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Opinion


August 06, 2002

Hysteria helps no one but the real paedophiles

If you pay council tax in Newcastle upon Tyne, you have had an expensive week. You have paid £400,000 in libel damages over a bungled council attempt to blacken the names of two citizens previously acquitted in court. You have also paid about £4 million in legal costs to defend what a judge calls a “malicious” report, and you gave four “experts” £360,000 to write it. None of the team or those who commissioned them is being fined, charged or in any way punished.

Since this fiasco was all about child abuse allegations, you could hopefully say “better safe than sorry”, on the ground that if profligacy and injustice save one child from future assault it is worth it. Unfortunately the reverse is true. The case of the nursery nurses Christopher Lillie and Dawn Reed, wrongly accused of elaborate and improbable crimes, has not made children safer. They are less safe. Real paedophiles rejoice, knowing that authorities will not want another fiasco. Newcastle’s hysterical interlude has cost children, as well as taxpayers, very dear.

We have to learn from it: take the story apart and see what went wrong. The heroes of the story are the lawyers and the journalists, Bob Woffinden and Richard Webster, who tracked down the victims in hiding: the story is theirs to tell. But briefly, what happened is this.

It began during the week in 1993 when the Newcastle press reported a real case of child abuse by a male nursery worker, Jason Dabbs, who pleaded guilty. Within days a mother using Shieldfield Nursery alleged that her son had been hurt by Mr Lillie during a nappy change. Her story was dramatic but inconsistent. Medical examination found nothing. Lillie says now that he was mystified, and thought it might be because of the rough old towels the staff were made to use on the children’s bottoms, because baby wipes were considered to be too expensive by the management of the council nursery.

He was suspended and beaten up by the father of another child as the first accuser spread her rumours. This assailant claimed that his own child was abused; shortly afterwards, a mother whose four-year-old left the nursery 14 months earlier came forward. Her little girl, interviewed three times on video, denied everything and demanded to go home. After a mysterious 13-minute break, she spoke of rape and said sulkily: “That’s the bit I had to tell you.” The story expanded: children had allegedly been taken to houses with black doors and raped and knifed by paedophiles in fancy dress. The absence of visible injury appeared to worry nobody.

And so it went on. Nine years later, an expert on child testimony, Professor Maggie Bruck, was asked by the libel judge to watch the videotapes of police and social services interviews. Her verdict was damning. “Extremely young and bewildered children were brought in and interrogated, sometimes for over an hour, by one, two or even three interviewers. These interviewers used the full array of suggestive techniques to elicit allegations of abuse. When the children denied they had been abused, they were bombarded with more suggestions, they were scolded, threatened, and bribed. When some children whimpered, moaned or begged the interviewers to end the questioning, the interviewers continued.” Even so, the four-year-old key witness explicitly denied the allegations, twice. Brave child. Worse, an American expert wrote in a pre-trial report that the tapes were evidence of abuse: but he had not even seen them. Lillie and Reed spent months in prison.

Then the trial judge, Mr Justice Holland, said that the evidence was too weak even to put before a jury; Not Guilty. Immediately Tony Flynn, acting leader of Newcastle City Council, said to television cameras: “We do believe that abuse has taken place,” and the report was commissioned.

Its findings, published in 1998, caused a furore of headlines. “Unimaginable horror . . . rapist paedophiles slashed terrified toddlers . . .” Esther Rantzen called it one of the worst cases of mass child abuse ever: 350 children were claimed to have been tortured. Journalists described it as a “stringent” and “persuasive” inquiry and it was cited at conferences with Cherie Booth, Hillary Clinton etc. The Sun put out a telephone number, saying “Help us find these fiends”, with photos of the accused (and acquitted) nurses. They lived in hiding.

Yet the report was neither stringent nor authoritative. The investigating journalists and lawyers discovered gaping holes. The medical evidence was deficient and uncorroborated, and we should know by now that child abuse is easily misdiagnosed. At one point the key doctor altered her medical report after a child’s story changed. Woffinden says the report team did a deal with the police: if they were given access to the videos they would not criticise the techniques. This is not how “stringent” reports are compiled.

The obvious message is that local authorities are not to be trusted with such investigations, especially when their leader has already been on telly prejudging the outcome. If after a genuinely inconclusive acquittal we need an inquiry, we should set up a reputable national panel, screened to exclude hysterical career “experts”, and compelled to behave with evidential propriety.

But there is a wider message too. We are a society obsessive about sex, uneasy about children, and relatively new to the practice of handing over infants too young to talk into the care of total strangers. These things unbalance our normal rational thought processes. Obvious thoughts were not thought. Social services did not ask themselves whether the original complaint might be connected with fear of male nursery nurses after the Jason Dabbs case. No vestige of common sense questioned the guff about secret houses and black doors and paedophiles in animal suits slashing children. This was not a remote Transylvanian castle: it was a busy city nursery, with staff on shiftwork and parents popping in and out to collect children. How could Reed and Lillie, unbeknown to other staff, have spirited infants to unknown locations for regular abuse that would cause huge distress, bruising and bleeding? Why did no children complain or show fear at coming to nursery? With older children you can reasonably argue that paedophiles terrorise them into silence, but many of these were in nappies, too young to be quickly bribed or terrorised out of showing their feelings. If, in later years, these children have been traumatised, it is as likely to be by the appalling processes of interview and “therapy” by adult zealots, some of them probably motivated by a pretty ropey sexual obsession of their own.

Real paedophilia does happen: there is hard evidence and there have been satisfying convictions. But cases like this merely entrench the opposing camps. One side reckons that anybody accused is probably guilty, and that lack of evidence only proves their Satanic cunning. The other camp, fortified by malevolent witch-hunts like Newcastle and Orkney, is dangerously ready to go back to the bad old days when children were never believed.

This disaster is all tangled up with basic social defects that we should acknowledge. First, we are pruriently obsessed with sex, and in mores and culture we encourage children to be sexual before they are psychologically able to handle its power. We are not at ease about this: it is all very well for amateur anthropologists to drone on about Polynesians or Aztecs giving birth at 14, but few of us are really comfortable with the sight of pre-teen slappers strutting their stuff. So we look around eagerly for something worse, which is not our fault.

Secondly, we are uneasy about childcare, and a work culture that despises the idea that a child under three and its mother are best kept together. We demand nurseries as a right, yet resent them. And since childcare remains a low status job and selfishness is regarded as a healthy economic and psychological norm, we wonder what sort of people, especially men, would actually want to do the job. What’s in it for them? Are they perverts, or what? So the unacknowledged guilt of handing over babies in nappies to an institution makes us lash out. Every working mother remembers a shrill row with a childminder over some footling matter of orange juice or videos. Every honest working mother admits why she overreacted. These are social adjustments, the result of changing times. But when they balloon into monstrous, crushing, institutionalised injustices, they are wicked and stupid. The Newcastle case was both.

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