Policy Papers

The uses of historical research in child abuse inquiries

Gordon Lynch, Pirjo Markkola, Eoin O’Sullivan, Johanna Sköld and Shurlee Swain |

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Executive Summary

  • Inquiry teams investigating non-recent child abuse can benefit from thinking at the outset about the role that historical research will play in their work, including its use in relation to evidence provided by survivors of abuse and the implications of any resource limitations for the kind of historical research they can support.
  • Historical research has previously been used by a number of Inquiries to understand the legal, policy and organisational contexts in which reported incidents of non-recent abuse took place. Such contextual work can attempt to interpret ‘standards of the day’ against which past treatment of children can be judged, although this is a complex task requiring careful explanation of available source material.
  • Although less commonly used in previous Inquiries, there is also significant potential to draw on archival research to develop more fine-grained understandings of how organizational systems and cultures failed to protect children from abuse or led to inadequate responses to known cases of abuse.
  • Child abuse Inquiries concerned with non-recent abuse should also be understood as forms of public history. Attention should be paid to questions about how their longer-term legacy in shaping public understanding can best be achieved and how their work might constitute a form of archive for re-use by others in the future.

Note: this paper uses the term ‘non-recent’ rather than ‘historic’ child abuse in recognition of the fact that whilst incidents of abuse may have occurred in the past, the effects of this abuse can be on-going.


Over the past twenty years, there has been a significant international growth in the number of public Inquiries focusing on cases of non-recent child abuse. These have included broad investigations into child abuse in particular periods of national or regional history or in specific institutional contexts. A common emphasis in such Inquiries is to identify recommendations for future action in response to non-recent abuse including, in some cases, recommendations relating to public apologies or other forms of redress. Alongside this, such Inquiries also often have a secondary (and sometimes more implicit) aim of providing authoritative understandings of the nature, context and effects of past abuse. Given this, it is unsurprising that historical research has played an important role in many previous Inquiries and is likely to do so for others in the future as well.

The aim of this paper is to draw on experiences of past Inquiries to examine both how historical research has been used in them and what lessons might be learned from this. The authors of this paper have a range of experience of undertaking historical research in relation to child abuse Inquiries in six different countries, in roles including working for an Inquiry secretariat, undertaking extended expert witness work, providing commissioned research and, in one case, serving as the director of a national child abuse Inquiry in Finland which followed the comparatively unusual model of an Inquiry run by academic historians. Broad issues to be considered in this paper include tensions between historical research and other roles of Inquiries, the value of using historical research both to contextualize past abuse and analyse organizational systems, and the need to think about child abuse Inquiries as forms of public history.

Competing aims of Inquiries

A common concern of previous Inquiries into non-recent child abuse is to provide recommendations for future steps needed to ensure that such abuse is less likely to occur in the future and that appropriate institutional responses are made when cases of abuse do take place. Proposals are also often made for forms of redress for survivors of past abuse whether material (through financial compensation, better access to records or provision of services) or symbolic (through public apologies or other forms of memorialization).

These efforts typically take place in contexts in which there has been little success in prosecuting cases of non-recent abuse through the criminal justice system or through civil litigation. In part such failures have arisen because of difficulties in meeting thresholds of evidence for successful criminal conviction. The considerable length of time that can often elapse between non-recent incidents of abuse and survivors’ disclosures of these has also posed difficulties, sometimes in the form of the death of perpetrators before legal action could be taken against them, or claims that perpetrators are no longer in a fit mental state to face prosecution. Statutes of limitation have also often prevented civil litigation in relation to non-recent abuse, as have difficulties (in some countries) of pursuing claims against some organisations such as the Catholic Religious Congregations and Dioceses – organisations whose internal structures may make it difficult to establish a legally appropriate defendant. Child abuse Inquiries, and other related investigations, have also provided evidence of historic cases in which police and public prosecutors sought to avoid prosecutions in cases of sexual offences against children, in order to avoid harm to the public reputation of particular individuals and organisations.

In the absence of proper legal remedies for non-recent abuse, many Inquiries have been either explicitly established or implicitly understood as an alternative means of restitution. An important aspect of this has typically been for Inquiries to create a process through which survivors of abuse can feel that past suffering has received proper public acknowledgment. Inquiries have not therefore usually sought to subject survivors’ written and oral evidence concerning non-recent abuse to the kind of legal cross-examination normally associated with criminal or civil cases. Rather than making definitive judgments of fact about individual claims about abuse, Inquiries have tended to treat survivors’ evidence of abuse as material informing their understanding of the past whilst emphasizing the importance of survivors providing their testimonies in an environment in which they feel believed.

