Victims of child sexual abuse and restorative justice

Last week the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse published the first personal accounts from survivors who have taken part in their Truth Project, which provides a safe environment in which survivors of child sexual abuse can share their experiences. Unsurprisingly, they make harrowing reading. They also reported that about 80 child sex abuse cases a month have been referred to police over the last year following victims' testimony to the Inquiry. At the same time, the police have said that 350 people have so far come forward to report child sex abuse in football.

These are horrific stories and a legacy of very serious crimes that were simply not taken seriously enough at the time. Many will hopefully lead to prosecutions and, where their guilt can be established, the offenders are likely to be imprisoned. Rightly so, where the prosecution has proved its case. I’ve campaigned against the overuse of prison for much of my professional career but in these cases it seems merited. People can’t avoid prosecution or punishment just because their crimes took place a long time ago.

Alongside a prosecution, though, restorative justice should be considered in these cases. Many victims may not want to take part, and many offenders may never admit their guilt. But where they do, and where it can be delivered safely, restorative justice can make a real difference, helping victims to put the crime behind them and move on.

This is exemplified by Laura, who is one of the most inspiring people I have met in my time working at the RJC. Laura was abused as a child by her then stepfather and this abuse had a real and significant impact on her throughout her childhood and as a young adult. She suffered from anorexia and bulimia, harmed herself, and struggled with drug and alcohol abuse.

For Laura, restorative justice was a key part of her recovery. Meeting face to face the man who had abused her helped her to get answers to questions that she had, to regain control and to move on. She got her life back. You can read her story in full here, and if you haven’t already I’d recommend it. It’s a challenging but important read. Laura describes how she felt after the restorative justice meeting, saying: ‘I felt great afterwards – like I’d had a weight lifted off my shoulders, and I knew what closure was. I was hoping that the feeling would last, and it did.’ This shows the impact restorative justice can have.

Every victim of child sexual abuse should, therefore, when they are an adult, be offered the opportunity to benefit from restorative justice, as Laura did.

For some survivors of historic sexual abuse, though, there isn’t an offender to meet. No-one can be unfamiliar with the case of Jimmy Savile, who died before any of the allegations about his crimes became public knowledge. But in these cases, restorative justice services should also consider whether there is an institution that had a duty of care to the victim which they failed to live up to. For example, if the perpetrator was an employee of a football club that failed to prevent their offending or act on reports of abuse, then that football club clearly bears some responsibility.

If this is the case, then a restorative process between the individual and the institution should also be considered, where the victim feels that they would benefit from it. Indeed one victim told the inquiry 'I would like to see a restorative justice approach to be considered for institutions, for them to face up to and consider the harm that they have caused'. This could be alongside a process with the individual perpetrator, or an alternative where the perpetrator is not available, with many likely to have died after all this time, or be unwilling to take part.

But wherever or whenever it takes place, the process must be delivered to the very highest standard. Both the victim and the offender need to be properly supported and protected from further harm. Expectations need to be properly managed. And the risk assessment process must be watertight. For this to happen there need to be properly trained facilitators available, with the necessary skills and experience to handle these complicated cases. They also need to have the time to do so – sexual abuse cases can take a long time to complete, with intensive preparation of both parties required.

Restorative justice services should be open to taking on these cases and should work with organisations supporting victims of these crimes to open up referral routes and help to provide ongoing support for those who do take part. They must, though, also ensure that facilitators who take on these cases are capable of delivering them to a high standard. That way, we can be confident that victims of child sexual abuse who participate in restorative justice will have a positive experience that will help them to put the crime behind them and move on.