Throughout the western world child abuse on an almost industrial scale scars the 20th century. It is inter-connected as children were shipped around the world with careless abandon. Allegations against Catholic religious orders began in Ireland, which led to a damning report by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the Ryan Report) that named the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Charity as not only guilty but aware of the extent of the abuse in their children’s homes. Sinead Ring, reflecting on the outcome of the inquiry, explained that there is a difference between a report and legal process where there must be proof. She made the telling point that those who provided oral testimony wanted to contribute the painful memory of their own abuse to become part of an archive that would provide a permanent record of what had occurred, in the same way as the Shoah archive of the holocaust. Despite the scandal and the pledges of the Irish government, little or nothing has been done to take action on the report, for example by improving record keeping. The commitment to erect a monument in Dublin alongside those of the heroes of the Easter Rising has not been fulfilled.
England and Wales came late to the table and only in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal. A wide ranging Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) was set up in 2015 under the Inquiries Act of 2005. Under section 35 of the Act it is a criminal offence to destroy records pertinent to an inquiry. With the experience of other inquiries, as Julia Jones explained, collection of evidence and oral testimony and its secure storage is paramount. She outlined a copybook model for the management of such sensitive information under the glare of publicity in the public domain. Her thorough approach to the collection and secure storage of a huge volume of records – the inquiry receives 90,000 documents every day – cannot but earn the respect and trust of victims and the admiration of records professionals. She ended with a plea for much better records management in social welfare, scrutinized by the accountable officer and, by implication, the whole of the public sector.
Together both speakers raised the important question of the long-term retention of case records that records managers and archivist need urgently to debate. We have only exceptionally kept them in the past, but in the wake of what would seem to be systemic abuse, not just of children but all those in care, it is what society expects. It will come at a substantial cost.