28 October 2005
11 January 2006
SINCE THIS REBUTTAL WAS POSTED here Richard Scorer has revised his review of The Secret of Bryn Estyn. As might be anticipated, his revisions do not go as far as I would like, but I am grateful to him for taking note of what I had written and for taking the trouble to make some substantial changes. It is, I believe, a sign of real progress that we now have on the ACAL website an acknowledgment that Peter Howarth's conviction was unsafe.
This particular concession is hedged round with all kinds of reservations. But this is not so in the case of another acknowledgment which appears for the first time on the ACAL website - namely Richard Scorer's recognition that justice was done in the Shieldifield libel trial and his implict acknowledgment that Chris Lillie and Dawn Reed were innocent victims of false allegations. This, I think, represents real progress and I very much hope that it will continue.
Richard Scorer's revised review can be read by clicking here. My rebuttal, of course, refers to the original version of the review and, apart from one or two very minor changes (and a substantial note on the revised review which will be found at the foot of this page) I have left it as it was. I hope that in due course I will be able to make one or two more changes and that hostilities will eventually cease altogether.
It may well be that Richard Scorer's willingness to acknowledge the reality and seriousness of false allegations has been influenced by the fact that he is the solicitor who has been dealing with the claims for compensation which are currently being brought by a number of young adults who, as children, were caught up in the Rochdale satanic abuse case and who were removed from their parents as a direct consequence of these allegations. The BBC1 television documentary about this case was broadcast on Wednesday 11 January at 9pm. For an article about the programme, click here.
9 January 2006
10 September 2007
This rebuttal has been revised. Note to follow.
‘Unbalanced and misleading’
ONE OF THE MOST interesting developments in the saga of reviews (both appearing and non-appearing) of The Secret of Bryn Estyn took place in August of this year with the publication of a piece by the solicitor Richard Scorer.
Scorer is one of the leading figures among lawyers who have taken a special interest in retrospective allegations of abuse made in relation to children’s homes. He represented nineteen of the complainants at the North Wales Tribunal and has also acted in a number of related cases. Active as a personal injury lawyer on other fronts as well, his most prominent recent role was as solicitor to Malcolm New, the former British Army soldier in Northern Ireland. Earlier this year New successfully sued the Ministry of Defence for £620,000 after arguing that they had failed to identify and treat his post traumatic stress disorder.
Scorer's review of The Secret of Bryn Estyn appeared on 17 August on the website of ACAL, the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers. It begins with a summary of the book's main thesis: ‘Webster's argument is that the North Wales scandal started with the framing of an innocent care worker, Peter Howarth, and became a witch-hunt of historic proportions in which many innocent men and women were falsely accused of child abuse.’ In deference to other reviewers, Scorer even bestows limited praise: ‘This is, indeed, an extremely detailed and lengthy book, very well written and in parts, very cogently argued.’ But, no sooner have these words been penned than the tone of the review changes. 'However,’ writes Scorer, I would put a very stark health warning on the front of the book. This is a very unbalanced book, and Webster is economical with the facts when it suits him to be.’
The review then develops the argument at some length before delivering its final verdict, namely that The Secret of Bryn Estyn is ‘unbalanced and misleading’.
The central charge which Scorer attempts to press home is that, although I make what seems to be ‘an irrefutable case for Howarth’s innocence’ this is ‘only achieved by economy with the facts’. ‘Most readers of this book,’ writes Scorer, ‘will be unfamiliar with the finer details of the North Wales saga and will be unaware, therefore, that Webster has excluded or downplayed information which contradicts his case.’
Coming as it does from a lawyer who attended large parts of the North Wales Tribunal and who can lay claim to being in possession of inside information, this charge is potentially a damaging one. Scorer goes on to set out the evidence of three witnesses he represented at the Tribunal all of whom made allegations about Howarth after he had been convicted in 1994.
The three witnesses Scorer now brings forward are L, who made an allegation of indecent assault against Howarth, C, who claimed that as he was passing Howarth’s chair with a tray of food, Howarth pulled his pyjama bottoms down, and G, who told the Tribunal that on one occasion, when he had walked into Howarth’s flat unannounced, he saw a boy jumping off Howarth’s lap and pulling his clothes back on.
Having cited three witnesses whose evidence, he implies, was unchallenged at the Tribunal, and which would, if true, completely destroy the case made in my book, Scorer suggests that, by failing to set this evidence before the reader, I am guilty of what amounts to an exercise in deception – or, to use his own, rather less explicit term, ‘economy with the facts’. ‘[I]ncredibly,’ he writes, ‘none of this evidence … is mentioned, even in outline, in Webster’s book.’
If the evidence presented in his review was as damning of Howarth as Scorer makes out, the fact that I made no reference to it would indeed have been ‘incredible’.
In reality, however, my strategy in the book was quite deliberate (though not spelled out as perhaps it should have been); of the many allegations made against Howarth I chose to focus on those which seemed to be the strongest. For this reason I gave a great deal of attention to the allegations which featured in his criminal trial which were by definition those which the prosecuting authorities considered to be the most credible.
