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Introduction: The story of the story
THERE IS A VIEW of history which suggests that, as we progress towards civilised rationality, we are less and less likely to fall prey to unreason, or to be gripped by those episodes of collective insanity which have scarred European history. The demonological anti-semitism of the Christian middle ages or the great European witch-hunt of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were, according to this perspective, terrible aberrations from the path of progress; they belong to the childhood of humankind rather than to the state of rational maturity we have now reached. Witch-hunts are things that happen in other countries or other eras than our own. We have passed beyond them.
This book is written in the belief that such a view of human progress is not only mistaken but dangerous. The history of twentieth-century Europe certainly offers no evidence to support it. Both modern European anti-semitism and Stalin’s purges were marked by collective fantasies in which people identifying themselves as the ‘pure’ sought to persecute or even annihilate entire groups of human beings imagined as ‘evil’ or ‘unclean’. These are not the only modern examples of our susceptibility to large-scale delusions in which, through a terrible process of psychological projection, we attribute to minorities we have defined as evil or unclean, our own unacknowledged desires and darkest impulses.
The widespread belief that, belonging as we do to a rational scientific age, we are no longer vulnerable to such fantasies, is itself one of the most dangerous of all our delusions. For it is precisely because of our rationalism, and the difficulty we have in acknowledging our own violence and the full depth and complexity of our sexual imagination, that we are probably more susceptible to dangerous projections than we ever have been.
If we briefly survey the role which has been played in medieval and modern history by collective fantasies, one fact which will almost immediately become apparent is that many of the most powerful historical fantasies involve children and the need to protect them. For although we sometimes assume that our own anxieties about the vulnerability of innocent children are distinctively modern, this is very far from the case. The notion that there exists an evil conspiracy given to preying on children and causing them harm is an ancient one. One of the many forms it has taken was the accusation of ritual murder traditionally levelled against Jews by Christians during the days leading up to Good Friday. First made in Norwich in 1144, the accusation usually consisted in a baseless claim that a group of Jews had kidnapped a Christian child and tortured or murdered it for ritual purposes. This ‘blood libel’ circled the globe and travelled down the centuries to the time of Hitler, establishing itself as one of the main motifs of Christian and post-Christian anti-semitism. The sinister conspiracy of child-murdering Jews which it conjured up existed only in the imagination, but this did not prevent countless innocent Jewish people from being hunted down and killed in the name of Christian virtue. The notion that Jews were actually in league with the Devil, and that they had designs on Christian children, lay at the very heart of medieval demonological anti-semitism – which is one of the most important but least acknowledged elements in the cultural heritage of Christian Europe.
A comparable fantasy, which was to prove just as compelling to the Christian imagination, would eventually emerge. This maintained the existence of a society of witches who flew through the air astride rams, pigs or broomsticks, and gathered together to engage in the orgiastic worship of their master Satan. The members of this evil conspiracy supposedly took particular delight in besmirching that which was holy and destroying innocence. They were sometimes imagined killing and eating young children or babies in sacrificial rituals.
Such fantasies as these do not belong, as we like to believe, to some primitive, archaic mode of thought which we long ago transcended. The more we feel impelled, in our pursuit of civilised rationality, to exclude from our own self-image violent, destructive or sexually perverse impulses, the more we tend to define such feelings as irredeemably external or alien. Projecting feelings we experience as alien onto those whom we define as alien is one of the ways in which we attempt to get rid of them. The process of demonising cultural enemies is, in this sense, entirely normal.
It is also dangerous. Whenever we allow any group of human beings to be demonised, the anxieties associated with our dreams of purity throughout history will almost inevitably be brought into play; we will begin to imagine the group in question in the same terms which are found in other demonological fantasies. They will be seen as members of an evil, highly organised conspiracy intent on infiltrating our national life and harming the very people towards whom our own feelings are most complex and most ambivalent – our children.
