'Daunting' British child abuse inquiry to take five years: Chair

LONDON (REUTERS) - A major British inquiry into decades of child abuse and the possible role of powerful figures in covering it up is likely to last around five years, its head said on Thursday, warning that no one would be immune from scrutiny.

Britain has been rocked by a series of child sex abuse scandals dating back to the 1970s involving celebrities and politicians. Various institutions have been accused of failing to follow up abuse allegations and, in some cases, of actively covering them up.

They include high-profile cases such as BBC presenter Jimmy Savile, who abused hundreds of victims for decades, and accusations about former lawmaker Cyril Smith. Both men are now dead.

The government ordered the independent inquiry last July but it has been delayed after the first two chairwomen appointed by interior minister Theresa May had to quit before starting because of their links to figures connected to the allegations.

"The task ahead is daunting. The sexual abuse of children over successive generations has left permanent scars, not only on the victims themselves, but on society as a whole," inquiry chair, New Zealand High Court judge Lowell Goddard, said at its formal launch.

Goddard said the inquiry would be comprehensive, inclusive and thorough, adding that too many individuals and institutions had been "sheltered from accountability".

The inquiry will provide an opportunity to expose past failures to protect children and confront those responsible, Goddard said. "We must travel from the corridors of power in Westminster to children's homes in the poorest parts of the country."

"AMBITIOUS"

Goddard said the government had given the "largest and most ambitious public inquiry ever established in England and Wales"a budget of 17.9 million pounds (S$37.1 million) for the coming year.

She said she expected to complete the inquiry by the end of 2020, but would publish annual reports from next year including findings and recommendations.

The inquiry can compel witnesses to give evidence and has already written to more than 240 institutions warning them not to destroy records which may be needed.

"No one, no matter how apparently powerful, will be allowed to obstruct our enquiries into institutional failings and no one will have immunity from scrutiny by virtue of their position,"said Goddard. "We have the tools we need to get the truth and we will not hesitate to use them."