It is quite true that some of the allegations aired three years later, during the Tribunal, had not even been made at the time of the trial. But I did not deal with Scorer’s three witnesses in my book for the simple reason that their evidence, like that of numerous others who emerged belatedly around the time of the Tribunal, seemed to me to be extremely weak.
Scorer, however, is evidently placing great weight on what these witnesses told the Tribunal. In view of the fact that he brings them forward specifically in order to press home against me a charge of being ‘economical with the facts’ it is interesting that, in presenting their evidence, he appears to make some economies of his own.
Take L, for instance. Scorer gives the impression that L was entirely undamaged under cross-examination at the inquiry. 'Anthony Jennings QC could find nothing to challenge in L’s account', he writes, adding that Jennings 'seemed frustrated at his own lack of a decent line of questioning'.
What Scorer does not see fit to mention is that question-marks had already been placed against L’s tribunal evidence during his initial examination by Counsel to the Tribunal, Gerard Elias QC. At this point it emerged that, in 1992, L had signed a police statement saying that he had never been abused at Bryn Estyn: ‘During my stay at Bryn Estyn I can say I was not physically or sexually abused. I have no complaints to make against the staff’ (NWTT, p. 2552). Now he was telling the Tribunal that his sworn statement was not true.
What Scorer further omits to note was that L’s complaint eventually emerged only in response to publicity about the Tribunal. The specific allegation he then made – namely that Howarth had fondled his genitals over his clothes in a cubicle in the Bryn Estyn dormitory – had not been made by any complainant in Howarth’s criminal trial. Indeed I am not aware that this particular allegation was ever made by any other of the many complainants who eventually made allegations against him. If, as Scorer evidently believes, Howarth was guilty after all, this lack of fit with the allegations made at the trial might itself give rise to doubts about L's evidence.
Although Scorer places great stress on the fact that his client L is now ‘a successful businessman’, L himself referred in his evidence to having been in prison (NWTT, p. 2541).
By omitting these details Scorer manages to present a man whose complaint flatly contradicted his own earlier police statement as a wholly reliable and credible witness.
In the case of the evidence C, the account which Scorer gives is even more questionable.
C claimed that, after Howarth had pulled down his pyjama trousers in front of other boys, he had responded by tipping a tray of food over Howarth’s head. Howarth then vindictively accused him of stealing a golf ball.
Scorer clearly implies that there is contemporaneous documentary support for this allegation, writing that ‘C complained about the incident at the time to his social worker, who recorded it in C’s file’.
But if we read the Tribunal transcript we find that what the social worker actually recorded in the file was that C had been accused of stealing a golf ball and asked to return it. Contrary to the impression given by Scorer, there is no record whatsoever in the social services documents of the key allegation – that Howarth had pulled down the boy’s pyjamas (NWTT, pp. 2631-2).
The third case concerns G, who claimed that he once saw a boy pulling his clothes back on after jumping off Howarth’s lap. In fact this was merely one of a number of claims G made to the Tribunal, some of which were highly implausible. G told the tribunal, for instance, that, 20 years earlier, a member of staff had thrown a leather football at him so hard that it almost broke his nose. He said he was ‘positive’ that this member of staff was Mr Clutton. Once again Scorer presents G as an utterly reliable and objective witness. He omits to mention that, during cross-examination, it emerged that Mr Clutton had left Bryn Estyn in 1974, three years before G had been sent there. It so happened that Mr Clutton had been at Bryn Estyn during the same period as G’s elder brother – who also made a series of complaints to the Tribunal (NWTT, pp. 3261-2).
The material which calls the testimony of these three witnesses into question is buried in the 24,000 pages of the North Wales Tribunal transcript. The one person who should be fully aware of the evidence of these three men is, of course, their solicitor – Richard Scorer.
Given the weakness of the evidence dredged up by Scorer, his charge that I was being deliberately economical with the truth cannot be sustained. Yet it is difficult not to conclude that Scorer has himself been guilty of this sin, and that he has knowingly given an incomplete account of the evidence which he cites.
However, because, unlike Scorer, I do not assume guilt unless the evidence which points to it is overwhelming, I will advance another, more charitable explanation. It seems possible that Richard Scorer, precisely because he was so familiar with his clients’ evidence, failed to go back and check the Tribunal transcript before composing his review, and had actually forgotten the details which he appears deliberately to have suppressed.
If this is the correct explanation then, although it might be entered as a plea of mitigation, it by no means exonerates Scorer. The charge which he makes against me is a very serious one. Sieved out from the various euphemistic references to being ‘economical with the facts’ it is an accusation of dishonesty – of deliberately distorting the evidence in order to portray a man who was probably guilty as the innocent victim of an injustice.
When reviewers make such serious accusations (which, apart from anything else, are defamatory) they have an obligation to exercise the utmost care and to check meticulously the evidence on which they are basing their claims. While there is no evidence that Scorer deliberately distorted the evidence of the witnesses he reports in his review, I can see no way of defending him against the charge that he failed to exercise the kind of care which is necessary in the manner he has presented it. For he allowed an accusation of serious dishonesty to rest upon misleading reports of evidence which he could easily have checked and corrected and which he had an obligation to report accurately.