It was just such a belief that was held by those who triggered the massive police inquiry into alleged abuse in North Wales which was launched in August 1991. Largely as a result of this investigation and the extraordinary stories of wholesale abuse which emerged from it, the approach used by the North Wales Police was adopted by other police forces in neighbouring areas.
Similar concerns about paedophile rings were entertained by the social workers and police officers who, in 1994, launched an even larger investigation in Cheshire, just over the English border. This investigation in turn spread to Merseyside. Instead of waiting for allegations to be made spontaneously, the police began actively to look for them. They did so through massive trawling operations in which they deliberately sought out former residents of care homes and invited them to make complaints – sometimes against specific workers. Thousands of young men and women were contacted. Many of them were damaged and highly suggestible, and a significant proportion had criminal records which included offences of dishonesty and deception. Although the vast majority had never made any complaint about their time in care, hundreds now made allegations of serious physical or sexual abuse, describing incidents which they say took place ten, twenty or even thirty years beforehand.
By 1998 trawling operations had been launched not only in North Wales, in Cheshire, and on Merseyside, but also in South Wales, in Manchester, in north-east England and in a number of other regions. By the end of 2000 these investigations had spread from police force to police force until almost a hundred were in progress and practically the whole of Britain was covered by a trawling net. As a result, an entirely new form of police inquiry was beginning to be regarded as a normal method of investigation.
Three of the largest trawling operations, those conducted in North Wales, South Wales and on Merseyside, have between them collected allegations against some 1500 people. At least thirty other police forces have conducted major trawling operations, although most of these are on a smaller scale. By now allegations have been made against thousands of care workers and former care workers. Many of these have been arrested and questioned. The majority have been released, but a significant proportion have been charged and convicted. Hundreds of millions of pounds of public money has been spent on these investigations and the civil and criminal processes associated with them. Several thousand former residents of care homes have made claims for compensation and some have already received sums approaching £100,000.
Any suggestion that all the care workers convicted in this way are innocent would be wholly misleading. It requires only a little knowledge of human nature to recognise that wherever adults and young people are placed together in residential settings – whether in boarding schools, in religious institutions or in families – sexual abuse will sometimes take place. Care homes are no exception to this and some of those who are now in prison are there for no other reason than that they are guilty of the crimes alleged against them. But many of those who have direct knowledge of these investigations, including a significant number of solicitors and barristers, have become more and more disturbed by what is happening. They are concerned above all about the manner in which allegations have been obtained and about the soundness of some of the convictions they have led to. Some defence lawyers have expressed the view that false allegations are now being made on a massive scale, and that the majority of the most serious allegations made against care workers are false.
That many innocent people have been caught up in these investigations is now beyond question. In December 2000, after a nightmare which lasted more than two years, the former Southampton football manager, David Jones, was acquitted in Liverpool Crown Court after his trial collapsed. At one point he was facing 21 counts of child abuse including a number of counts of buggery. The collapse of his trial meant that the jury was unable to hear compelling evidence that all these allegations were false, with the prospect of compensation as one possible motive.
David Jones is by no means alone. Earlier in the same year the distinguished child psychotherapist Robin Reeves, once head of a residential school for disturbed children, faced a similar ordeal. Largely because of the excellent work done by his defence team, evidence was adduced which suggested that all 34 counts against him were untrue. The judge directed the jury to acquit. Reeves subsequently said that he did not believe that compensation was a major factor in the emergence of these false allegations. He did take the view, however, that those who had accused him were highly suggestible and had responded to leading questions in a manner which could have been predicted.
Meanwhile, in the same year, one Merseyside defendant, the father of a bbc journalist, had his case dismissed by the judge. He had pleaded not guilty to 63 allegations of abuse, having originally faced more than 90 counts, all of which, in the view of his solicitor, were untrue.
