Justice Lowell Goddard aims to bring truth and justice to UK sex abuse inquiry

Justice Lowell Goddard is to head an inquiry into child-sex abuse that spans generations.
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

Justice Lowell Goddard is to head an inquiry into child-sex abuse that spans generations.

The New Zealander heading to London to head a mammoth sex-abuse inquiry is vowing to keep survivors at the heart of the investigation.

Sparked by sex-abuse complaints laid against British television celebrity Jimmy Savile, Justice Lowell Goddard's job is set to take more than four years as she heads a panel looking to find ways to improve the way complaints are handled.

She has been handpicked for one of England's most daunting legal challenges. But, while she has spent time in London before, the old country has not always been so welcoming.

In the early 1990s, while she was there for a conference, colleagues remember returning late one night to the club where she and other New Zealanders were staying, and wanting to have a nightcap.

As they approached the only bar open, a scandalised local pointed to a sign saying, "Gentlemen Only", and asked Goddard if she could read.

"Yes, I can. How quaint," she replied, and breezed in with the others to get their drinks.

In the next couple of weeks, she will return to England to head a huge inquiry into child-sexual abuse that will last for years, and has no end in sight.

Even its interim report is not due until the end of 2018.

Goddard, 66, says in a rare interview that she has stopped thinking, "what have I done?" Now she just wants to get on with the job.

After the death of Savile in 2011, hundreds of abuse complaints were made against him. The scale of his crimes drew attention to many other complaints and how they were dealt with - including the alleged coverup of organised child sex abuse by politicians.

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The British Government set up the inquiry to listen to survivors of abuse and look at the way state and non-state institutions dealt with child abuse and exploitation, and whether current child protection systems were appropriate.

Two attempts were made last year to find someone to chair the mammoth inquiry, and both nominees stood aside in the face of claims that they could be seen as having links to people or institutions the inquiry would cover.

The search for a new inquiry head spread to the Commonwealth, about 150 potential candidates were identified, and late last year Goddard was asked if she was interested.

She has since had interviews, meetings, been vetted, and faced a high-level security check.

Goddard says she thought hard before accepting the job. "It is very important work the inquiry is doing, challenging and difficult, but the thought of having to relocate and be so exposed was very offputting - to have the focus on me personally.

"I think there is a huge duty to do something like this. I think you have to say yes, at the end of the day.

"One of the most positive things about my appointment is that it reflects well on New Zealand and on the New Zealand judiciary."

Even as she prepares to leave New Zealand, more claims of police coverups of allegations against prominent figures have emerged.

A panel of four will help her shape and supervise the inquiry, which will be based in London but will also work from other centres. Planning alone may take months.

It is not the first time she has lived there. Married at 20 to an Englishman, she says she was "incredibly homesick" even though she loved England. She came back to New Zealand for what was supposed to be a visit with her baby. She never returned to the marriage, but stayed good friends with her former husband.

She had studied law for two years before marrying, but says she was not really serious about it.

As a young solo mum, she returned to study in earnest.

She did the "hard yakka" of legal-aid defence work in what was then the Magistrates Court, and progressed to more serious cases. Later she was deputy solicitor-general overseeing Crown prosecutions.

Nearly 20 years ago, she was made a High Court judge and left as the longest-serving still in office. For five of those years she chaired the Independent Police Conduct Authority.

One of the major inquiries she headed during that period was into the police handling of child-abuse investigations in Wairarapa.

It expanded to the wider Wellington region and then nationally, making extensive recommendations to improve police practices, policies and procedures.

In the late 1980s, she was counsel assisting the Cartwright inquiry into cervical cancer treatment at National Women's Hospital.

That was a single-issue inquiry. The one she is to head in England has many aspects. Planning and giving it shape will be the most difficult part, she says.

"We have to try to get it into a manageable shape. It's in everybody's interests that this is progressed."

It will also have its own glossary of terms. There are some words and phrases that need defining and some that need avoiding.

The aim of "truth and reconciliation" is likely to be replaced by "truth and justice", because some survivors say reconciliation is not possible, given what happened to them.

And abuse from years ago will not be "historic". "I accept survivors' views that these are not historical matters, because they live with them every day. This is not just pieces of history," she says.

"Very close engagement with the survivors is to be central to the inquiry . . . after all, it is about them."

 - The Dominion Post

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