Britain’s inquiry into historical child sex abuse, dogged by problems since it was launched three years ago and leading to the resignation of three chairmen, finally began holding its first public hearings on Monday.
The inquiry, one of its largest and most expensive ever undertaken, was set up in July 2014 by now-Prime Minister Theresa May in her former role as interior minister after a series of shocking abuse scandals dating back decades, some involving celebrities and politicians.
It is expected to take some five years to complete.
In a number of cases, victims said institutions had actively covered up cases at the behest of powerful establishment figures including senior lawmakers, spies and police officers.
“This is an important day for the work of the inquiry,” chairman Alexis Jay said. “Today marks … the opening of the first public hearing in which the inquiry will hear live and read evidence from complainants.”
On Monday, the inquiry began hearing evidence about those who suffered sexual abuse resulting from British child migration programmes in which thousands of youngsters, many in state care, were sent out to former colonies such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
In 2010, then British prime minister Gordon Brown apologised for the “shameful” policy which operated between 1930 and 1970 and led to an estimated 130,000 children being sent abroad from orphanages and other institutions, often without their parents knowledge.
The multi-million pound inquiry has been riven by setbacks since it began in the aftermath of 2012 revelations that the late former BBC TV presenter Jimmy Savile was one of Britain’s most prolific sex abusers.
The first three figures appointed to lead the investigations stepped down, the latest being New Zealand High Court Judge Lowell Goddard who resigned last August. The following month, its most senior lawyer also quit.
The current chairman is social care expert Jay, who oversaw a 2014 investigation into wrongdoing in the northern English town of Rotherham which revealed some 1,400 children had been abused.
The inquiry will examine abuse at institutions including churches, schools and council bodies across Britain and will also consider whether allegations were covered up by police or politicians.
Critics say its scope is too wide, making it impossible to work effectively, while victims, many of whom have waited decades to tell their story, fear that the crimes they suffered will again be covered up by the establishment.