Survivors Question Role of U.K. Home Office in Child Abuse Inquiry

Victims question independence of child abuse inquiry
New Zealand high court judge Lowell Goddard arrives at Portcullis House for a pre-appointment hearing after being confirmed as the new chair of the independent inquiry into child sex abuse in London February 11, 2015. Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

After years of horrifying revelations about sexual abuse of children by people of power and influence, Britain called in a judge from New Zealand in a bid to guarantee the independence of a new inquiry into what appears to have been a massive institutional cover-up for decades.

In an opening statement July 9, Judge Lowell Goddard said she will lead a team that will investigate thousands of allegations of abuse perpetrated by "people of prominence in public life." Cases involve both present and former high-ranking officials in central government, MI5 intelligence and security services, the Metropolitan Police Service's Special Branch and the state-owned BBC.

The department that oversees many of those authorities is the Home Office, a catchall ministry that is one of Britain's most potent institutions, in charge of immigration, police, domestic security and MI5. So when survivors like Andrew Lavery, who was abused in his early teens at the hands of Benedictine monks, learned that dozens of Home Office staff were being seconded for the inquiry, he was stunned. "How can the Home Office investigate themselves?" he asks. "It's toxic."

The Home Office is at the center of some of the most egregious allegations the inquiry will be investigating, including accusations that Leon Brittan, who was home secretary in the 1980s and died in January, was an abuser.

In late July, it emerged that the Home Office failed to turn over documents to an inquiry in 2014 that sought to determine whether the office deliberately "lost" key evidence that might have resulted in the apprehension of accused child abusers working in the highest echelons of government, including Brittan. Among the documents reportedly lost was a list handed to Brittan in the early 1980s, while he was still home secretary, by a member of Parliament. The list named suspected child abusers in positions of influence and power, including members of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet.

The Home Office subsequently destroyed the list, along with more than 100 other files relating to child sex abuse, according to the 2014 review. The review was unable to determine what Brittan did with the files or if the destruction of them was deliberate.

In July, the files the Home Office failed to turn over to the 2014 review were made public, including documents about an unnamed "MI5 officer convicted of sex offenses." According to the 2014 inquiry reviewers, Peter Wanless and Richard Whittam, the recently released documents give rare insight into the attitude of MI5 and the Home Office when it came to suspected pedophiles operating inside the government. As a case in point, they released an excerpt of a memo from former MI5 Director-General Sir Antony Duff to then-Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong from 1986.

In it, Duff warns Armstrong about a member of Parliament with a "penchant for small boys," but adds that he's satisfied with the politician's denial. "At the present stage...the risks of political embarrassment to the government is rather greater than the security danger," he says.

Both Duff and the man he was talking aboutThatcher aide and Deputy Conservative Party Chairman Peter Morrisonare now deceased. Armstrong (now Lord Armstrong) has denied any recollection of the memo.

Newsweek has also confirmed that the private papers detailing the minutes of home secretary meetings from 1978 to 1984—key periods of the abuse allegations—are missing from the U.K.'s National Archives, the official document repository of the British government. Officials at the archive say the documents should have been declassified by 2004 (after 20 years), and they are not sure why the papers have not yet been released. The Home Office has not responded to inquiries regarding their whereabouts.

In light of the Home Office's track record, Andrew Kershaw, another survivor of abuse, says he feels deeply uneasy about it having any role in the child abuse inquiry. In an email to Newsweek, he writes, "It was very clear that the Home Office was keen to keep their department and its employees from being investigated by this inquiry. The original terms [of the probe] were drafted to exclude the Home Office from ever being investigated." That changed, he says, only after public protest.

A third abuse survivor and activist, Phil Frampton, says the Home Office ignored survivors' objections to its hands-on approach to what it was publicly billing as an "independent" inquiry. "It is greatly troubling that an inquiry that inevitably will be forced to look at the failings or otherwise of the Home Office has been set up by and is being run by Home Office employees and career civil servants," he says.

Newsweek learned that as of August, 24 of the inquiry's permanent staff members (out of a total of 70) were seconded from the Home Office, and those people were appointed to some of the inquiry's most sensitive senior roles, including those handling highly delicate matters with abuse survivors.

Newsweek also confirmed that an additional 40 of the inquiry's staffers previously held positions in the British government, after cross-referencing with multiple databases, including the office of Britain's attorney general, which has been accused of not prosecuting prominent accused abusers. The inquiry declined to provide Newsweek with a full list of which departments had seconded staff and how many staff came from each department. Some of the departments, it said, included the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions and the National Archives.

John O'Brien, for example, was formerly head of safeguarding for vulnerable children and adults at the Home Office. He has been employed as head secretariat to the inquiry and personally "recruited the core administrative and support staff," as well as "managed all of the essential preparatory work over the past three months," according to Goddard, who approved the senior appointment. O'Brien declined to comment through a representative, as did Goddard.

Those who moved from the employ of the Home Office to the inquiry also include a team of Home Office staffers who previously worked under O'Brien, such as Usha Choli, appointed head of engagement and stakeholder relations for the inquiry, as well as Cheryl Mendes and Helen Griffiths, who worked in administrative roles under O'Brien at the Home Office and continue to do so with the inquiry.

The survivors say that until more is known about the Home Office's role in the scandal, they are particularly sensitive to any long-serving Home Office staff joining the inquiry, as they fear that even staff members not accused of any wrongdoing may be more inclined to hold the Home Office's priorities above those of the abuse survivors. One staffer, Angela Kyle, the Home Office's director of strategic risk and analysis, was seconded to a leadership post within the inquiry, setting up operations and administration as head secretariat for the inquiry, until O'Brien took over that role. (She has since returned to the Home Office.) Kyle's career at the Home Office goes back to 1978, overlapping with Brittan's tenure. "When the survivors group met with the new inquiry team for the first time in April, we were shocked to see John O'Brien was running it, and all the people we'd previously met as the Home Office staffdown to O'Brien's secretarymoved over to run the inquiry with new job titles," Lavery says. "It was all the same faces. It was repugnant."

Inquiry spokeswoman Charlotte Phillips—recruited from an office under the attorney general—says Goddard does not view the recruitment of the two dozen staffers from the Home Office, many of whom moved over before the judge's appointment this spring, as compromising to the independence of the inquiry. "Independence is at the heart of the inquiry, and this is protected by the independent decision making of the chair, panel and counsel," she tells Newsweek. She added that the inquiry plans to advertise outside the government to fill an additional 20 jobs.

In response to questions from Newsweek, the Home Office said in a statement it does not believe its shifting of staff to the inquiry created a conflict of interest. "The inquiry is completely independent and responsible for its own recruitment and staffing. Where the inquiry has chosen to take staff on secondment from government, those staff are not reporting toand are acting entirely independently fromthe Home Office and government."

As of late May, an estimated 1,433 alleged offenders, both alive and deceased, were being investigated for child abuse allegations, including 76 politicians, 43 people from the music industry and 135 from TV, film or radio.

At the launch of the inquiry, Goddard promised she would "not hesitate to make findings in relation to named individuals or institutions where the evidence justifies this." She emphasized that while the inquiry cannot impose criminal convictions or mete out punishments, at its core, it will use its statutory powers to investigate claims and engage in "the naming of people that have been responsible for the sexual abuse of children, or institutions that have been at fault in failing to protect children from abuse."

Lavery says he fears that Goddard will not be able to act in the best interests of abuse survivors if she doesn't ensure her team is more independent. "There is an appearance of being sincere and of listening, but in reality the government is still trying to control its interests over the interests of the survivors," he says. "We don't want to be treated with threat or favor. We are not asking for anything other than justice."