ACAL: The Association of Child Abuse Lawyers
(for comment on ACAL and Shieldfield, click
AT FIVE O'CLOCK in the afternoon of Saturday 30 November 1991, Ian Jack was sitting at the editor’s desk in the offices of the Independent on Sunday. The paper’s deadline – the time it had to be sent electronically to its various print sites – was 5.30pm, though often this was stretched to 6pm. Most of the paper had already been cleared for publication but just after 5pm a proof of the front page was brought to Jack’s office.
The page included stories about Aids, about Winston Silcott, who had successfully appealed after being wrongly convicted of the murder of PC Keith Blakelock, and about a man who intended to walk into his local supermarket on Sunday morning and steal the cheapest item he could find. According to the man, who was seeking to launch a mass-protest against Sunday trading, ‘it was no crime to take goods from a shop that should not be open’.
But on this particular Saturday it was another story which had provided the paper with its main lead. And it was this that caused Jack most concern. The story was spread across all eight columns of the front page beneath the headline ‘ new child abuse scandal’. It continued inside the paper where it occupied the whole of page three.
As an experienced journalist who had consolidated his already excellent reputation by his work on the ‘Death on the Rock’ scandal, and who had subsequently become editor of the Independent on Sunday, Jack was used to handling powerful stories. But the claims contained in the edition of the paper which was just about to go to press were among the most disturbing he had ever published.
He had already checked the main story as it appeared on page three and passed it for publication. The outline was clear. As a result of a tip-off and an investigation carried out mostly by a young freelance journalist, Dean Nelson, the paper had uncovered an extraordinary saga of sexual and physical abuse in children’s homes in North Wales. The new revelations, coming as they did a mere forty-eight hours after the Leicestershire care worker Frank Beck had been given five life sentences for sexually abusing those in his care, could scarcely have been better timed. The Beck case had itself been described as Britain’s biggest-ever child abuse case. But, according to the front-page story whose proofs Jack was now checking, those with intimate knowledge of the allegations in North Wales believed that an even bigger scandal was waiting to be uncovered.
At the heart of this new scandal lay events which were alleged to have taken place at Bryn Estyn, a former approved school situated just outside Wrexham which had been closed on financial grounds in 1984. The story revealed that in October 1990 a senior care worker, Stephen Norris, had pleaded guilty to sexually abusing boys in another Clwyd children’s home. Norris had once worked at Bryn Estyn. Two other former members of staff had also been convicted of sexual offences. Although neither of these offences related to the home, and although one related to adolescent girls, the fear had been expressed that Bryn Estyn might have been the centre of a paedophile ring. As a result the social services department had called in the police who, in August 1991, launched a major investigation into the home.
At this point the police inquiry was still in its early stages. What gave the paper’s story its edge was the fact that the journalist Dean Nelson appeared to be much further advanced with his investigation than the police were with theirs. Indeed, the front-page report, which Jack was now checking, opened with a fierce attack on the police for allegedly failing to interview key witnesses, and deterring others from making complaints through their heavy-handed methods. Particular prominence was given to the views of Dennis Parry, the Labour leader of Clwyd County Council, who said ‘we are fighting a machine trying to cover things up’. Parry went on to accuse the North Wales Police explicitly ‘of mounting a cover-up to conceal the failure of senior officers and social services executives to reveal the extent of abuse in the children’s homes’.
In view of the fact that the story focused not only on a sexual abuse scandal but also on an apparent cover-up by the police, the picture which was printed in the centre of the front page was perhaps not as remarkable as it might otherwise have seemed. It was a snatched photograph of the deputy head of Bryn Estyn, which appeared over a one-line caption: ‘Peter Howarth, who is alleged to have sexually assaulted boys’.