There are other aspects of Scorer’s review which seem to fall short of the fair dealing one has a right to expect from reviewers. Although he makes a great fanfare about his three witnesses not having been motivated by compensation, I go out of my way in my book to point out that false allegations are made for many reasons other than money. One of the book’s chapters is actually entitled ‘Lying for love’ so Scorer can hardly have failed to notice this. I also make it clear that many of the false allegations made were entirely independent of the social worker Scorer names. Yet Scorer creates the impression that I hold the view that all false allegations are either compensation-driven or the product of a specific form of contamination.
Perhaps more significant still is the manner in which Scorer presents the evidence of G to the effect that he had seen a boy jumping off Howarth’s lap. In the course of claiming that his chosen witnesses cannot have been influenced by money, Scorer writes: ‘G’s evidence about Howarth, of course, could not possibly result in an award of compensation, since he was simply describing what he had seen, not abuse which he had suffered personally.’
Readers of this sentence are likely to conclude that G appeared before the Tribunal purely as a third-party witness of fact and not as somebody who was making complaints that he had himself been abused. In reality, however, as already been noted, G made a whole series of complaints of abuse to the Tribunal, one of which could not possibly have been true. Scorer implies not only that G did not claim compensation in respect of his remarks about Howarth (which he could not) but that he made no claim for compensation at all. It is not clear that this was in fact the case.
One of the most interesting of the points which Scorer raises in his review concerns the meeting which was called by the head of Bryn Estyn, Matt Arnold, during the late 1970s. Scorer’s account of this meeting is based on the evidence of a single witness who gave evidence to the Tribunal. The relevant passage from the review reads as follows:
Who knows what other inconvenient details have been left out of the picture? As I read through this book I noticed other instances where Webster has omitted details which undermine his case. For example, he states that Howarth’s flat list “had never given rise to any allegation while Bryn Estyn was open”. However, the Tribunal heard evidence from a secretary who worked at Bryn Estyn in 1978-79 and recalled a staff meeting at which the Principal, Mr Arnold, told staff that there were “rumours circulating with regard to Howarth and some of the boys and they must be stopped straightaway. Anybody circulating more rumours or discussing the matter would be dismissed instantly”. The Tribunal concluded (pp 76-77 of the Report) that Arnold had held “a protective umbrella over Howarth with the result that the latter was able to persist in his course of abuse whilst adverse comment on the flat list was suppressed”. Whilst it may be technically correct to say that there was no specific “allegation” against Howarth at this time, Webster has omitted to mention that the Tribunal heard evidence that such allegations were prohibited under threat of dismissal. Only the reader who has the time to study the Tribunal report in conjunction with this book – not many, I suspect – would notice the point. In a book which purports to dissect the Howarth affair to a level almost approaching that of a criminal trial, the exclusion of contrary evidence must render Webster’s arguments unsafe and unsatisfactory.
If Scorer’s account of the meeting he describes was accurate, and if it was indeed the case that ‘allegations were prohibited under the threat of dismissal’, my failure to include this information would be grave indeed. Yet even the Tribunal report, which Scorer purports to quote, does not make this claim. The report makes it reasonably clear, as did the secretary who gave evidence to the Tribunal, that the target of Arnold’s strictures was not allegations made on the basis of some evidence, but rumours and gossip: ‘Arnold said that Howarth was taking a special interest in some of the boys but that there was nothing in the rumours and that they could obviously lead to other rumours going round’ (Lost in Care, p. 770). Even the claim that repetition of such rumours would lead to ‘dismissal’ formed no part of the secretary’s original evidence; when she had given a statement to the police in 1992 she had referred, more plausibly, to ‘disciplinary action’.
In fact, the rumours in question had their origin in gossip and name-calling among some of the boys. As I write in my book:
It is perhaps significant that, even though Howarth often placed himself in a position where he was vulnerable to false allegations, not a single allegation was ever made during his time at Bryn Estyn. What undoubtedly did happen was that the invisibility of Howarth’s sex life served to fuel speculation that he might be homosexual. Such speculation is frequent in institutions like Bryn Estyn. Boys who have become the favourites of a particular member of staff may find themselves teased by others whose envy frequently takes the form of imputations of homosexuality. Those who spent time with Howarth were often referred to as ‘spongers’ or ‘bum boys’ and Howarth himself was aware of this. In the 1970s and early 1980s, however, it was much easier to disregard such name-calling than it would be today. Such gossip notwithstanding, there was, in the view of those who worked at the school, no reason to believe that Howarth was guilty of such abuse (p. 116)
It would appear that what had happened in the late 1970s is that some members of staff had begun to re-cycle such gossip and that Arnold had called a meeting in order to point out – in no uncertain terms – that circulating baseless gossip of this kind about a colleague was grossly irresponsible. This certainly was the version of events given to me in 1996 by the former matron of Bryn Estyn, Isabel Williams.
It was this (unattributed) version of events which was put by Howarth’s counsel to the secretary who gave evidence to the Tribunal:
ANTHONY JENNINGS: Was it the case that Mr. Arnold was pointing out that it was very bad for the running of any institution for this sort of circulation of unfounded rumour to be going about?
MRS T: I am just trying to think of his exact terminology, which is difficult to remember so long ago. He possibly did say that. I can’t recall that he said that (NWTT, p. 2233).
