LONDON – The head of a government-commissioned inquiry into allegations that British public institutions failed to protect children from sexual abuse in the 1980s resigned on Monday, less than a week after being appointed.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s government had launched the investigation in haste after a flurry of accusations that the political establishment had systematically covered up child abuse by a number of well-known politicians.
But the appointment of 80-year-old retired judge Elizabeth Butler-Sloss proved contentious.
Critics said she was too close to the establishment she was supposed to be investigating as her late brother had been the British government’s top lawyer at the time of the allegations, and she herself is a member of the upper house of parliament. Her decision-making in a previous inquiry into the handling of child abuse cases in the Church of England has also come under scrutiny.
“It has become apparent over the last few days . . . that there is a widespread perception, particularly among victim and survivor groups, that I am not the right person to chair the inquiry,” Butler-Sloss, 80, said in a statement announcing her resignation.
“It has also become clear to me that I did not sufficiently consider whether my background and the fact my brother had been Attorney General would cause difficulties.”
The latest abuse claims have unsettled the current political elite at a time when Britain is grappling with revelations that several nationally beloved television personalities sexually abused children for decades, and threaten to further erode already fragile public trust in politicians.
The inquiry will investigate to what extent public bodies, including the BBC and religious authorities, neglected their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse in the 1980s.
Yvette Cooper, the opposition Labour Party’s spokeswoman for home affairs, said the government had been too slow to respond to the original abuse allegations, and then not given proper consideration to Butler-Sloss’s appointment.
“The government’s response to the very serious allegations over child abuse is in danger of losing direction,” she said.
A spokesman for Cameron said Butler-Sloss had decided to resign on her own initiative. Home Secretary Theresa May said she was “deeply saddened” by the decision, but respected and understood it.
Alison Millar, a lawyer at the London law firm Leigh Day, which is representing people who say they were victims of assault in institutions linked to the inquiry, welcomed the news.
“This was the only sensible decision to ensure that survivors and the public could feel confident that the inquiry was not going to be jeopardized by accusations of bias,” she said in a statement.