Alex Wheatle

I was ready to testify about the abuse I suffered as a child – but I can’t as long as Fiona Woolf chairs the inquiry

Witnesses are vulnerable, and they need to have complete faith in the system

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Lord Mayor of London Fiona Woolf at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in November 2013
Getty Images

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As someone who suffered child abuse in the children’s home I grew up in during the 1960s and 70s, I saw the Government inquiry into the scandal not just as an opportunity to observe institutions finally being made accountable for their woeful neglect – but also as an opportunity to go before the inquiry and spell out what happened to me.  But as long as Fiona Woolf is in charge I am not prepared to do that.
When, earlier this year, I wrote about what happened to me, I received many messages of support from members of the public, and heart-warmingly, gained support from friends with whom I grew up.  More often than not, they shared the same harrowing experiences.  The child abuse was systematic in my children’s home in Surrey.  From the age of five I was violently attacked by a member of staff and once sexually assaulted by a member of the medical profession.
Even though many of my ‘brothers and sisters’ are now in their late forties and early fifties, they are still trying to come to terms with the atrocious acts inflicted on them when they were at their most vulnerable.  When they reached their adult years, some turned to drink or drugs in an attempt to erase all memory of their suffering.  A number of tortured souls were unable to look after their own children.  A few I know still receive counselling.  What we all have in common is that we have been absolutely failed by every institution that had a care of duty to protect us.  Among this sorry list includes the social services, local councils, government, police forces and the Crown Prosecution Services.
So when Theresa May first stood up in Parliament and announced that there would be an inquiry into historical child abuse, I knew I wanted to testify.
Bearing witness can be a traumatic and overwhelming experience.  I know people who find the prospect of doing so impossible.  And with all this deep-seated hurt, betrayal and anger, it was imperative that the appointed chair of this inquiry could gain the trust of every victim who stood in front of them.  Sufferers have to be confident that they will be granted a fair hearing and that those who played a role in any institution will be questioned and interrogated without bias and favour.

Read more:
Why should Fiona Woolf be expected to remember every dinner date?
Calls for Woolf to step down from abuse inquiry as victim claims she lacks expertise
The search for truth can begin  

With news emerging concerning the second appointed chair, Fiona Woolf, and her links to Lord Brittan, that fragile confidence has been completely undermined.  It was under Lord Brittan’s watch when he was Home Secretary that a dossier detailing alleged Westminster paedophiles went missing.  Ms Woolf and Lord Brittan, we learn, have swapped polite conversations at home dinners. Ms Woolf has sipped coffee with Lord Brittan’s wife, and they live on the same affluent London street.  They are hardly nervous strangers who have been forced to sit together on a packed bus.
I was one of the few I know who wanted to testify to this inquiry.  I’m not aware or haven’t been told of how I would go about this but it was my intention to relate my experiences to whatever panel sat in front of me.  I will no longer seek to achieve this if Fiona Woolf still remains chair of the inquiry, because of her social ties to Lord Brittan.  She should resign.  What’s more, she shouldn’t cling on to her post to save the credibility of Theresa May. Inspiring confidence in the victims is far more important than that.  I don’t give a damn about ministerial reputations but I care passionately about victims baring their souls.  I urge the Home Secretary to retreat to her office, put the phone off the hook, take out her contacts book, and think again.
Alex Wheatle is a novelist

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