The fact that this meeting took place is not in dispute. The inferences drawn from it by the Tribunal report are, I believe, unwarranted. The fact that Scorer has ratcheted up these inferences in order to make the claim that ‘allegations were prohibited under the threat of dismissal’ – a claim for which he obliquely invokes the Tribunal’s authority – is another instance of the kind of carelessness of which I have already complained.
It is, indeed, difficult to read any part of Scorer’s review without colliding with more instances of the same tendency. Take, for example the strictures he makes against my treatment of Stephen Norris:
Webster’s treatment of the allegations of abuse which nobody, not even FACT, can dispute, may reveal his true views on the subject of child abuse. In a few lines of a 700-page book, Webster mentions that Stephen Norris, who worked at Bryn Estyn as well as being at one stage the officer-in-charge of Cartrefle, pleaded guilty to multiple counts of sexual abuse of children, including buggery of boys at Bryn Estyn. Webster, however, has nothing to say about the implications of these convictions, save to suggest that they created a climate in which it was easier to convict other individuals. He can’t dispute these convictions because Norris pleaded guilty. The admitted fact of buggery of boys in care in North Wales merits only a few lines in a 700 page book purporting to be the true history of – ‘what happened in North Wales’. The buggery of boys by a member of staff – the fact that it could happen, undetected, over a long period - apparently provokes no interest, comment or concern on Webster’s part, other than to complain that it encouraged the police to pursue their investigations further.
It is quite true that I devote very little space to Stephen Norris. There were two main reasons I took the course I did. The first is that my entire book takes as its subject matter not the facts which have been established about North Wales but the claims and versions of history that are still in dispute. Since the reality of Norris’s offences is beyond dispute they are not what my book is principally concerned with. The second reason follows directly from this. The story which is told in The Secret of Bryn Estyn concerns the development of a modern witch hunt and for this reason is focused on false allegations. To do justice to the story of Stephen Norris would, I felt, have taken an entire chapter if not two. I deliberately chose not to take this course because I wanted to keep the readers’ sympathies focused on members of staff who became victims of false allegations.
I therefore chose to introduce the fact of Norris’s conviction at the very outset of the book and then, later, to summarise the cases which were brought against him:
In October 1990, after a police investigation, Stephen Norris, who was the officer-in-charge of the Cartrefle community home in Clwyd, pleaded guilty to five specimen charges of indecent assault against boys in his care. He was sentenced to three and a half years’ imprisonment. For anyone concerned with standards of care in residential homes in North Wales, this development was significant. It demonstrated beyond doubt that the problem of sexual abuse in care homes was a real one and that at least one home in Clwyd had been affected by it (p. 94).
. . . . . .
On 11 November 1993, Stephen Norris, who had been re-arrested in a bail hostel before fully serving his earlier sentence, would plead guilty to three offences of buggery, one of attempted buggery and three indecent assaults involving six Bryn Estyn boys. For Norris’s Bryn Estyn colleagues this was a disturbing development which they regarded as a shocking aberration and as a matter for shame (p. 238).
Scorer’s criticism of my book for failing to give more attention to Norris is, of course, entirely legitimate. What is not legitimate is his inference that my treatment of the allegations against Norris ‘may reveal [Webster’s] true views on the subject of child abuse’. Left as they are in a deliberately veiled and inexplicit form, these words convey their meaning by innuendo rather than directly. If Scorer is intending to suggest that I approve of or condone the sexual abuse of children, then he should say so boldly and clearly. I suspect that the reason he does not is because he knows very well there is not a shred of evidence to support such a claim. Any ordinary reader would presume that I shared the reactions to Norris’s conviction that I attribute to his Bryn Estyn colleagues in the passage quoted above. Lest there should be any doubt about this there are a number of passages in the book which would tend to reinforce this conclusion.
One such passage occurs later in the book when I deal with Greystone Heath, the home in Cheshire where Norris worked before moving to Bryn Estyn. In writing of Greystone Heath I devote almost the same space to the case of Alan Langshaw who, like Norris, was guilty of sexual abuse, as I do to the case of Roy Shuttleworth who, I argue, was wrongly convicted. After recounting how two boys made allegations against Langshaw in 1986 and were disbelieved, I write: ‘If ever proof were needed of the reality of ‘denial’ in sexual abuse cases and of its consequences for vulnerable young people, it may be found in the case of Alan Langshaw’ (p. 466).
There are many more such passages. Here are some of them:
Any suggestion that all the care workers convicted in this way [by police trawling] are innocent would be wholly misleading. It requires only a little knowledge of human nature to recognise that wherever adults and young people are placed together in residential settings – whether in boarding schools, in religious institutions or in families – sexual abuse will sometimes take place. Care homes are no exception to this and some of those who are now in prison are there for no other reason than that they are guilty of the crimes alleged against them (p.4).
Believing, correctly in many cases, that allegations of sexual abuse had too often been disbelieved in the past, many feminists, therapists and social workers began a concerted and necessary fight against such disbelief (p. 84).
