How the police trawl the innocent
………………………………………………………… New Statesman special report
19 July 1999
ONE EVENING IN MAY of this
year, Brian Johnson, a 43-year-old former care worker from South Wales,
telephoned me from a call box in Cardiff. He had been charged on several
counts of physical and sexual abuse. But the prosecution had offered a
deal. Good-humoured as always, Johnson told me: ‘If I plead guilty to the
physical charges, they are prepared to drop all the sexual allegations and
I will almost certainly walk out of court a free man. So what do I
I didn’t really need to answer. Johnson had already made up
his mind. His legal team had collected substantial evidence that all the
allegations against him had been fabricated. ‘I’m going back tomorrow,’ he
said, ‘and I am going to tell them exactly where they can stick their
offer. I am going to fight.’
For some time, there was no news.
Then I found out what had happened. After a three-week trial, Brian
Johnson had been found guilty on several counts of sexual abuse. He was
sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was led from the court, shouting out
that he was innocent.
The evidence against Johnson was collected
during a new form of police inquiry which has developed only in the past
ten years: the trawling operation. First used by Leicestershire police in
the Frank Beck case in 1990, the method spread to North Wales, Cheshire
and Merseyside. Now it has been used by as many as two-thirds of the
country’s police forces to convict dozens of alleged abusers.
Detective Superintendent John Robbins, of the Merseyside police,
has described this new kind of investigation as ‘the reverse of normal
police methods’. Instead of starting from a crime and setting out to find
the criminal, the trawling procedure starts with the suspect (or an
allegation) and then attempts to find the crime. Police officers trace and
interview former residents of care homes and, during these interviews,
more evidence against the original suspect, or against other care workers,
almost unfailingly emerges.
These investigations are often said to
involve ‘children’s homes’. In fact they are usually residential
institutions for troubled or difficult adolescents and, since the
allegations of abuse usually refer back ten, 20 or even 30 years, those
making them are not children at all. They are almost always adults, many
of them with long criminal records. In a number of cases they make their
allegations in prison or while facing serious criminal charges. It is here
that the real dangers of police trawling operations become apparent – or
ought to become apparent.
If police officers interview hundreds of
damaged young people with long records of deception and dishonesty, with
the aim of gathering allegations of abuse against those who once cared for
them, it would be surprising if they did not succeed in provoking a large
number of false allegations – particularly when it is known that such
allegations can result in thousands of pounds being paid out by the
Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. Yet police forces up and down
the land continue their trawling operations with the full knowledge and
implicit approval of Home Office ministers.
Lord Williams of
Mostyn, for example, recently wrote that there are ‘no viable
alternatives’ and that ‘sexual abuse allegations are too serious not to
look for further evidence’.
Here is an example of how the police
do it. In September 1997 former residents of St George’s School in Formby,
Merseyside, which had always enjoyed an unblemished reputation, received a
letter from Robbins, headed ‘Operation Care’. It read:
I am the senior investigating officer of the above
operation which is currently investigating allegations of child abuse
reported to have taken place within a number of residential establishments
in the Merseyside area.
I am aware from records provided to me
that in times past you have been a resident at St George’s/Clarence House
School . . . I am concerned that there is a possibility that such abuse
may have taken place whilst you were in residence there.
have any information or if we can help you with any complaint you may
have [my italics], please respond by completing and returning the
attached slip using the enclosed pre-paid envelope or by contacting a
member of my staff using the above telephone number.
One man interviewed as a result of this trawl is
the Southampton football manager Dave Jones, who worked at St George’s for
four years during the 1980s, and whose conduct at the time was considered
exemplary. His case was leaked to the press because he happens to be well
known. But it is believed that 80 former members of staff face
allegations, and Robbins recently told a judge that charges would be
brought against as many as 50 of them. Yet until recently St George’s
enjoyed an unblemished reputation.
St George’s is only one of a hundred institutions
that have been investigated by the Merseyside and Cheshire police forces
in the past five years. It would seem likely that, in these two counties
alone, trawling operations have led to allegations being made against as
many as a thousand care workers.
The original North Wales
investigation produced allegations against 365 different people, and this
tally has now risen. In South Wales, according to a report in Community
Care magazine, an investigation carried out by Gwent police into a
single home, Ty Mawr, has already led to accusations against 60 former
members of staff. So far, however, the police have interviewed only 200
former residents. According to the report, it is their intention to
interview another 6,800 before their investigation is concluded. In
another care home, five former members of staff, one of whom is in his
eighties, have recently been charged by the South Wales police with more
than 200 counts of abuse.