It was unusual for any newspaper to print a photograph of an innocent man who had not even been interviewed by the police, while simultaneously alleging that he was a paedophile. But Jack appears to have been confident that his journalists had produced enough evidence to enable the paper to defend a libel action, in the unlikely event of one being brought. Inside the paper, on page three, Howarth was not even referred to as an ‘alleged’ sex offender. The story began with a simple and straightforward claim that he was a paedophile:
The story went on to present what seemed to Jack irrefutable evidence of Howarth’s guilt. In the first place Steven and Paul, who were both now grown men with children, each made explicit allegations that Peter Howarth had indecently assaulted them. What was perhaps even more impressive, however, was that their allegations were supported by a former care worker who claimed that she had herself received complaints of sexual abuse during the time she had worked at Bryn Estyn:
The article then made a series of general allegations against Bryn Estyn, which was implicitly portrayed as a den of sexual iniquity where staff regularly and openly showed pornographic videos to the boys. It went on to make a clutch of further allegations against the Tŷ’r Felin Assessment Centre in Bangor, Gwynedd – and in particular against its officer-in-charge, Nefyn Dodd.
Dodd had himself worked at Bryn Estyn as a housemaster until 1978 and was described in the article as ‘a protégé of Peter Howarth’. Like Howarth, Dodd was an innocent man who had not been charged with any offence. He too, however, was now portrayed in the article as a child abuser. Although some of the complaints cited in the article had a sexual dimension, implying that Dodd was a voyeur who kept hard-core pornography, most concerned physical abuse. Ryan Tanner [NOT HIS REAL NAME], for example, who, as a boy, had been in care both at Tŷ’r Felin and at Bryn Estyn, claimed that he had been physically assaulted by Dodd, who had used his stomach to pin him against the wall. Once again what was impressive about these allegations, and what seemed to place them beyond question, was that they were backed up by the same care worker who said she had received the early allegations against Peter Howarth – Alison Taylor.
Taylor had worked as Nefyn Dodd’s deputy. In 1980, according to the main page-three article, she had rescued a young boy from a savage beating in an office at Tŷ’r Felin: ‘The boy, Lewis Harper, now settled with children, was dragged into the office because he had run away to his mother’s. “I managed to drag Lewis away and throw him out of the office. But Dodd was screaming at him to get down on his knees and lick his shoes and kiss his feet,” she said.’
The allegations against Dodd were by no means as serious as those against Howarth, but they were clearly sufficient to destroy his entire career. From the evidence which was actually presented in the article, moreover, it appeared that these allegations were well-founded. What troubled Ian Jack as he read through the front-page story was not the treatment of these two principal characters. It was a new allegation which did not appear anywhere in the main report: ‘According to former residents at Bryn Estyn, Supt Gordon Anglesea, a former senior North Wales Police officer, was a regular visitor there. He recently retired suddenly without explanation. Another serving officer has been accused of assaulting a child at Tŷ’r Felin.’
Ian Jack recalls that when he read this part of the article ‘I don’t exaggerate when I say that the sentence naming Anglesea flashed a warning like a beacon. Its implication was clearly libellous. Did we have evidence to substantiate it?’ Jack now talked to the senior staff journalist under whose aegis the story had been written. ‘[He] said that I was not to worry, because “we’ve got tons of gear on this guy”, or a phrase like this, and the story had been “squared” (or a word like this) with the lawyer. In other words, the paper had in its possession information (statements, documents, whatever) which would substantiate the implication.’
Jack was not the only senior journalist who was concerned about this part of the story. His deputy editor, Peter Wilby, also had anxieties about the reference to Anglesea. Since the police officer, who had supposedly retired suddenly and in mysterious circumstances, played such a minor role, Wilby could not accept that it was wise to name him. To do so, he felt, was to take an unnecessary risk.
In the event, however, the enthusiasm of those who had worked on the story triumphed over the caution of their editors. Ian Jack accepted the assurances he was given and, as the clock ticked on towards six, he gave the go-ahead for the paper’s copy to be sent electronically to its print sites. At the various printers the electronic data would rapidly be transferred to film, and from film the printing plates would be made. Some two hours after Jack had taken his fateful decision, the presses would begin to roll. They would continue until more than a quarter of a million copies of the paper had been printed. A bleak and disturbing story, which ended by noting that Clwyd County Council ‘will look sympathetically on claims for compensation from those who suffered abuse’, was about to find its way from a newspaper office in London into the larger world.
At eight o’clock that Saturday evening one thing seemed certain. By the end of the next day the reputation of three men, and of the two care homes in North Wales with which they had been associated, would be utterly and irretrievably destroyed.
© Richard Webster, 2005