Of course there could be no doubt at all that in North Wales, as in every other part of the country, some children had been abused while they were in care. There was some sexual abuse and some physical abuse. It is right that this should be seen as a matter for shame, and that all possible steps should be taken to improve safeguards (p. 458).
There can, or at least there should, be no doubt that child sexual abuse is one of the most serious social problems of our age, and that it is more widespread than many people are prepared to accept (p. 537).
One of the factors … which makes this modern witch-hunt uniquely terrible is that it has claimed, and continues to claim, two sets of victims. For it is not only those who are falsely accused who suffer anguish and misery. Among the other victims are all those who genuinely have been abused. Because of the huge number of false allegations which have been made in the last thirty years, the veracity of almost all allegations of abuse may begin to be called into question. As a result many people who have made truthful complaints of having been abused in children’s homes, of rape, or of incest, may find that they are disbelieved or may fear that they might be. They may feel, in consequence, that they have been robbed of their own integrity and their own history. That, too, is a tragedy and we should not underestimate the distress which such disbelief can cause (p. 551).
Even though he must have read these passages, and even though there is not a shred of evidence which points in the opposite direction, Scorer still contrives to impute to me completely different views from those which I express.
It is the fact that one has repeatedly to encounter comments like Richard Scorer’s, which appear to be bereft of any kind of logic or evidence, that makes the task of arguing for justice in child sexual abuse cases such an onerous one. Those who are interested in miscarriages of justice but who prefer to avoid this kind of unreason would be well-advised to confine their attention to the subject of murder. Authors who write books about innocent people who have been wrongly convicted of this or that killing are never accused, so far as I am aware, of being secret apologists for murder or of condoning cruelty and violence. Yet if you dare to lift your pen in defence of somebody who you believe has been wrongly accused of child sexual abuse then it is precisely this kind of argument which you find yourself having to contend with.
Scorer’s innuendo about my supposed views on child sexual abuse, however, is by no means the last of his misleading arguments. Towards the end of his review he writes this about the solicitor Chris Saltrese:
Bizarrely, Webster even attacks Sir Ronald Waterhouse, the Tribunal Chairman, for ignoring a letter from Saltrese in which Saltrese argued that all his clients were innocent. For some inexplicable reason, Webster thinks that Waterhouse should have suspended the normal rules of the Tribunal simply because Saltrese had written a personal letter to him.
In fact, as Scorer must be aware because it is stated quite clearly in the very passage to which he refers, Saltrese did not write his letter in order to claim that all his clients were innocent. He wrote it to draw attention to the fact that, after sitting for 100 days, the Tribunal had failed to give any attention at all to the problem of police trawling and the possibility that the police officers were inadvertently ‘creating’ the very evidence they were collecting. Since the purpose of the Tribunal was to uncover the truth, and since Sir Ronald Waterhouse was himself responsible for making the rules of the Tribunal he was conducting, my moderate suggestion that he might actually have heeded Saltrese’s letter was an entirely reasonable one.
Yet Scorer’s review is not simply careless or misleading in its handling of crucial details like this. I have left until last the part of his review which is, in my view, by far the most interesting – and the most revealing. This is the passage in which Scorer discusses what he characterises as my ‘emotionalism’:
Webster also displays many of the faults of which he accuses others. For example, he argues that one of the difficulties in dealing with allegations of child abuse is that the horrifying content of many allegations has an emotional impact which makes it difficult to respond objectively or critically to them. I think this is a valid point (although Webster is simply ill-informed if he thinks that lawyers working in this field are unaware of it). However, Webster himself succumbs to emotionalism when describing what he believes is the plight of wrongly convicted care workers. Des Traynor, a care worker from Dyson Hall who was convicted of buggery, is described as a “devoted father of two young daughters”. The “proudest moment” in Terry Hoskin’s career was when “accompanied by his wife Brenda, he attended a garden party at Buckingham Palace”. When Hoskins [sic] was convicted of twenty-one counts of sexual and physical abuse at St Aidan’s, “His wife Brenda, his son Simon, and his daughter Niki were in court to hear the verdict. ‘When Dad was sentenced to eight years’, recalls Niki, now a solicitor, ‘I just screamed’”. Another accused care worker “has a national reputation for the brilliance of his historical reconstructions” of Civil War battles. None of this, whether true or not, has any relevance to the guilt or innocence of the individuals concerned, but it suggests that Webster is emotionally biased in favour of individuals who are accused of child abuse, a response which may blunt his critical faculties and balanced assessment of the evidence.
This is a striking passage which, because of the assumptions which are at work in it, merits careful scrutiny. The first remarkable feature is the ease with which Scorer makes an equation between the emotional response people may have to allegations of the rape or buggery of young people and the very different descriptions I have offered of the character or reactions of some convicted care workers. While the distinctive characteristic of the former is that they include the fear, horror and disgust almost always associated with graphic accounts of child sexual abuse, none of the descriptions Scorer cites from my book evokes similar feelings. To equate the two sets of responses merely because both are ‘emotional’ is rather like claiming that a cold is the same thing as cancer because both are illnesses.
