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Inquiry finds victims of sexual abuse at County Durham school faced 'frustrating' and 'hostile' justice system

Stanhope Castle Approved School, County Durham Credit: ITV News

Survivors of sexual abuse at Stanhope Castle Approved School in County Durham faced a "baffling, frustrating, hostile and futile" legal process when seeking compensation, according to a major national inquiry.

The report, published by the Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual (IICSA), heard from 40 witnesses during 15 days of public hearings.

Allegations of child abuse made to Durham Constabulary in 1999 were "not properly investigated" and no prosecutions arose "out of the physical or sexual abuse at Stanhope Castle", the report concludes.

Middlesbrough Council are also criticised for their handling of compensation claims by victims of abuse.

The Council, which became liable for Stanhope Castle after the abolition of Cleveland County Council in 1996, received 33 civil claims relating to physical and sexual abuse at the school, which closed in 1981.

The report criticises the council's failure to settle these claims and its reliance on limitation periods - a time limit within which claims have to be made - as a defence against victim's claims for compensation.

"It was always open to the Council to settle the claims", the report says. "Not doing so is even more difficult to understand given that, on the evidence available to us, the Council had the means to pay."

The report also says the Council's attitude "compares poorly" with that of other councils.

IICSA is investigating allegations against local authorities, religious organisations, the armed forces and public figures.

The report focuses on the aftermath of child sexual abuse, including compensation schemes and support services.

For victims and survivors of child sexual abuse, the suffering does not stop when the abuse ends. In our investigation we found that the criminal and civil court proceedings for redress can be frustrating, hostile and ultimately futile.

Many are left retraumatised and deeply unsatisfied with the often lengthy and confusing litigation. Equally concerning is the lack of clear signposting for the compensation and support which survivors could be entitled to.

The Panel and I hope this report and its recommendations can help make seeking redress a less complex and distressing process for extremely vulnerable people.

– Professor Alexis Jay OBE, Chair of the Inquiry

Stanhope Castle was one of five 'case' studies examined as part of the investigation.

The school, in Weardale, housed boys as young as nine, many of whom had committed minor offences or couldn't be looked after by their parents. It opened during the Second World War.

The inquiry's full public hearings, which consists of 14 separate investigations, are expected to last until 2020.

The inquiry has already published an interim report, making 14 recommendations, concluding that responsibilities to child abuse "deflected responsibility away from perpetuators and institutions."

"The Council will carefully consider the Inquiry’s findings and recommendations and will respond to any issues relevant to Middlesbrough Council in due course.

The Council has always maintained that its inherited liability position in relation to Stanhope Castle School differs considerably from those of other local authorities considered by the Inquiry.

The Council does not seek to avoid liability for claims made against it - every claim is investigated as fully as possible and legal advice sought as to whether the Council has a legal liability to pay compensation.

That advice is based on the outcome of those investigations and the appropriate legal tests and the claim managed through the correct legal process.

Where the council is advised that it has a legal liability to compensate individuals it deals with these matters as quickly and sensitively as possible. We will of course continue to support and show compassion for the victims of child sexual abuse."

– Middlesbrough Council spokesperson

"We have cooperated fully with the inquiry and take on board the comments and learning points.

“Over recent years, significant improvements have been made to the way non-recent abuse allegations are investigated, and the force remains wholeheartedly committed to supporting survivors of abuse.

“The force has provided a written apology to the victim who disclosed abuse allegations to us in 1999 for our investigative failings at that time. The police investigation into abuse of those who attended Stanhope Castle Approved School is ongoing, with officers continuing to work with those who have reported abuse.

“We would like to reassure the public that we take all allegations of abuse of this nature, both present and non-recent, extremely seriously. We would urge all victims and survivors of abuse to come forward and speak to us. “It does not matter when the abuse happened or who your abuser was – what is important is that you get the help and support you need and that any perpetrators are investigated and brought to justice.

“Call us on 101, or 999 if you are in immediate danger. You can also contact the IICSA direct as part of the Truth Project at www.truthproject.org.uk

– Durham Constabulary spokesperson