Child sex abuse is epidemic in Britain, affecting millions of victims, and those who work with young people should be prosecuted if they fail to report it, a seven-year public inquiry concluded on Thursday.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) said institutions and politicians had prioritised reputations over the welfare of young people, meaning horrific acts were hidden away for decades, while there were still inadequate protection measures in place.

The inquiry, one of the largest and most expensive investigations of its kind ever undertaken in Britain, said the issue was a global crisis, where children would be at risk unless urgent action was taken.

"The nature and scale of the abuse we encountered was shocking and deeply disturbing," its chair Alexis Jay, a social care expert, told reporters. "This is not just a historical aberration which happened decades ago, it is an ever-increasing problem and a national epidemic."

The inquiry was set up in July 2014 following a series of shocking abuse scandals, some of which dated back decades, with the most notable involving the late BBC television star Jimmy Savile. After his death in 2011, he was revealed to be one of Britain's most prolific sex offenders.

The inquiry has published 15 investigations and dozens of other reports, cataloguing details of appalling abuse at institutions including the Catholic Church, the Church of England, and Britain's political hub in Westminster.

REPUTATIONS PRIORITISED

The investigations found the rich and well-connected had been treated differently to those who were poor, with "the prioritisation of reputation over the needs and safety of children".

"Deference was often shown to people of prominence including councillors, MPs (members of parliament) and leading clergy by those whose job it was to investigate allegations," Jay said. "Even when they tried to investigate thoroughly, they were often told by their superiors to back off."

The inquiry heard from 725 witnesses during 325 hearings which began in Feb. 2017, processing nearly 2.5 million pages of evidence. More than 6,000 victims and survivors of abuse also related their experiences to the inquiry's 'Truth Project'.

Jay said the abuse involved children, babies and toddlers often carried out by someone they knew and trusted, and accompanied by extreme violence and acts of sadism, causing agonising physical pain.

"It is vile and degrading and its consequences are frequently life-long for the victims," she said.

The inquiry said a 2019 crime survey indicated there were 3.1 million victims and survivors of abuse in England and Wales, or about 7.5% of the population aged 18 to 75.

Jay said in any group of 200 children, 10 boys and more than 30 girls would be victims before the age of 16. Statistics showed the age of victims was getting younger, with a 45% rise in offences against those aged under four in recent years.

Even while it was carrying out its investigations, the scale of online abuse had risen dramatically, the inquiry said.

It made 20 recommendations, with three key measures; a new law making it compulsory for certain people working with children to report abuse or face criminal action; the creation of a Child Protection Authority; and a redress scheme to provide financial help for survivors of abuse.

The government said it would respond to the inquiry’s report within six months, and was committed its work "is translated into action".

Lawyers who represented victims involved in the inquiry welcomed its findings, but said the recommendations did not go far enough.

"We will fight to strengthen these proposals as they go through parliament, so that future generations of children can secure the comprehensive protection they need," Richard Scorer, Head of Abuse Law at Slater & Gordon.