The fact that Scorer can equate two such disparate elements is in itself significant. But what is even more striking is the basis he proposes for the charge of ‘emotionalism’ that he goes on to make against me. Here, my observation that one care worker is the ‘devoted father of two young daughters’ and the description I offer of ‘the proudest moment’ in the life of teacher Terry Hoskin are presented as examples which suggest ‘that Webster is emotionally biased in favour of individuals who are accused of child abuse’. Even my observation that another care worker, Mike Lawson, ‘has a national reputation for the brilliance of his historical reconstructions’ of Civil War battles is similarly invoked as evidence of emotional bias.
Scorer may be right when he says that ‘None of this, whether true or not, has any relevance to the guilt or innocence of the individuals concerned.’ But that, of course, is not the point. These observations are included in my book quite deliberately for one simple reason. They are there to remind us of something we too readily forget: that people who have extreme sexual allegations made against them are human beings.
To include such observations is not to demonstrate emotional bias; it is simply an attempt to insist that fairness and justice should prevail, and that when we assess the evidence against those accused of sexual abuse we should remember that we are dealing with human beings and not monsters. I try to adopt a similar perspective towards those whom I criticise in the book, however severe that criticism may be.
So long as we remember this, it likely that we will maintain our well-established rules of evidence and that justice and fairness will prevail. For the whole purpose of such rules is to recognise the human rights of those who are accused of crimes and to safeguard the interests of innocent people who are wrongly accused. But once we strip people of their ordinary humanity there is a tendency to start dismantling these rules and progressively lowering the standard of proof until almost any evidence, however unreliable, is considered sufficient to convict. This is what happened when witchcraft was defined as crimen exceptum in the sixteenth century and, as I suggest in my book, it is exactly what has been happening to the crime of child sexual abuse in the last twenty or thirty years.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Richard Scorer’s review is that we can see something very similar to this process at work within what he actually writes. The evidence which Scorer cites in relation to Peter Howarth would not be sufficient even to charge him with a crime, let alone to bring in a verdict of guilt. But Scorer seems more than happy to rely on the evidence he presents in order to argue that Peter Howarth was ‘really’ guilty.
He is able to do this partly, perhaps, because he has succeeded in convincing himself by his own careless - or negligent - presentation of the evidence in question. But he also seems to believe that to treat those who are accused as human beings is in itself immoral or wrong. From the comments he makes about ‘emotionalism’ it would appear that he either refuses, or is psychologically unable, to extend to those who are accused of child sexual abuse the basic sympathy which is a prerequisite both of ordinary humanity and of justice.
The conduct that can result from this kind of approach is encountered so frequently in child abuse investigations that its occurrence can no longer be regarded as a coincidence or an aberration. What so often happens is that the refusal (or inability) to treat those who are accused as human beings leads to an irrational conviction that they are guilty, which in turn creates the need for those in the grip of this conviction to be less than scrupulous in their handling of the evidence. For where real evidence of a crime does not exist, it is only if the evidence is presented in a manner that conceals its weakness or its unreliability that guilt can be successfully urged or a conviction obtained. A careless, negligent, or - in the case of the Shieldfield nursery case - directly dishonest attitude towards the evidence thus tends to be almost a normal feature of cases where false allegations of sexual abuse are ‘successfully’ made.
Richard Scorer’s review of my book and his presentation of evidence to ‘prove’ that Peter Howarth was guilty after all appears to be but the latest example of this pattern of conduct, of which there are all too many examples in the book itself.
If what was at issue was no more than the literary standing of a book I had written, then Scorer’s review would scarcely merit a reply, let alone this lengthy rebuttal.
But there is far more at stake here than the mere matter of my literary reputation. I wrote The Secret of Bryn Estyn because, almost ten years ago, I stumbled by accident into the greatest series of miscarriages of justice there has been in this country since the days of the original witch-hunts. As those who have read the book know, it is the story of a complex scandal which eventually spread from North Wales to the entire country. As an indirect result of a series of events in North Wales, and of many broader historical currents, thousands of innocent care workers have been wrongly accused of sexual crimes which never took place, and many – perhaps as many as a hundred – have been wrongly imprisoned.
The Secret of Bryn Estyn is not simply another book. It is an extended cry for justice uttered on behalf of those whose voices will never be heard because they are in prison, serving sentences for crimes they have not committed. It is not simply an emotional cry. It is a rational, urgent cry based on a mountain of documentation and evidence.
It is this cry for justice, already heeded by a number of reviewers, which Richard Scorer has now attempted to stifle. He has done so by writing a review which is based on a tiny amount of evidence rescued from his own clients’ files or from his own unreliable memory. So weak is this evidence that, for it to serve the ends to which he seeks to put it, it was almost a necessity that it should have been handled carelessly and that he recklessly failed to check it against the transcripts of the North Wales Tribunal which would have been readily available to him.
The review which results, written as it is by a lawyer who represented many complainants at the North Wales Tribunal, and who has evidently made a series of misjudgments about the North Wales story, is both shallow and misleading. In that Scorer attempts to vindicate his own judgment at the expense of people whose innocence the book pleads, yet whose cases he declines to consider in any detail, it is also self-serving.
It is a review which will bring comfort to all those who have made false allegations in the past but which can offer only an illusory reassurance to those who genuinely are victims of abuse.
