Abuse lawyer pledges to stand up to power – and give a voice to ‘people who have had horrific experiences’

The lawyer investigating the alleged cover-up of child abuse on St Helena has promised to look into “everyone from the governor down.”

Sasha Wass QC told island journalists: “I am quite prepared to draw unpopular conclusions and stand up to people, whoever they are.”

But she also said she wanted to hear the testimony – in the strictest confidence – of “people who have had horrific experiences”, no matter how far back in time.

“If someone says, “I was abused 50 years ago,’ it’s never too late for that type of allegation to be taken seriously,” she said. “That allegation might initiate a criminal investigation.”

Ms Wass and her panel – including a solicitor and child safeguard experts – held a press conference in their temporary office at Number 3, Main Street, within hours of arriving on the island on Tuesday, 17 March 2015.

She began by saying that she had 34 years’ experience of dealing with serious sexual abuse, in which victims of prominent people had been frightened to come forward, thinking they would not be believed.

“My belief is that perpetrators who are important – celebrities, well known, respected – contrary to their own opinion of themselves do not hold a position which is above the law. Those people will be brought to justice, they will be prosecuted, and can be convicted.”

She successfully prosecuted the TV personality Rolf Harris on sex charges. He went to prison.

Mike Olsson, editor of the St Helena Independent, pointed out that the inquiry team had been given an office directly across the street from the police station – despite the fact that Ms Wass had been commissioned to investigate police corruption and incompetence.

“You are in clear view of the entire police office,” he said. “They have talked to every officer before your arrival. Everybody will know who comes to see you.”

Ms Wass said: “It’s a very good point.

“We have a letter box. If somebody doesn’t want to be seen coming in they can drop a letter round at any time of the day or night. Nobody is too much trouble. If they want to meet us at a location which is discreet, we will do that.”

Later, she said: “We particularly want to hear from people who feel they have not been dealt with properly by any aspect of St Helena, whether it’s the law, the medical establishment or social services.

“If there are people who have made complaints… and have not been treated properly by the establishment, whether it’s the police, the courts, anybody within the establishment, we want to investigate that and why that has happened, because that should not happen.”

She added: “Our interest is equally for the victims and those who have failed in their duty.”

Part of the inquiry’s task was to give victims a voice, she said.

Mike Olsson also asked who she considered to be the head of the police service – a reference to allegations made by the social workers whose whistle-blowing triggered the Wass inquiry. In their evidence to an employment tribunal, they said that Governor Mark Capes exercised complete power over the island.

Ms Wass replied: “At the moment Trevor Botting is the chief of police but during the time allegations were made there were different heads. We are going to be looking at him and his predecessor.”

Mr Olsson then asked: “And the governor?”

She replied: “He appoints them. We are looking at all of these matters. We are looking at everyone from the governor downwards.”

Mr Olsson then pointed out that an information pack about the inquiry included a message from the governor, despite the fact that his office was under scrutiny. “He is running with the hare and hunting with the hounds,” he said.

Ms Wass replied: “The governor is not running this inquiry, all right? He is entitled to express himself. I can’t stop him. It’s our inquiry and nobody else is running it.”

At another point in the 25-minute press conference, she said: “I am not employed by any government. I am an independent barrister who has had to criticise important people, who has had to defend people who are unpopular. I am quite prepared to draw unpopular conclusions and stand up to people whoever they are. Okay? I can’t say more than that.”

The investigation was already well under way before the team left the UK, she said.

“We have been given thousands and thousands of documents to read; hundreds of emails, all of which I have read. I have managed to interview people in the United Kingdom already.

“And some brave people have come forward to give us their accounts. We want as many people as possible to come forward.

“A lot of people have already emailed us and we are very encouraged by that.”

Interviews would be conducted on tape to ensure the record was correct, she said, but confidentiality would be respected, even if it meant witnesses could only be referred to as “a man, or a woman”.

Ms Wass hoped to present a report to Parliament in September 2015 – but that deadline could slip if witnesses came forward at the 11th hour. “You can never give anyone a final deadline. Often people don’t get enough confidence until very late in the day.

“We won’t simply ignore that to meet a deadline.”

Allegations of crime will be passed to the police to investigate, she said. The inquiry team had no powers to prosecute, but it would “pressurise” to make sure cases were properly dealt with.

The final document will be made public, unlike the 2013 Lucy Faithfull Foundation report into alleged abuse, of which only a three-page summary was published.

“The last thing we want is for anybody to feel let down, because we are fully aware that people have felt let down by the leaking of the Lucy Faithfull report,” said Ms Wass.

She also said: “We would like you all to know we are here for the benefit of St Helena, for the island itself.

“There have been articles indicating that practices in St Helena are horrific, and a dark cloud has really hung over this island since many of those articles have hit the press.

“We have come here to investigate whether there is any truth in what is said.

“We come from a country that has been riddled with scandals about the way victims of sexual assault have been treated. The suggestion that has been made is that St Helena somehow has much higher incidences of abusing children.

“We want to know whether that is with foundation, whether that can be evidenced, or whether it is just a smear. We can only do that by talking to the people themselves.”

The people of St Helena deserved to have the doubts answered once and for all, she said.

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