Violence issues must be aired

Child abuse and family violence usually happen in the shadows.

Such abuse does not happen in a vacuum, but the silence and secrets around it foster an environment in which criminal behaviour breeds. Only by speaking out - and being properly listened to and heard - is it possible to learn about the problem and act on it.

It is for those reasons that millionaire philanthropist Sir Owen Glenn's inquiry into family violence is so significant - and why the issues now threatening to derail it cannot be ignored.

The $2 million Glenn Inquiry was launched by Sir Owen last year and aimed to produce a blueprint to tackle New Zealand's shameful record of child abuse and domestic violence. It is a major undertaking in an area in which there have been rafts of reports written, but little in the way of evidence on which to base public policy. The inquiry set-up is substantial, involving dozens of experts and other notables.

Dame Catherine Tizard is patron, the inquiry is governed by a board comprising Sir Owen and five others, chaired by former Supreme Court judge Bill Wilson QC, there is a panel to hear from child and domestic violence survivors, perpetrators and front-line workers, and a 25-member think-tank comprising New Zealand and international experts and ''creative thinkers'' to assist the panel, a secretariat, and PR and communications staff.

The credibility of the inquiry has been in tatters since the resignations of founding director Ruth Herbert and operations director Jessica Trask in May. There were reports of a relationship breakdown between Sir Owen and Ms Herbert, and concerns have also been cited about the collection and safekeeping of information from family violence survivors, and the subsequent safety of those disclosing information.

More than a dozen inquiry members have now resigned. The weekend's revelations of a historic physical abuse charge against Sir Owen raised further questions of credibility. Sir Owen reportedly entered a plea of no contest - neither admitting nor denying - after he was charged with physical abusing a young woman in Hawaii in 2002. The charge was dismissed in 2004.

Sir Owen denies the allegation and says he regrets not taking the matter to court, but decided after two years of dispute to resolve the case to avoid further ''horrendous court costs'' and to end the matter. In the wake of the reports he withdrew his bid to be a campaign ambassador for White Ribbon, the organisation which encourages men to end violence towards women.

University of Otago senior social work lecturer and inquiry think-tank member Dr Nicola Atwool has told this newspaper she was concerned someone was ''hellbent on derailing the process'' and the reports had shifted the focus from what was important, which was the prevalence of family violence.

It is certainly concerning if the inquiry is in jeopardy. But it is vital the controversies threatening it are dealt with openly if it is to maintain its integrity. The charge against Sir Owen was related to the issue and as its sole funder he should have been aware - regardless of its outcome - that it was relevant information he should have disclosed. The nature of the inquiry is to solicit information from survivors, perpetrators and workers in the area, to ensure the truth will out, not to sweep issues under the carpet, in order that progress is made.

And the number of resignations cannot be ignored. The concerns around safety for those giving testimony are valid. It is vital privacy and safety mechanisms be in place. That is not sidetracking of the issue. Indeed, the concerns are fundamental to it.

As he has done with White Ribbon, it seems the best thing Sir Owen could do would be to remove himself from the inquiry in the interests of safeguarding its future. He could remain its financial backer but leave its control to a relevant organisation. As Dr Atwool says, the inquiry is ''bigger than the person who put the money up''. In the interests of victims and their families, the inquiry must be allowed to continue - with integrity, transparency, and the utmost care and responsibility - if we are to get any closer to ridding the country of the insidious problem of child abuse and domestic violence.

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