Most tragically of all, Scorer’s review illustrates how seemingly rational and intelligent professionals allow themselves to be drawn into witch-hunts and will sometimes, even when the evidence of their misjudgment is placed before them, contrive to find a way of sealing their eyes against it so that they may persist in their folly.
The only way in which I can draw some consolation from what Scorer writes is by reflecting that it illustrates starkly and disturbingly the need there was for the book which it attacks. In that respect I find myself wondering, momentarily at least, whether even Richard Scorer does not deserve some gratitude.
He would be more likely to receive it, however, if he could bring himself to acknowledge that the people against whom his clients make accusations of sexual abuse (for which they often receive, as a result of his efforts, large sums of money) are human beings.
He might then be able to recognise, belatedly and for the first time, that some at least of those from whose presumed guilt he has derived a significant part of his professional livelihood, are entirely innocent.
In the circumstances, it does not seem a lot to ask.
The only problem is whether somebody capable of the unscrupulousness which Scorer shows in his review, has the nobility and strength of character to acknowledge that he has made a series of misjudgments.
Time will tell.
28 October 2005
NOTE - A REVIEW REVISED
11 January 2005
Time is already beginning to tell and I am pleased to say that, as was noted at the outset of this article, Richard Scorer's review has now been revised in the light of my objections to it. To read the revised version, click here.
I am not, at this point at least, going to attempt to answer in full all the new arguments which Richard Scorer advances. But I must make three points.
The first concerns what he says about the Soham murders and Ian Huntley. That this issue should be raised is understandable. But it seems necessary to point out that there was a huge difference between the case of Huntley and the case of Howarth. Perhaps the most significant difference is that, so far as I can understand, the various complaints which were made about Huntley before he committed his murders were all made spontaneously and were completely independent of one another. They were also made contemporaneously. Under the sound logic of the original similar fact principle (on which see The Secret of Bryn Estyn passim) there was every reason why these multiple independent complaints should have been treated with the utmost seriousness. However, none of the complaints about Howarth was made contemporaneously. None was made spontaneously and, in that all were products of journalistic or police trawling operations, none was made independently. By the time the first complaint was made (some eight years after the events alleged) Howarth had retired and was living on his own in a flat in Wrexham where he had no contact with young people. He was not considered to be a threat to anyone and this was reflected in the decision to grant him bail even after he was charged. Huntley in contrast applied for and was given a post in a primary school where he was constantly in contact with young children and to which he would never have been appointed had proper records been kept and proper vetting procedures followed. The two cases could not be more different.
The second point concerns the one-sided and misleading manner in which Scorer reported the evidence of his three Tribunal witnesses in the original version of his review. While he appears to concede this point in his revised review he underplays the extent to which he had misrepresented the evidence. At one point he writes that 'G was mistaken about the name of a staff member in another part of his evidence
to the Tribunal'. This is not the point that I made in my rebuttal. What I drew attention to is the fact that G had made an accusation of physical assault against a named member of staff who had been working at Bryn Estyn during the period his elder brother had been at the home but who had left by the time G arrived (and whose name, therefore, would probably not have been known to him). When the point was put to him in cross-examination he was adamant that he had got the right name. Of course it could be that he had simply misremembered it. But it could also be the case that he had fabricated an allegation and attached it to a man whose name had been supplied by his brother. This possibility is one that Richard Scorer is notably shy about acknowledging.
The third point concerns the fact that I focused in my book on the allegations which featured in Howarth's trial (or had been made before this trial) and did not deal with the new allegations which appeared after his conviction. I have already conceded that I should have spelled out more clearly the rationale for my omission. But I must point out here that Richard Scorer's claim that 'the omission is not explained, or even mentioned, except in passing in an
Afterword at the end of the book' is misleading. In the first place, in one of the chapters about the Tribunal, I do say quite clearly that one of the reasons that Howarth needed proper legal representation (which he was nearly denied) was that 'he faced a large number of allegations in addition to those on which he had been convicted' (p. 432).
It is also, I think, misleading to say that my reference to this point in the Afterword is made only 'in passing'. The Afterword, which consists simply of three pages, is, in fact, one of the most important sections in the entire book. It begins by describing how I made a journey to North Wales specifically in order to obtain permission to reproduce an account of a conversation which had taken place between Liz Evans, who had worked at Bryn Estyn as a child care officer, and a former resident of Bryn Estyn who had recognised her in a supermarket queue. This chance encounter took place in February 2000, just a few days after the report of the North Wales Tribunal had been published and after massive publicity about the 'horrors' of Bryn Estyn had appeared in all the national newspapers. Liz Evans, who still works for social services, recognised that the conversation she had with John Davis (not his real name) was extremely significant and she almost immediately wrote up an account of it. As I write: 'Her account was so important, and seemed to sum up the entire story so well, that I felt it should be quoted verbatim as the Afterword to this book' (p.578).