In these three cases alone, it would seem that trawling operations were responsible for producing almost 150 false allegations. In January 2001, in Swansea Crown Court, another case collapsed. This had originally involved four care workers who supposedly belonged to a paedophile ring operating in a home for difficult adolescents. When originally charged, they had faced between them more than 250 counts of sexual abuse. The trial collapsed when, after a prosecution which had lasted three years and cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, it became clear that the original complainant was a fantasist who had made a number of sexual allegations against people who did not exist. The allegations of the subsequent complainants were so riven with inconsistencies and untruths that the prosecution could not rely on them.
Yet in spite of evidence which points to the proliferation of false allegations of abuse, the belief persists that young people who were in care in the last decades of the twentieth century were subjected to systematic physical and sexual abuse on a massive and horrifying scale.
THIS BELIEF IS NOT ONLY only found in Britain. Partly for cultural reasons, and partly because their legal systems offer protection against long-delayed prosecutions, the United States and most European countries – with the notable exception of Portugal – have not as yet been seriously affected by what I have called, in an earlier brief book, ‘the great children’s home panic’. But a process in which care workers have been progressively demonised has taken place in some Commonwealth countries, especially Canada. As this book goes to press there are signs of a similar development in Australia and New Zealand. For cultural and geographical reasons the problem has also assumed significant proportions in the Irish Republic where a massive compensation programme has so far led to more than four thousand people making allegations about their time in care. In 2004 an Irish government report estimated that the potential final number of claimants could be around 8,900, at a cost of €828 million in compensation payments.
The case of Canada is particularly significant. There, as in Britain and Ireland, many thousands of allegations of abuse have been made by former residents of care homes and thousands of ‘counsellors’ and other members of staff have had complaints made against them. So widespread are the accusations that the bill for compensation amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars, and, until it was rescued by the government, the Anglican Church of Canada faced bankruptcy because of the huge claims made against it.
In Canada, as in Britain and Ireland, residence in a care home during the latter half of the twentieth century has sometimes come to be treated as being almost synonymous with abuse, and in every Canadian province there have been long-delayed complaints which have resulted in large compensation claims or payments. One of the most instructive examples is that of Nova Scotia. Here a large number of allegations have been made against former members of staff from the Shelburne Youth Centre, a home for difficult or delinquent teenage boys, and the Nova Scotia Residential Centre, an equivalent institution for girls.
The complaints about the Shelburne Youth Centre go back to 1992 when police conducted an investigation into allegations of abuse against a former counsellor at the home. Although he was convicted, a thorough police investigation made at the time concluded that there was no widespread problem of abuse. Indeed no allegation had been made against any current member of staff. In 1995, however, the Nova Scotia Minister of Justice publicly announced that the province would pay compensation in respect of allegations made. By the end of 1997 no fewer than 1,457 adults from this single province had made complaints that they had been abused either in the two main homes or in three other institutions administered by the province. The allegations implicated more than 300 current or former members of staff, almost all of whom were accused of some form of sexual abuse. Former residents who complained suggested that sexual and physical abuse had taken place on a massive scale, that it was systematic and blatant, and that the Shelburne Youth Centre was so rife with abuse that it was essentially a ‘war zone’ or ‘house of horrors’.
In response to the earliest complaints, which were of physical abuse only, the Nova Scotia Department of Justice had already, by the end of 1995, set up an Internal Investigation Unit staffed by experienced police officers. Their task was to examine the allegations in order to provide for the safety of the various young offenders held at the institutions in question, and to make recommendations about the kind of action which should be taken against members of staff who had been accused. As the volume and seriousness of the allegations grew, so too did the task of the investigators. During a three-year investigation they scanned almost 2 million documents into a computer system, interviewed hundreds of former residents and staff members, conducted polygraph tests, and analysed the complaints in detail.