This emphasis on Inquiries as processes of public recognition of survivors’ trauma can, however, come into tension with their aim of providing authoritative understandings of the wider nature and context of non-recent abuse. Although witness testimonies can be invaluable in providing new ways of interpreting archival records, archival research can also sometimes offer perspectives on the context or process of institutional abuses which do not always accord with witnesses’ perceptions or recollections. Given the limited time that Inquiries may have to hear evidence in public, tensions can also arise between the time allocated to hearing survivors’ accounts of their abuse, evidence from organizational witnesses, and the presentation of findings from archival research. No easy prescription exists for managing these tensions. However, an awareness of these tensions may help Inquiry staff in trying to manage the expectations of different stakeholders about the aims and process of their investigation from the outset, and enable them to reflect on the relative importance that archival research might have given their Inquiry’s specific aims.

The positive roles of archival research

Despite these tensions, historical research has played an important role in supporting the work of a number of previous Inquiries. A common way in which this happened is through the use of historical research as a means of understanding non-recent child abuse in its legal, policy and organizational contexts. It is sometimes claimed – including by some organisations defensive about their institutional histories – that non-recent child abuse should be understood primarily in the context of a ‘darker past’ in which attitudes to child-care were less enlightened and the treatment of children more harsh. Whilst such claims may appeal to the assumption that societies move progressively towards greater recognition of the rights and needs of their citizens, including vulnerable children, they obscure more complex historical realities. It is known that non-recent abuse often contravened past legal and policy frameworks and well-established understandings of good childcare practice. Examples of such contextual research include historical overviews of criminal legal provision in relation to the sexual and physical abuse of children, studies of past policy frameworks for children’s care and overviews of the administrative and organizational structures through which children’s care was delivered.

Such contextual knowledge can be important for Inquiries in a number of different ways. Insufficient contextual knowledge of the histories of child-care systems risks Inquiries being given remits which exclude groups of victims whose part of the care system, or place within it, is not understood. Such contextual research also plays an important role for informing Inquiries’ understandings of ‘standards of the day’ relevant to the period in which incidents of abuse took place. At a broader level, this understanding of ‘standards of the day’ can relate to broader policy, professional or public expectations about what broadly constituted appropriate forms of childcare (e.g. the turn, in many countries, from institutionalized care to forms of care modelled more on the ‘normal’ family home during earlier decades of the twentieth century). It can also inform more specific understandings of what forms of treatment of children could reasonably have been understood as abusive or damaging in the past – an issue which can have particular significance for Inquiries’ recommendations in relation to future forms of redress. However, it can also be challenging to use historical sources to establish what might have been popularly understood as appropriate forms of discipline or corporal punishment in the past. In this context, attention to key legal measures, statutory regulations or policy documents can prove important in establishing what would reasonably have been expected to constitute good or bad practice, rather than it being possible to establish how widespread different forms of corporal punishment were in a society during a particular period of time. Historical research can also demonstrate the complexity of the concept of the ‘normal’ treatment of children in the past, showing how in particular contexts a divergence between recommended standards and actual practices may have become normalised.

In some cases, such contextual research has been undertaken using only existing secondary literature. Whilst this may have the advantage of enabling the production of relatively quick and potentially less expensive reports, there can be significant advantages to undertaking primary research of archival sources for such contextual research. In part, this is because there may be significant gaps within existing secondary literature, and in part because such primary research has the potential to develop more nuanced understandings of the variations, disagreements or extent of understanding of standards of good practice in the past.

Whilst some Inquiries have only used historical research for contextual purposes, others have recognized that primary archival research can have a valuable role to play in developing more detailed analyses of the organizational contexts in which non-recent abuse took place. Whilst such abuse occurred in specific inter-personal events involving the perpetrator(s) and survivor, these events were also situated in social and organizational contexts. Organisational ideologies, policies, structures, practices and resources have a bearing on the ways in which children were made vulnerable to abuse, subjected to inadequate systems of care and oversight or had their experiences of abuse responded to in ways that silenced them or gave rise to further trauma. Close reading of archival material has played an important role in clarifying both how and why organisations failed to maintain appropriate standards of the day for reasons of ideology, resource or conflicting organizational priorities and what knowledge organisations had of abuse at the time and how they responded to this. Such research also has the potential to establish the extent to which, whilst organisations claimed to adhere to historic standards of the day, they failed to achieve this in practice. In the context of systems of child-care which often involved relationships between multiple bodies, including various government and voluntary organisations, such research can also establish how diverse organizational interests and patterns of inter-agency communication may have operated in ways that were harmful to children.