Another case involves Derek Brushett,
former head of Bryn-y-Don. So well-respected was he that he became a Welsh
Office inspector. Yet he now faces 40 counts of sexual and physical abuse
relating to more than 20 complainants. None of these complaints was made
spontaneously and all were the products of police trawling exercises. At
least 50 other institutions in South Wales are under investigation.
Meanwhile on Tyneside, Operation Rose has reached such a pitch
that Gill Rutherford, a solicitor with Thompson’s, has retained the
services of five barristers, who meet weekly. About 100 care workers have
already faced police interviews; more than 20 have been charged.
Given the statistics already in the public domain, it is
reasonable to assume that the number of care workers implicated by trawled
allegations is now in excess of 3,000 and may well be approaching 5,000.
Many of these cases will never come to court. But with the cost of the
North Wales tribunal alone estimated at £10-15 million, the overall cost
to the public purse of convening inquiries, mounting police trawling
operations, co-ordinating with social services, bringing suspects before
the courts and holding those convicted in prison must already run into
hundreds of millions of pounds.
Most people would consider this
money well spent if it were indeed contributing to the cause of justice.
But many lawyers believe that exactly the opposite is happening. Certainly
some of the care workers involved in these cases are guilty of sexual
abuse. But from the beginning, solicitors have expressed concern about the
alarmingly high level of false allegations that appears to result from
trawling operations. Chris Saltrese, a solicitor based in Merseyside,
takes the view that at least half the convictions obtained in Cheshire and
Merseyside are unsound. He also thinks that, as the investigation in the
North-west has gathered momentum, the number of false allegations has
multiplied, to the point where as many as 90 per cent of trawled
complaints have been fabricated. Chief among the complex motives of those
who make false complaints, he believes, is the desire to gain
The principle underlying all trawling operations
is, in the words of Robbins, that of ‘corroboration by volume’. Terry
Hoskin, the former head of St Aidan’s, Widnes, whose appeal against his
conviction in 1996 on a number of serious offences will be heard later
this year, found himself facing allegations made by no fewer than 40
complainants. All but one had been trawled by the police. Even after the
prosecution had discarded the more obvious fabrications, 20 complainants
remained. In the face of such multiple allegations it is all but
impossible to find judges or juries who are prepared to acquit, however
many inconsistencies the evidence contains.
The same factor
appears to have played a part in the conviction of Brian Johnson last
month, even though his own trial involved only four complainants. One
allegation against Johnson and his co-defendant Geoffrey Morris (who
pleaded guilty to a number of counts) involved a claim of satanic abuse: a
black cloak, an altar and the drinking of blood were supposedly used as
ritual preludes to sexual assault. Although the jury rejected this
allegation, they accepted another from the same man that actually ran
counter to the evidence before them. The man claimed that Morris had
driven him in a minibus to a venue where he was sexually abused by both
Morris and Johnson. Even though Morris could not drive, and even though
this was accepted by the Crown, the jury convicted Johnson on this count.
Another witness was a woman who claimed that Johnson had
indecently assaulted her. Her psychiatric records suggested that she was
unable to distinguish between truth and nd that she had made numerous
allegations which were not true. Ten years ago, after making an allegation
of rape which had resulted in a police investigation, she eventually
admitted that she had made up the entire incident. In court last month,
however, she claimed that the rape had taken place after all. In spite of
a great deal of other evidence, including the testimony of her former
foster mother, which completely undermined the credibility of this
witness, Johnson was found guilty of indecently assaulting her.
this respect, the trial followed the pattern of countless others involving
care workers: the sheer quantity of complainants and allegations leads to
a situation where the quality of the evidence offered becomes all but
irrelevant. That Johnson – who, in the view of his legal team, is entirely
innocent – should have been found guilty ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ on the
evidence presented is extremely disturbing. It is tempting to criticise
the jury system itself. But the real responsibility lies with those who
decided to put such cases before a jury in the first place.
sound historical and evidential reasons our legal system contains
safeguards designed to protect both individual citizens and the public
purse from unsound prosecutions ever being brought before a court. Since
its creation in 1986, the Crown Prosecution Service has played a central
role. Its brief is that it should allow prosecutions only if there is a
realistic prospect of a conviction and if a prosecution would be in the
public interest. A second safeguard has traditionally been provided by the
magistrates’ court. In cases initiated before April 1997 it is still
possible to hold an old-style committal hearing in front of a magistrate.
Witnesses can be called and magistrates can dismiss weak cases without
them ever going before a judge. Even if this safeguard fails, judges can
themselves dismiss cases or prevent unsound evidence going before a jury
on a number of grounds.