The conclusion reached by this team, who between them had more than 700 years of police investigative experience, was remarkable. In their view, the idea that abuse had been systematic or carried out on the scale claimed by the complainants, was without foundation. There was, however, a close correlation between the various promises of compensation which had been made by the Minister of Justice, involving a budget of $56 million, and the progressively mounting volume and seriousness of the complaints which were made. Having expressed the view that many of the allegations levelled against employees of the juvenile detention centres in question ‘appear to be concocted [and] contain blatant falsehoods and gross exaggerations’, the inquiry team reported as follows:
Although the Nova Scotia report would appear to be directly relevant to events in Britain, there is a clear difference between the two situations. As the Canadian investigators stress, the vast majority of the complaints in Nova Scotia have never been tested in criminal trials or public inquiries, with the result that those making them have never been subjected to cross-examination.
IN BRITAIN THE SITUATION is different. The belief that physical and sexual abuse took place on a massive scale in children’s homes seems to be a great deal more securely based. It rests on the conclusions reached at the end of a three-year public inquiry presided over by a retired high court judge: Sir Ronald Waterhouse’s North Wales Tribunal. In this £15 million inquiry, during which scores of complainants were cross-examined by leading barristers, the horrific allegations of physical and sexual abuse which began to emerge in North Wales around fifteen years ago were publicly tested. When the report of the Tribunal was published in February 2000, the veracity of these complaints (or of the vast majority of them) was officially endorsed. 
Of all the allegations of abuse which have been made in the recent history of child care in Britain, there can be little doubt that those made in North Wales are among the most serious. They have certainly been the most influential in bringing about the climate of suspicion in which every care worker or former care worker is now compelled to live. Most disturbing of all are the complaints which concern the home which has been described as ‘the Colditz of care’ and ‘the children’s hell’ – Bryn Estyn.
Housed in a spacious mock-Tudor mansion on the edge of the town of Wrexham, Bryn Estyn had originally been an approved school and as such had maintained a strict, authoritarian regime. In 1974, however, it had become a Community Home presided over by a progressive headmaster, Matt Arnold. Arnold, who at one point was highly regarded within his profession, had begun to transform the old approved school regime into one which was more relaxed and more caring. This transformation was never successfully completed, however. For both political and economic reasons there was a move away from large-scale residential establishments, and Bryn Estyn was closed down in 1984.
There was never any suggestion at the time of any sexual impropriety at the home. Yet, according to reports which began to appear in the quality press in 1991, there was evidence to suggest that Bryn Estyn had lain at the centre of a network of evil which had spread from care home to care home in North Wales, in a conspiracy of corruption on a scale undreamed of only a few years previously. Not only was it suggested that this conspiracy might involve the extensive homosexual abuse of young boys by a paedophile ring, but there was also supposed to have been widespread physical abuse.
Not every element in this story was accepted by the Tribunal. But it did find that the horrific allegations of physical and sexual abuse were substantially true. Ever since the allegations were first made, however, a group of former Bryn Estyn care workers has maintained that the truth about Bryn Estyn is almost the exact opposite of the received view. It is their contention that what took place in North Wales during the main police investigation of 1991-2 was not the revelation of abuse on an unprecedented scale, but the collection of an unprecedented number of false allegations. They argue that, because these allegations have been officially endorsed rather than repudiated, they have become the basis of a national witch-hunt.
How, it might be asked, given the findings of the Tribunal, can the facts of what happened in North Wales still be in dispute? How could an inquiry presided over by a judge ever be held responsible for helping to lay the foundations of a modern witch-hunt?
One way of answering these questions is to point out that, of all the misconceptions about historical witch-hunts, perhaps the most important is the notion that they were driven forward by the common people – that they were based on the untutored instincts of the mob. This is the very opposite of the truth. In historical reality the witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the creation of the learned. They were set in motion not by ordinary people but by an educated elite consisting of bishops, ministers, magistrates and judges. These zealous agents of Christian purity pursued those they deemed witches not out of whims or fantasies but on the basis of what they sincerely believed to be solemnly attested facts. Historically, indeed, witch-hunts have always relied on judges and magistrates, and on official inquiries, in order to maintain their power and authority.