Such closer analytic approaches to archival research remain less common in child abuse Inquiries. The time involved in undertaking such research, including locating, copying and analyzing relevant materials, often from multiple archives, can be considerable. Although academic researchers may be able to leverage more resources from their employing institutions to undertake such work at a time in which ‘impact’ plays an increasingly important role for research funding, such research can nevertheless involve greater resource demands on Inquiries.

Despite this, such research has considerable value. Whilst the public recognition of survivors’ accounts of non-recent abuse is a central part of the work of most Inquiries, a focus on such testimony alone can allow organisations implicated in non-recent abuse to make responses expressing broad regret for past suffering whilst acknowledging little about the specific institutional conditions which gave rise to this. By using primary archival research to understand the organizational dynamics which may have created conditions for abuse and neglect, as well as the failure to detect and respond appropriately to it, it is easier to establish the specific forms of an organisation’s failures. Such knowledge can both inform recommendations made about specific forms of redress to be made by individual organisations as well as identifying problematic patterns in organizational culture and structure which may persist today. It can also – if met with a willingness to reflect openly on these failings – reshape organisations’ own understanding of their past. Given that many organisations implicated in non-recent abuse might otherwise present accounts of their past which emphasise the goodness of their institutional mission, such knowledge can play a useful role in promoting more nuanced perspectives.

Inquiries often operate with exceptional powers to facilitate such research. Although the legal basis on which they are established varies between countries, it is often the case that Inquiries have powers to compel the release of archival materials for analysis from any individual or organisation. This provides Inquiries with far greater powers of access to archival material than are available to academic researchers. Much relevant material bearing on non-recent child abuse is held, for example, in the archives of voluntary organisations who have the right to refuse researchers access to that material without any right of appeal and despite researcher exemptions within the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which make access to such material permissible. Inquiries therefore represent exceptional opportunities to scrutinize difficult to access archives – archives which, in a number of cases, often remain closed to external users after Inquiries have concluded their work.

Non-recent child abuse Inquiries as forms of public history

Child abuse Inquiries often constitute important forms of public history. Inquiries such as the Ryan Commission in Ireland and the Australian Royal Commission have played a significant role in shaping public understanding of the past, not only in their own countries but for wider international audiences as well. The extent to which such Inquiries can benefit or harm such understanding inevitably reflects the extent and quality of the historical research on which their work is based. Nevertheless, the level and extent of coverage of media coverage of such Inquiries extends far beyond most other forms of public histories of childhood. Although media attention at times focuses on the immediate accounts of abuse provided by witnesses, coverage is usually also given to Inquiry conclusions which identify more systemic organizational failings and the ways in which these might reflect broader failings in a nation’s past.

There are, however, also limits to such communication through broadcast, print and online media. News coverage of Inquiry findings inevitably concentrates on a small number of key points. Whilst helping to shape broad public understanding of the histories that have been investigated, only a limited amount of historical detail can be explained through this process. The inherent difficulties in communicating the volume of information presented in public hearings or Inquiry reports sometimes creates potential for organisations criticized by Inquiries to express broad regret for past failings without specifically addressing historical findings which have a bearing on their current structures, culture and self-presentation. In some cases organisations may even make responses which perpetuate inaccurate impressions about their past. At the recent Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, for example, one voluntary organization involved in overseas child migration work which had operated largely outside governmental structures subsequently offered a very short apology in response to the Inquiry’s generally critical report, expressing regret for its involvement in supporting ‘government initiatives’.

Finding solutions to this can be difficult given the numerous pressures on Inquiries’ time and resources, but there is scope for Inquiry teams to think both about how historical knowledge generated through their work might be communicated to public audiences other than through news coverage, and how the legacy of such communication might be maintained after final Inquiry reports have been submitted. Such legacy issues may not always seem an obvious priority to Inquiries that function as time-limited, one-off events intended to provide findings and recommendations to a specific commissioning body. However, in a digital age, Inquiries have opportunities for maintaining a public presence – and in enabling broad public access to their work – long after the period of the Inquiry’s work has ended. Whilst such initiatives can involve the creation of physical centres, such as the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada, the creation of online resources has particular potential for wider dissemination of material and the pooling of material generated by individual Inquiries. Other examples of digital projects arising from child abuse Inquiries include the Find and Connect online project in Australia, as well as online oral history projects and efforts to digitize and improve access to public archives.

