By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's beleaguered national inquiry into child sex abuse, one of its largest and most expensive ever undertaken, has denied it is in crisis after its most senior lawyer became the latest figure to quit.
The multi-million pound inquiry, expected to take some five years to complete, was launched by the government in July 2014 following a series of scandals dating back to the 1970s and allegations of abuse involving celebrities and politicians.
Since then it has suffered numerous setbacks and three figures appointed to lead the investigations have stepped down, the latest being New Zealand High Court Judge Lowell Goddard who resigned in August.
She was replaced by social care expert Alexis Jay who oversaw a 2014 investigation into wrongdoing in the northern English town of Rotherham which revealed some 1,400 children, some as young as 11, had been abused.
In the latest blow, Ben Emmerson, the most senior lawyer appointed to help the inquiry, resigned late on Thursday shortly after he had been suspended because of concerns about "aspects" of his leadership. He quit just hours after another of the inquiry's senior legal team announced she too had resigned.
"It has become clear to me that I am not the person to take this review forward on your behalf," Emmerson said in his resignation letter.
The inquiry, set up by Prime Minister Theresa May in her former role as Home Secretary (interior minister), is to examine abuse at institutions including churches, schools and council bodies across the country and will also consider whether allegations were covered up by police or politicians.
Critics say its scope is too wide, making it impossible to work effectively, while victims, many of whom have waited decades to tell their story, fear the establishment will again cover up the crimes they suffered.
"Honestly this is truly a sad day for victims and survivors of abuse, when we lose one of the world's leading civil rights lawyers," Ian McFadyen, who was abused at school, wrote on Twitter.
May said the inquiry had to go ahead.
"We need to investigate, we need to learn the lessons from the past. If we don't do that we can't guarantee that we're going to be able to stop such abuse from happening in the future," she told BBC TV. "This is a really important inquiry."
The inquiry itself said its work would continue.
"It has been said that the inquiry is in crisis," a statement on its website said. "This is simply not the case, and the Chair and Panel are united in their determination to see this important work through to a conclusion."
(Editing by Stephen Addison)