Care goes on trial

‘THE RESIDENTIAL CARE system of this country is now on trial. These children’s homes were supposed to provide care, but instead they dished out a diet of sadism by day and sodomy by night.’ So said Labour Welsh affairs spokesman Rhodri Morgan in the House of Commons in June 1996. Tomorrow, as the North Wales Tribunal of Inquiry opens for its first full public session under the chairmanship of Sir Ronald Waterhouse, the trial Rhodri Morgan referred to will begin in earnest.

His words, though well-calculated to grab headlines in tabloid newspapers, can have done little to help establish the climate which is needed for a fair inquiry. The current Tribunal, which is not expected to report until 1998, carries a very heavy burden of judicial responsibility. For it will be clear to any observer in Britain (or, for that matter, in Australia) that anxieties about paedophile rings operating in children’s homes have by now spread far beyond the boundaries of the former county of Clwyd.

Clwyd nestles in the extreme north-eastern corner of Wales. Its principal town, Wrexham, the site both of the Bryn Estyn and Bryn Alan homes which have attracted so many of the North Wales allegations, is only a matter of miles away from the ancient English border town of Chester. Although Clwyd was one of the first counties in Britain to initiate a massive retrospective investigation into suspected abuse in care homes, an even bigger investigation has since been mounted in neighbouring Cheshire. By the end of 1996 at least 100 care workers had been arrested in this one English county alone. Some twenty miles beyond Chester, Liverpool has become the centre of a third massive investigation, mounted by Merseyside police and directed not only at a number of care homes, but also at two voluntary organisations.

In this small corner of Britain many millions of pounds have been spent by police and social services in a concerted effort to uncover a network of evil which had supposedly spread from care home to care home in a conspiracy of corruption on a scale undreamt of only a few years previously. If the North Wales Tribunal does not cast at least some light on the two neighbouring investigations which, technically, lie beyond its terms of reference, then there are many who will regard the estimated £10 million that it is likely to cost as a colossal waste of public funds.

There can be no doubt at all that the three huge police investigations in the north-west have uncovered and brought to justice a small number of men who did indeed exploit the positions of trust which they held by abusing children in their care. But the problem of sexual abuse in residential care is not a new one, and its reality has long been recognised by those within the profession. It has never previously required massive investigations to detect it, of the kind which have been mounted in the north-west. Although these investigations have resulted in a small number of convictions which appear to be sound, they have also led to a relatively large number of convictions whose soundness is, to say the very least, open to question.

What is perhaps even more remarkable about these investigations is that, in one respect at least, their outcome has been entirely negative. For although the investigations in North Wales and in Cheshire were both launched with the deliberate aim of uncovering evidence of organised sexual abuse in residential institutions, no such evidence has ever been found. Speaking outside Chester Crown Court after the conviction of John Allen in 1995, Detective Superintendant Ackerley put it like this: ‘We thought at first that there was a paedophile ring. Now we know that it was just two evil men.’

This highly significant negative finding is rarely reported. But it raises an interesting question. For once the paedophile ring theory has been discarded for want of evidence, it is difficult to explain why three police forces in a small corner of Britain have had to devote huge resources to an almost unprecedented kind of investigation. While it is possible that the roots of a massive conspiracy still lie undetected in North Wales, there is another yet more disturbing possibility.          

This alternative explanation has been obscured in most press coverage of events in the north-west by the tendency of journalists to refer to the institutions at the centre of most of most of these allegations as ‘children’s homes’. This term, with its implication that the allegations have themselves been made by children, is doubly misleading. For up to now the three major investigations which have been conducted in the north-west have focused almost exclusively not on children’s homes at all, but on institutions which deal with young people, mostly teenagers, who have been placed in the care of the local authority by the courts and many of whom are young offenders.

Far from making their allegations as children, or even as teenagers, most of those who have made complaints of sexual abuse in the north-west have done so as young adults in their twenties or thirties. And the vast majority have made their allegations not spontaneously, but in response to a police ‘trawl’ for evidence. Such trawls are themselves intrinsically dangerous. In many cases police officers taking part in them are not only eager to receive allegations, but eager to believe them as well. Knowing nothing of the human qualities of the care workers who have been accused, and predisposed by the very nature of their investigation to think the worst, any officer involved in such an inquiry will find it extremely difficult to avoid demonising those who are accused and thus becoming emotionally committed to finding yet more allegations against them.

In some cases there is evidence that police officers have either actively solicited allegations against particular individuals or that they have encouraged allegations by holding out the promise of compensation. Even where investigating officers have resisted such temptations the possibility that allegations have been encouraged by the prospect of compensation cannot be discounted. For ever since the successful claims made against Leicestershire County Council in the case of Frank Beck it has become common knowledge among many former residents of care homes that allegations of sexual abuse can sometimes result in successful civil claims for amounts up to £100,000.

All in all, if a deliberate attempt were made to create the kind of environment in which false allegations tend to flourish, it would be difficult to better the conditions which result from the setting up of any large-scale retrospective inquiry. What has happened in North Wales, in Cheshire and in Liverpool, it would seem, is that large numbers of young men, many of whom belong to a culture in which financial gain traditionally goes hand in hand with some form of crime or dishonesty, have been presented with a hitherto undreamed-of opportunity. They have found themselves in a position where allegations against their former carers are being actively solicited by police officers and where any false allegation, provided that it is made against an individual who attracts other allegations, is likely to be given massive professional and institutional support.

Of course some of the allegations which have been gathered in the north-west are genuine. And all such allegations should be investigated with the utmost seriousness. But in a disturbing number of cases internal or external evidence suggests that allegations have been fabricated. And in all too many of these cases it would appear that false allegations have been believed not only by police officers and social workers, but also by the courts.

If this is so we must face up to the possibility that what has happened in the north-west is something which has happened on too many occasions before in American and European history: that, as a direct result of an investigation launched in order to uncover a non-existent evil conspiracy, a significant number of completely innocent people have been found guilty of crimes they did not commit.

One of the most urgent tasks which faces the Tribunal of Inquiry in North Wales is to examine the evidence which has led to the convictions already obtained, and to interrogate with the utmost scepticism the principle of what one senior police officer has called ‘corroboration by volume’. Since the Tribunal is not a Court of Appeal and cannot overturn convictions, there can be no doubt that it will embark on this task only with extreme reluctance. This reluctance should be overcome. For a Tribunal which meekly accepts its own powerlessness to assess some of the most important evidence in front of it, can scarcely be said to be conducting an inquiry at all.

For the sake of all seven of the care workers from the north-west (including Cheshire and Merseyside) who continue to protest their innocence from their prison cells and for the sake of those who really have been abused while in care, the Tribunal should consider all the evidence which is before it, rather than a pre-selected extract from it. Only if it does this can it hope to put together the whole picture of what has happened in North Wales. After so many failed or incomplete inquiries nothing less will now suffice.

Guardian, 20 January 1997

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© Richard Webster, 2002

www.richardwebster.net

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