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 How our demons fuel witch-hunts

RICHARD WEBSTER


 
The Observer   
4 August 2002 


This article was originally published in the
Observer, where it accompanied David Rose's account of the Shieldfield case. At the end of a six month libel trial, wrongly accused Newcastle nursery nurses Dawn Reed and Chris Lillie, after being stigmatised for nine years as paedophiles, had just won a historic victory. Finally their names had been cleared.

THE STORY OF WHAT happened to Dawn Reed and Chris Lillie is so bizarre that it might seem to be without parallel. It would be reassuring to dismiss Shieldfield as a terrible aberration. But that would be to replace one delusion by another. On the day after the libel judgment, the Guardian newsdesk was contacted by a reader who told them of a similar case. And the next day, 1 August, Canadian journalist Margaret Wente published a story which has close parallels with Shieldfield. This concerned a police officer who had lived for 10 years under the shadow of horrific allegations. These allegations had their origins in a panic triggered in 1992 when a couple said that their two-year old had been sexually assaulted at the local babysitting service. Last month John Popowich won an apology from the government and $1.3 million. The most important part, he said, was getting my name cleared.

The Saskatchewan case is not an isolated coincidence. Over the past decade there have been countless other Shieldfields - in nurseries or kindergartens in Norway, Sweden, Germany, Holland, in New Zealand, Australia and Canada, and above all in the United States.

It may well be that in the fantasy world in which so many people tend to live - the world where men and women always behave rationally and where superstitions and delusions have been banished by the onward march of science - events such as those that took place at Shieldfield do not happen. But in the real world, where fantasy remains one of the most powerful forces in human history, such events are all too common.

It is no coincidence that two key members of the Shieldfield Review Team have both been believers in satanic ritual abuse. Judith Jones was the social worker at the centre of the 1989 Nottingham satanic abuse case. Astonishingly, Newcastle City Council nevertheless appointed her to the Review Team. Meanwhile, clinical psychologist Jacqui Saradjian has written of satanic cults where children were caged, hung, chained, whipped, burnt, tortured, drowned, buried alive, and strapped to inverted crosses and assaulted.

Although the Shieldfield story itself contained no satanic allegations, we will not understand its potency unless we recognise that it was the product of the same habit of mind which led to the tragedies of Nottingham, Rochdale and the Orkneys.

Why is it that, at the beginning of the twenty- first century, we appear still to be so susceptible to such fantasies? Are we, in the very midst of our rationalism, still witch-hunters at heart?

It is frequently said, and was said again by Barnaby Jones last week in the Spectator, that it is easy to overdo the comparison between the zeal to hunt paedophiles and what took place at Salem: After all, witches do not exist but paedophiles most disturbingly do. To say this, however, is to misunderstand the nature of witch-hunts. Historically, witches did exist. There was never any doubt about the reality of those who, throughout the early Middle Ages, practiced ritual magic or attempted to work supernatural harm.

What turned anxieties about real people into the Great European Witch-hunt was the fact that their existence was overlaid by a demonological fantasy. They were seen as belonging to an evil and highly organised cult whose members flew through the air astride pigs, rams or broomsticks to orgiastic gatherings where they worshipped their master, Satan. Once this powerful fantasy began to grip the minds of learned men, the empirical reality on which it was based became all but irrelevant. Completely innocent men and women could find themselves arraigned and burnt as witches even though they had never attempted to cast a spell or practise ritual magic at all.

During the last 30 years, because of the depths of our enduring anxieties, we have managed to demonise paedophiles in almost exactly the same way. What makes the fantasy so powerful is precisely the fact that paedophiles exist. 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. But on to this palpable and disturbing reality we too have projected a fantasy.

When, in the late 1970s and the 1980s, social workers in California - and later in Britain - allowed themselves to be gripped by the belief that young children were falling victim to systematic sexual abuse by organised satanic cults, we actually revived the demonological fantasy which lay at the heart of the Great European Witch-hunt. It was this fantasy which many highly intelligent and sophisticated people, including Judith Jones, embraced as a reality.

When this fantasy was discredited during the early 1990s the belief system it belonged to did not disappear. Instead it was desatanised. In Newcastle, Dawn Reed and Chris Lillie were portrayed not as isolated paedophiles but as part of a sinister ring whose members abused children behind black doors. It was this secularised version of an ancient demonological fantasy which drove the investigation onwards and turned it into a real witch-hunt.

One of the things which makes the Shieldfield story so important, however, is that there emerged elsewhere in Britain, at almost exactly the same time, another, yet more dangerous fantasy. This was the belief, rapidly embraced by some social workers and police officers, that childrens homes had been taken over by paedophile rings. After a decade of investigation this belief has been shown to be without foundation. But once again the fact that some care workers did sexually abuse young people in their care lent the new secularised demonological fantasy enormous power.

It was this fantasy which in the early 1990s was used by police forces in North Wales and elsewhere to legitimate the most dangerous form of police investigation which has ever been devised - the trawling operation, in which the police actively fish for retrospective allegations against care workers. Unlike Reed and Lillie, the innocent victims of this witch-hunt have not been vindicated by the courts. They have been convicted by them. So numerous are the miscarriages of justice which have resulted that police trawling is now the subject of a Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry.

When David Rose, Bob Woffinden and I gave evidence to the first session of that inquiry in May, we believed the committee would succeed in digging out the truth. That confidence no longer seems so well-founded. There is still a possibility that the committee may, even under the chairmanship of Chris Mullin, end by effectively endorsing the very methods of police investigation which have caused so much harm already, and which have ruined so many lives.

It is because this truly terrifying outcome is a real possibility that we must all learn the lessons of Shieldfield, and learn them thoroughly. 

Richard Webster, 2002

www.richardwebster.net

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