By turns fascinated and horrified by its vivid sexual content, many of those who were called upon, some three centuries ago, to scrutinise evidence of witchcraft, suspended their critical judgment. They unsceptically accepted accounts of crimes which were unlikely or impossible and came to believe unreservedly that they had discovered solid evidence for an evil conspiracy which did not in fact exist. As a result countless innocent men and women were convicted of offences they had not committed and many were executed or burned alive.
Whenever we allow demonological fantasies to develop in our midst, as we have in relation to the paedophile ring theory of children’s homes, there is always a danger that the same process of self-delusion may take place over again. For, when small, zealous groups become seized by this kind of fantasy, they may well, as has happened repeatedly throughout history, construct a narrative so powerful that they cannot escape from its grip. There is then a very great danger that they – or the agents of the church or state they succeed in mobilising – may begin unwittingly to ‘create’ the very evidence they need to intensify this fantasy.
Because fantasies of this kind are immensely powerful, and because we are all susceptible to them, it is more than likely that we will fail to recognise what has happened. This danger is particularly acute when, as was the case in demonological anti-semitism, a delusion is based upon a palpable reality. For, when fantasy is mixed with fact in unequal proportions, the fantasy can sometimes become even more dangerous and even more destructive.
In dealing with the modern witch-hunt which is the subject of this book, we are certainly not confronted all the time by unquestioning zealots driven by unbridled fantasies. Many of the men and women who have taken part in it are outwardly moderate, rational and sceptical. They are concerned sincerely to combat a problem – child sexual abuse – of whose reality there can, or should, be no doubt. The lesson of history, however, is that the existence of real enemies does not stop the tendency of people to battle against imaginary ones. And sometimes it is just those who are most zealous to crusade against real social ills who are most susceptible to imagining themselves pitted against dark conspiracies which do not in fact exist.
In the pages which follow, this is what I have tried to do. The tale which they contain is one of the most extraordinary that has ever been told. If I have related it at times as though it were fiction it is because, in some respects, this is exactly what it is. What renders it dangerous is that, until now, it has generally been taken to be fact.
1.I am half-quoting here the words of one of the scholars who has contributed most to our understanding of the role played by collective fantasies in Judaeo-Christian culture – the French historian Léon Poliakov. Poliakov made it his life’s work to study that phenomenon which contains so much of our cultural history, and which speaks so eloquently and so disturbingly about our cultural psychology – anti-semitism. Throughout all the centuries of Christian history, he writes, there has functioned ‘that terrible mechanism of projection that consists in attributing to the loathed people of God one’s own blasphemous desires and unconscious corruption’ (Léon Poliakov, The History of Anti-Semitism , vol. 1, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974, p. 274).
Poliakov’s most distinguished colleague in this country, the British historian Norman Cohn, has done more than any other scholar to illuminate the role played in history by collective fantasies and this book would almost certainly not have been written had my own interest in witch-hunts not been awakened by Cohn’s work some thirty years ago. See Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons: An Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witch-Hunt, Paladin, 1976; The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, Paladin, 1970; Warrant for Genocide: the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Penguin, 1970. As I have noted in the preface, all three books seek to establish the role played in history by collective fantasies and all three are concerned with ‘the urge to purify the world through the annihilation of some category of human beings imagined as agents of corruption and incarnations of evil’ ( Europe’s Inner Demons , p xiv ).
In the original editions of his works Cohn inclined towards psychoanalytic explanations, and sought to interpret collective fantasies in the light of the theories of Freud and Melanie Klein. This leads almost inevitably to a view hat modern examples of the witch-hunting mentality arise out of a kind of collective regression, as a result of which archaic modes of thought which have long been buried in our cultural unconscious, suddenly return to dominate our behaviour. His own rationale for accepting the ‘collective regression hypothesis’ is to be found in the conclusion to Warrant for Genocide, ‘A Case-Study in Collective Psychopathology’:
This view is clearly consonant with the idea that witch-hunts belong essentially to pre-rational modes of thought and that civilised societies will tend to grow out of them. While I have immense admiration for the work of Norman Cohn and the extraordinary manner in which he combines a rich historical imagination with meticulous scholarly research, I disagree with him fundamentally on this point. I would only add that Cohn has now retreated from his more psychoanalytical hypotheses and, in his ninetieth year, takes the view that there is too great a gap between the psyche of the individual and the conduct of entire societies to warrant the application of psychoanalytic hypotheses to history. The most recent paperback edition of Warrant for Genocide does not contain the conclusion from which the words cited above are taken.