Since it bears directly on the central criticism of my book in the revised version of Richard Scorer's article, I reproduce Liz Evans's account again here:
Recording of a conversation with John Davis on 22 February 2000 at 1.15 pm
Whilst I was in the queue at Somerfields supermarket in X, I recognised a person in the next queue but was not sure of his name. I noticed that he recognised me too and he came over to me whilst I was at the kiosk and said, ‘Liz’ and reminded me he was John (Davis, a resident of Bryn Estyn in the early 1980s when I worked there as a Residential Child Care Officer). He asked me how I was and he said he’d like to talk to me outside and would wait for me to finish in the queue. When I went out he was on his mobile phone and called me over and invited me to sit in his car as I was obviously cold. I got into a top of the range Land Cruiser.
John told me how he had ‘jumped on the bandwagon’ and said he had received £91,000 compensation and still had to go for a further medical before the last instalment would be released. He said he had alleged that he’d had ‘the arse shagged off me’ and ‘as we didn’t jump on the bandwagon until later it was easy because so many statements had been made and people convicted’. When I asked who he meant by ‘we’, he said Jack O’Neill, ‘but that Jack O’Neill had actually been abused elsewhere’. He said that John Smith Solicitor had dealt with everything for him as he had all his life.
He wanted to know how I was and Rob Jones and Dave Birch in particular and said if there was anything he could do to help he would. I said it was obviously very difficult for Dave Birch as he was one of the 28 named [wrongly] in the press as a risk to children and he again asked me to let him know if he could do anything in support. He said he thought we had been really good to him at Bryn Estyn and Birch in particular … He said he hadn’t believed what Dave Birch had been accused of in court and he thought Bryn Estyn had been a great place. He said it was ‘doing his head in’ reading about it in the papers and none of it appeared the same as his memories. He said I must be finding it difficult as some people think all who worked there were perverts and all the boys, had been ‘shagged rotten’. He didn’t want everyone thinking that about him. He said he thought ‘they’ll destroy you in work’, and if there’s anything he can do to help he will.
I asked him if he’d seen the Lost in Care report and said that if it would help he could come and see the office copy. He said he didn’t want people seeing him come into our offices and I said if he phoned my direct line I could meet him and take him straightaway into one of the rooms which are also used by housing and the registrar. He wanted my home phone number but I told him how, obviously, I was very wary of people and their motives these days and would only give him my work number. I told him he could phone anytime as he said it helped to talk to someone who knew the truth.
He went on to ask if I thought all the abuse alleged against Peter Howarth had occurred. He said he didn’t think so and how everyone used to fight to get on the flat list but he was never allowed. I said I thought that was because he was so naughty and he agreed …
He gave me his mobile phone number and asked me to give it to Dave Birch and tell him to phone him to see if he could help.
When I said I needed to go as I’d only popped out for two minutes to get my lunch he said, ‘Yes you’d better go, you never know who’s watching with a camera these days.’
It is at this point that I write: 'John Davis was one of many former residents of Bryn Estyn who made allegations of sexual abuse against Peter Howarth. The total has risen considerably since Howarth was convicted in 1994 and now stands at more than thirty' (p. 579). This is hardly a comment made 'in passing'. It is made in the immediate context of a very striking confession by one of these complainants that he and a friend had fabricated allegations of buggery against Howarth and that these allegations had been accepted almost without question: 'He said he had alleged that he’d had "the arse shagged off me" and "as we didn’t jump on the bandwagon until later it was easy because so many statements had been made and people convicted"’.
The clear implication of my Afterword is that the principal reason why I do not deal with the post-conviction allegations against Howarth is that I believe they are dealt with eloquently and effectively by John Davis himself and that they too belong to the 'bandwaggon effect'.
Of course Scorer is fully entitled to take the view that my treatment of the point is inadequate. But it is not non-existent as he carelessly suggests. I would hasten to add that the 'bandwaggon effect' might seem not to account for cases such as that of L which Richard Scorer brings forward. I will endeavour to deal with that question when the paperback version of my book appears. In that respect I am grateful to him for raising the point.
I hope that he will in turn give due weight to Liz Evans's account of what John Davies told her and recognise that there is such a thing as 'a bandwaggon effect' in care home investigations and that this can have catastrophic consequences for innocent people.
The reason the point is so important is that Richard Scorer and his colleagues in ACAL, to the extent that they earn a large part of their living by driving forward group actions on behalf of former care home residents, tend almost inevitably (and unintentionally) to promote this bandwagon effect.
The ultimate victims of this kind of well-rewarded but ill-considered advocacy do not only include innocent care workers who are falsely accused. They also include the very people whose interests ACAL is supposed to be serving - those who genuinely are victims of sexual abuse. For, as I have argued on numerous occasions, the more false allegations we allow to enter into the currency, the more we debase that currency and make it likely that the true victims of abuse will be disbelieved and ignored.
ACAL in other words, if were true to its ideals, ought to exercise the utmost vigilance about false allegations and ought to recognise that much of the legal work it promotes is actually damaging the cause of the very people its members are supposed to be helping.
To expect a group of lawyers to start rejecting the very kind of work which is the basis of their livelihood is to ask a great deal. But that, I believe, is what justice demands. I hope that Richard Scorer's revision of his review indicates that this argument is being taken seriously at last. I also hope that the first revision of his review, which contains no apology and reads like an attempt to rationalise the position he originally adopted, will not be the last. In the meantime I remain grateful to him for the fact that he has at least taken the first step along a difficult path.
© Richard Webster, 2005/6