parliament to question whether the survivors' data was being handled with the utmost care, with attention to privacy and security—not to mention why there wasn't some kind of data backup. The inquiry's request for people to resubmit their stories was met with skepticism.

"It is a known fact that it takes survivors of child abuse 20, 30, 40 years to recover or to report it," says abuse survivor Andrew Kershaw. "They have to trust, and unfortunately many of them will never trust, never tell anyone what happened to them, and take it to their grave. So their information being lost has done irreparable damage, has taken away their trust once more. Many won't come forward again."

In July, when New Zealand Judge Lowell Goddard launched what she called "the largest and most ambitious public inquiry ever established" into decades of sexual abuse allegations throughout England and Wales, she issued a stern warning to the U.K. government: no shredding or "premature destruction of files or records that later become required as evidence."

This loss of key documents has been a hallmark of the U.K.'s recent focus on apprehending accused child abusers in high-ranking positions of government and public life. The push came after authorities said BBC celebrity Jimmy Savile, who died in 2011, had abused up to 1,000 children over four decades. More recently, the Home Office came under fire after it " lost or destroyed " more than 100 files tied to claims of child sex abuse by, among others, prominent members of the U.K. government, according to the findings of a separate inquiry in 2014. Newsweek has also learned that many Home Office papers are missing from the U.K.'s National Archives that should have been declassified more than a decade ago.

And then, on October 15, the inquiry's website quietly posted the notice stating that all survivor submissions made from September 14 to October 2 had been deleted. Officials at the inquiry indicated they had no way of knowing how many submissions were lost, as the team never received them. "We have confirmed that the information cannot be recovered," inquiry spokeswoman Natalie Davison says . "The data are intentionally not saved at the website when the form is submitted, in line with good security practice."

Sarah Champion, a member of Parliament for Rotherham, a town that authorities recently found was plagued for years by organized child sexual abuse, sent a letter to Goddard asking why there was no backup system in place. "Furthermore, it is of some concern that such a significant failure of IT systems went unnoticed for almost three weeks," she wrote in the letter. Champion is the U.K.'s shadow minister for preventing abuse and domestic violence.

Goddard to date has made no public comment, but a statement posted to the inquiry's website in late October explained that new measures are now in place to ensure testimony will be sent to a "secure inquiry mailbox," with limits on who can see it, and submissions will be checked daily. "We believe we now have all the necessary measures in place to ensure this will not happen again," it said.

Goddard, in her opening remarks to the inquiry this past summer, assured survivors that she would go to great lengths to win their confidence, offering private sessions to report abuse, with counselors, translators and assistance for the disabled. "The experiences of victims and survivors will be the core currency of the inquiry," she said , adding that the "sheer scale" of the problem was overwhelming and citing an estimate that 1 in 20 children in the U.K. was likely to have been abused.

Phil Frampton, an abuse survivor and national coordinator of White Flowers, an umbrella organization for survivors' groups, says the task may be enormous, but survivors must be treated with more compassion. " The Goddard inquiry needs to rapidly get its act together if it is to maintain any trust amongst survivors," he says.

After inspecting the inquiry's website for Newsweek, Phil Mair, an independent IT specialist who has worked on secure websites for the U.K. government and the Metropolitan Police Service, says he remains deeply concerned about its security. Because the inquiry's site was built using Drupal, a free software commonly used for personal websites, he says the information that the site gathers is vulnerable to being intercepted and even redirected.

"I would call this site highly amateurish," he says . "It's staggering, to be honest. Considering the extreme sensitivity of the information it is handling, the casual and unprofessional way with which this site was put together really does beggar belief."

A professionally designed and secure site, he says, would have cost the inquiry from 3,000 to 6,000 pounds ($4,600 to $9,200). The inquiry's budget for the 2015-2016 fiscal year is 17.9 million pounds ($28 million).

According to officials at the inquiry, John O'Brien, a senior civil servant with the Home Office and head secretariat for the inquiry, is leading its in-house technology team. Despite emails, calls and a visit to his offices, O'Brien did not respond to requests for comment from Newsweek.