3. Even our contemporary preoccupation with the threat from paedophiles has deeper historical roots than is generally recognised. Writing in 1951, the American journalist Howard Whitman warned that ‘Children in alarming numbers have been the victims of molesters, exhibitionists, perverts and pedophiles. The sex hoodlum, hanging around schools with comic books and bubble gum to lure his victim, has imbued parents with a stark new fear.’ According to Whitman the nation faced ‘the grotesque, baffling problem of pedophilia’. He warned that people in positions of trust in churches or schools sexually molested large numbers of their charges, raising the possibility that covert paedophiles had infiltrated institutions in order to gain access to children. As Philip Jenkins comments, in his book Moral Panic: Changing concepts of the child molester in modern America, (Yale, 1998), ‘It all sounds strikingly familiar’ (p. 53).
4. A study of the headlines which have accompanied news stories in Britain about sexual abuse and paedophiles indicates just how literal the process of demonisation has sometimes been. Headlines such as ‘Demons of the dark’, ‘Paedophile ring organised abuse at “evil” home’ and ‘Dealing with the devil’ are relatively common.
5. The figure of ‘hundreds of millions of pounds’ is an estimate which includes costs incurred by the police, by social services, by crown and civil courts, by the cps, by the court of appeal, by the North Wales Tribunal, by the prison service, by the ccrc, by the probation service, by the legal aid board, by other agencies and by psychiatric and medical reports. So far as civil claims for compensation are concerned, one firm in Cheshire alone, Abney Garsden McDonald, was already co-ordinating 700 cases by the year 2000.
7. On 16 November 2004, the Irish Times reported that the Residential Institutions Redress Board (the state compensation scheme for victims of institutional child abuse) had received 4,633 applications to date ‘and continues to receive applications at a steady rate’. The government estimate referred to was made in the 2004 annual report of the Comptroller and Auditor General.
8. Almost every other Canadian church has also been hit hard financially by these claims. As in Britain, some lawyers in Canada have begun actively to seek out complainants. In December 2000, to cite but one significant example, the Saskatchewan Law Society found it necessary to reprimand one of its members and fine him $15,000. This lawyer’s firm is responsible for bringing forward more than half of the 7,000 lawsuits which have been filed against church organisations that ran Indian residential schools. His offence was that he had solicited complaints from former residential students with misleading letters likely to create ‘an unjustified expectation’ of the levels of compensation which might be achieved.
9. Report of the Internal Investigations Unit (Police and Public Safety Division – Nova Scotia Department of Justice) regarding the investigation into alleged abuse of residents of Provincial youth facilities, pp. 357-8. This report was submitted to the deputy minister of justice in December 1999. It has not been published but, in October 2000, after pressure from a solicitor representing accused care workers and from journalists, a severely edited version of the report was released under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.
10. The Internal Investigation team go so far as to suggest not only that those who have made the allegations should not be described as ‘victims’, but they should not even be referred to as ‘complainants’. Since in most cases they have not made complaints to the police, but only claims for compensation to the government, they should be referred to as ‘claimants’.
11. On the conclusions of the Tribunal see below, chapter 63. It remains the case that, although allegations were made against 365 different people as a result of the 1991-2 police investigation in North Wales, the original allegations resulted in only one new conviction for sexual abuse – that of Peter Howarth. Later John Allen, the head of the private Bryn Alyn home was convicted and later still other care workers in North Wales were found guilty – though most continue to protest their innocence. It is partly because the original 1991-3 investigation resulted in so few criminal trials that the North Wales Tribunal was set up.
© Richard Webster, 2005