Researcher: Dr Ros Burnett


When untrue claims of child sexual abuse are made, the damage to the accused and their families is severe and can be lifelong, even when the accused is not charged or is acquitted. In our study on ‘The Impact of Being Wrongly Accused of Abuse in Occupations of Trust’ (Hoyle, Speechley, Burnett 2016; Burnett, Hoyle, Speechley, 2017), the majority of participants mentioned biased treatment by the police. Investigations of alleged non-recent sexual abuse are particularly challenging for the police when evidence is limited to conflicting verbal statements, and given the inherent tension between policies requiring them to ‘believe the victim’ but also to include lines of inquiry that point away from the guilt of the accused.

‘Operation Gullane’ was a four-year inquiry managed by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) into complaints by five innocent suspects about their treatment during Operation Aldgate’s investigation into historical institutional child abuse. It upheld 31 of their complaints (25 fully and 6 partly) and concluded with ‘Advice and Guidance for Future Historical Institutional Child Abuse Investigations’ (IPCC, 2009). The issues it raised resonate with problems arising in subsequent policing operations. This project will analyse the extent to which the findings and recommendations of Operation Gullane relating to innocent suspects are reflected in current guidance for investigating alleged non-recent child abuse. On completion of the preliminary analysis a Research Note will be sent to a) complainants (against the police) and investigators who were involved in the Gullane inquiry, and b) police and prosecution leaders and experts on investigation of reported non-recent child abuse/sexual offences, inviting them to comment on the preliminary findings and to share their insights via written responses to a questionnaire. Their responses will inform the Final Report to be made available online. The goal of the research is to contribute to understanding and development of investigation guidance that fully allows for the possibility that an accused person is innocent. Recent scrutiny being given to failures of disclosure, and to the policy of ‘believing the victim’, make this research particularly timely.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (lOPC, formerly the IPCC) has agreed to my use of the unpublished 10-volume Operation Gullane report, subject to approval by the University’s research ethics committee and my undertaking to anonymise parties named in the report. The research has been reviewed and approved by the Social Sciences and Humanities Inter-Divisional Research Ethics Committee, University of Oxford (Reference number: R57306/RE001).