In any sane and reasonable society, no
prosecution based on allegations that have been actively sought or
solicited by police forces, in circumstances where substantial material
rewards may be available to those who make false allegations, would ever
be allowed to proceed. The case would be halted by the CPS or the evidence
would be ruled inadmissible either by a magistrate or by the judge.
The problem that our criminal justice system now faces is that the
attitude we have adopted as a society towards allegations of sexual abuse
is neither sane nor reasonable. So terrifying has the spectre of child
sexual abuse become, so convinced are we that we are beset by some
unspeakable evil, that the ordinary checks and balances built into our
justice system have been rendered powerless.
In recent years
barristers have noticed an increasing tendency for the CPS to allow cases
to proceed, regardless of the quality of the evidence. At the same time
both magistrates and judges seem terrified to use their powers to dismiss
unsound prosecutions or to halt trials as an abuse of process. The terror
that an innocent person might be found guilty, which has traditionally and
rightly been the foundation on which our entire justice system has been
built, has been replaced by the terror that a guilty man might go free.
In these circumstances, in which both magistrates and judges have
in effect relinquished their traditional responsibility to protect the
public against ill-founded and dangerous prosecutions, it should scarcely
be surprising that juries, misled by the court into believing that the
evidence being presented to them is safe, should use this evidence as the
basis for convicting the defendant. For juries, too, are susceptible to
terror. And they, too, are liable to reach a verdict of guilty not on the
evidence but in response to the fear that they might acquit a guilty man.
If recent rulings are any guide, even some appeal court judges appear to
have succumbed to the terror.
When you are faced by an unspeakable
evil, the safest course is always to convict, whatever reasonable doubts
there may be about whether the defendant has actually committed the crimes
of which he or she is accused. We saw that again and again in the cases
brought after the IRA terror bombings.
In such a climate, the
dispensing of justice is replaced by a witch-hunt. And, because police
trawling operations have been allowed to develop virtually unchallenged
over ten years, we are now in the midst of a witch-hunt of unprecedented
Perhaps the most lavishly resourced witch-hunt in
history, taking up thousands of police hours and draining hundreds of
millions of pounds of public money, the present one stretches across
England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and involves literally thousands of
care workers, former care workers and an increasing number of teachers.
One of the reasons that it has spread so rapidly, so silently and so
invisibly is that all free societies depend ultimately not upon lawyers or
politicians but upon journalists to watch over their essential liberties
and to keep them safe. Yet in the present case journalists have themselves
been responsible for driving the witch-hunt forward.
tend to assume that investigative journalists are among the most sceptical
of observers, that is by no means always the case. As at least one former
national newspaper editor has noted, journalists are sometimes the most
credulous of people. So anxious are they for sensational stories that they
are frequently unable to interrogate these stories sceptically or to
investigate them properly. It is because the great children’s home panic,
in the midst of which we now find ourselves, was largely created by
apparently responsible journalists writing for broadsheet newspapers (or
for Private Eye) during the early years of this decade that its
true nature has remained, in effect, invisible for so long. It is because
it has been virtually undocumented by serious journalists that this
particular moral panic has become so vast, so powerful and so dangerous.
Much can now be done by politicians, by lawyers and by the
judiciary. But whether it is done will depend on whether editors and
journalists can wake from their slumberous credulity and begin to document
in detail the phenomenon that they have played such a large role in
If they do not, it is likely that Brian Johnson, and the
dozen or more other innocent care workers who are already serving long
prison sentences, will continue to protest their innocence in vain and
that the carefully prepared submissions of their lawyers will continue to
be turned down by the Court of Appeal. If this should indeed happen, it is
certain that they will be joined by many others from among the thousands
who have had allegations made against them. Given the scale of the
investigations that are now taking place, the number of innocent care
workers in prison is likely to rise by the score until it reaches a
hundred or more.
Such a prospect should not be tolerated in any
society that calls itself free. The present situation, where police forces
hunt crimes, rather than criminals, should not be tolerated, either.
In allowing retrospective trawling operations to develop in the
way they have, we have created a machine for producing miscarriages of
justice. That machine is now out of control. It has already done
inestimable damage to countless innocent care workers and their families.
If it is not halted soon, and halted by the very people who have thus far
driven it forward, a great deal more damage will be done, and a tragedy
that is already grave beyond the power of words to express will become
This article first appeared in the New
Statesman, 19 July 1999. It led to a lively three-way correspondence in the letters column of the NS between the journalists Christian Wolmar and Nick Davies and me. To read this exchange of letters, click here.