In addition to thinking about how digital technologies might be used to make the historical findings of Inquiries available to wider audiences, legacy issues also include how Inquiries archive their work for future use by other stakeholders. There are a number of ways in which material collated by Inquiries has been re-used, including by survivors and advocacy groups, historians and by other subsequent Inquiries with overlapping remits or interests. Whilst Inquiries – particularly those operating on a national scale – face significant challenges in managing the large volume of material they receive, there are some specific ways in which the accessibility of material can be improved. Some Inquiries have taken the important step of digitizing and making archival material relevant to their findings publicly available on their websites. However, these are often uploaded in list formats with no tagging or categorization which might help to establish the broad nature of their content, requiring users to open each document individually to find out their potential relevance. Whilst difficult questions can arise about how much material to make available in this way, the selective publication of single pages of archive files can make it difficult to establish their context. The use of codes from records management systems as the identifier for each individual document or page of archival material – and subsequent use of these codes in footnoted or end-noted references in Inquiry reports – can make it impossible for subsequent users to locate that archival source if no further information is given about the archive and file from which it was taken. More generally, Inquiries rarely identify the specific archives which have been examined during their investigations, which files from those archives have been reviewed or what the method was through which those files were analysed. When made available, such information can make a substantial difference for the re-use of material gathered by Inquiries, as well as making stakeholders aware of specific archives whose existence or location might otherwise not be easily found in the public domain.

These may seem unimportant priorities bearing in mind Inquiries’ primary aims, but given that historical enquiry is an ongoing rather than one-off process, it is better served by presenting archival material in ways that make it easier to locate and subject to fresh analysis. Issues of the storage and access to material collected by Inquiries have also, in practice, often become matters of debate amongst a wide range of stakeholders. Whilst earlier Inquiries often applied a general policy of anonymizing all witnesses providing accounts of their abuse, some survivors have subsequently complained that this can have the effect of re-silencing them. Although more recent Inquiries have tended to give survivors giving public evidence the choice about whether to remain anonymous or not, unexpected challenges can still arise. The introduction of new data protection legislation can, for example, change requirements for Inquiries’ data storage systems and access part-way through an Inquiry’s work – such as the national Inquiry in Finland whose plan to store audio files of interviews with survivors of abuse in a repository as an oral history resource became impossible to implement with the introduction of the GDPR. The archiving of material from Inquiries can also become a matter of wider public controversy. In Ireland, for example, there has been criticism by a range of different stakeholders of the decision to subject material gathered by the Ryan Commission – and other Inquiries – to a 75-year embargo period. Whilst this may be appropriate for personal testimony provided anonymously by witnesses that was not made available through public hearings, such embargoes also have the potential to make some archival documents less open for public access than they might have been had the Inquiry not taken place. In such circumstances, Inquiries may have the paradoxical effect of impeding the development of ongoing understanding of non-recent abuse by making some source material impossible to access for long periods of time. Far from being a simple technical matter of the storage and presentation of data, the idea of the Inquiry as an archive is becoming a far wider issue of public debate.


The ideas that have been presented in this paper about the relationship between historical research and Inquiries into non-recent abuse have tended to assume a constructive relationship between Inquiries’ aims and methods and historians’ professional and ethical commitments. This may not always be the case, however. Whilst Inquiries may be established and conducted with the hope of providing better understanding and responses to abuse, some may also be established for other reasons, including attempts to contain criticisms of particular institutions or reduce a government’s liability to claims pursued against it through civil litigation. In some cases, historians have judged that Inquiry working methods are too limited in scope or provide inadequate levels of critical scrutiny. In response, they have undertaken research parallel to the work of an Inquiry in an effort to expand an Inquiry’s focus or to try to bring to an Inquiry’s attention relevant material which it would otherwise not consider. Even if such research does not succeed in changing the work of an Inquiry, the collation of oral histories from survivors and archival research which examines the policy contexts and organizational systems in which abuse took place, can provide an alternative sources of public knowledge through which an Inquiry’s work can be critiqued.

Child abuse Inquiries, like any form of public policy intervention, are limited by time and resource, and have effects which, however constructive their recommendations, may only ever be partially realized. Forms of redress which follow in their wake are similarly always imperfect in their scope and achievements, and often experienced in varying ways by survivors. Whilst it is important to maintain a critical awareness of potential limitations in Inquiries’ aims and methods, they can also represent important opportunities for bringing greater public attention to difficult national and organizational histories. Child abuse Inquiries will be better placed to serve these ends if careful thought is given to how historical research can aid these processes, and historians will be better placed to support this if they continue to reflect on how to undertake and present their research in ways that are relevant to Inquiries’ aims.


Issues explored in this paper were discussed at a preparatory workshop run in conjunction with History and Policy at King’s College, London, on 9th September 2019, made possible through funding from a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council Leadership Fellows Award (PI, Gordon Lynch; award reference AH/R001766/1). We are very grateful to the participants for their contributions to this.

Further Reading

Johanna Sköld and Shurlee Swain (eds.), Apologies and the Legacy of Abuse of Children in ‘Care’: International Perspectives (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015)

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