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The Secret of Bryn Estyn

The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt


The Orwell Press
Hardback £25
Paperback (26 January 2009) £11.95
736 pages, 4 b&w maps, 10 b&w illustrations

EARLY IN THE MORNING of 15 March 1992, 40 police officers took up positions in streets in and around Wrexham in North Wales. As dawn broke they swooped down on their suspects and arrested sixteen men and one woman. All but one had worked at Bryn Estyn, a care home for adolescent boys on the outskirts of Wrexham. According to reports which began to appear in the press in 1991, Bryn Estyn had lain at the centre of a network of evil – a conspiracy which supposedly involved the extensive homosexual abuse of adolescent boys by a paedophile ring, whose members terrorised their victims and subjected them to a regime of violence and brutality.

The paedophile ring turned out to be a figment of the investigators’ imagination. Yet rumours of its existence led to the largest child abuse investigation in Britain. The police trawled allegations from 650 witnesses, who accused 365 people of abusing them at homes throughout North Wales. When only six prosecutions followed, with only two new convictions for sexual abuse, the police and the authorities were accused of mounting a cover-up. Police officers themselves were said to belong to the very paedophile ring they were supposed to be investigating. The story became a national scandal.

A senior police officer, publicly accused of raping adolescent boys at Bryn Estyn, sued for libel and won. Still, rumours of a cover-up persisted. In 1996 the government set up the largest Tribunal of Inquiry in British history, under Sir Ronald Waterhouse. In February 2000, the Tribunal made damning findings of extensive abuse in North Wales. By then, the police trawling operation which had begun there had spread to whole of Britain. Police forces collected allegations against more than 5,000 former care workers and teachers, and hundreds were arrested.


But was Waterhouse right to find there had been wholesale abuse in North Wales? Or did his inquiry, and the investigations that led up to it, form part of a modern witch-hunt? In this book Richard Webster tells the extraordinary story of what really happened in North Wales. It is a story with disturbing implications not only for the modern child protection movement but for the way we understand our history and ourselves.


The Secret of Bryn Estyn is a richly documented account of the development of a modern witch-hunt. Full of human interest and drama, it focuses initially on a small number of key players in the North Wales story and shows how their actions helped to shape an unprecedented police investigation, which would eventually spread to the whole of the United Kingdom.

The book traces the origins of the gravest series of miscarriages of justice in modern British history, as a result of which thousands of people have been falsely accused and as many as a hundred wrongly imprisoned. The book records these continuing injustices and sets them in the context of earlier historical witch-hunts. And, in chapters interspersed through the narrative, The Secret of Bryn Estyn offers an illuminating analysis of the development of the modern child protection movement, tracing its roots back to Victorian London.


A large responsibility for creating the witch-hunt described in the book lies with journalists – and in particular with journalists on broadsheet newspapers. The narrative demonstrates what one editor, Peter Wilby, has himself noted: investigative journalists can be the most credulous of people. The Secret of Bryn Estyn relates how a broadsheet exclusive went tragically wrong, and encouraged the making of false allegations against a large number of innocent people. It sheds a revealing light on the current state of British journalism.


In the great European witch-hunt of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a key role was played by learned men, especially judges and lawyers. The French jurist Jean Bodin wrote that ‘not one witch in a million would be accused or punished if the procedure were governed by the ordinary rules’. In order that witches could be executed in large numbers, the normal rules of justice were relaxed and witchcraft itself was defined as crimen exceptum – an exceptional crime.

The Secret of Bryn Estyn shows how, in a series of judgments made in the House of Lords during the last fifty years, child sexual abuse has become a new crimen exceptum, in respect of which the normal rules of justice have effectively been suspended. It goes on to show that the £15 million North Wales Tribunal of Inquiry was itself a travesty of justice which, in its determination to find evidence of widespread abuse, turned reality upside down. The Waterhouse Tribunal should be seen, it is suggested, along with the first Blood Sunday Tribunal, as one of the great judicial disasters of the twentieth century.


Although both journalists and lawyers played a major role in driving this modern witch-hunt forwards, the ideas and fantasies out of which it grew developed within the profession of social work. The book traces the origins of these ideas and sets them in a much broader historical context, arguing that the modern child protection movement is a revivalist movement, rooted deeply, for all its apparent secularism, in an ancient religious tradition.


The figures which are available indicate that by now between 5,000 and 10,000 former residential care workers and teachers have been accused of physical or sexual abuse as a direct consequence of police trawling operations. Some of these allegations are true. The evidence presented in the book, however, suggests that the overwhelming majority are false. Many other false allegations of sexual abuse have been made in other contexts – including the recovered memory movement and satanic abuse ‘scares’. The Secret of Bryn Estyn is the most complete account ever written of the cultural climate out of which these false allegations have emerged.



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