BY SIMON CALDWELL
Two CATHOLIC Care workers wrongly convicted of sex abuse have criticised the Church for treating them as outcasts.
Basil Williams-Rigby and Michael Lawson spoke out after the Court of Appeal quashed their convictions last Friday.
They say they were victim of "trawling", a practice condemned by a House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee last October for creating a "new genre of miscarriage of justice" because it involved police soliciting complaints against named individuals from ."vulnerable" people who stood to win compensation for making them.
Mr Williams-Rigby and Mr Lawson were among 91 former employees of the same Merseyside Catholic care home, which cannot be named for legal reasons, to be accused under Merseyside Police's Operation Care.
They claim the Church did little, outside of the prison chaplaincy service, to support them even though Archbishop Patrick Kelly of Liverpool was kept informed of their plight by a number of accused people and their families, fellow workers, experts in the field of special education, campaign groups and Crosby Labour MP Claire Curtis-Thomas.
Mr Williams-Rigby, 57, was first suspended then sacked by the Nugent Care Society, the Liverpool archdiocesan social services organisation that employed him. He said he was treated like a "stinking fish" as soon as he had had been accused.
He said: "I have very little faith in Nugent Care Society. They gave me very little moral support. I gave 25 years of my life to that society with only about three or four days off on sick leave during that time. I think I
gave very good service to the society and they dropped me like a hot potato."
Valerie Shaw, a former colleague of Mr WilliamsRigby, said that shortly after he was convicted, staff at Nugent House, Billinge, Lancashire, where he was last employed, were instructed to have nothing to do with his family.
Mr Lawson, 62, said that during his trial he could not even rely on Nugent to produce records to show the home was regularly inspected, a failure he claims damaged his case because it helped to wrongly portray the home as an absolute "sin bin of abuse".
Kathleen Pitt, Nugent's newly-appointed director, insisted however that the society did all it could to be fair. "At the time, Nugent Care did take the best possible advice as to what our responsibilities actually were," she said.
"We were advised that we had to follow and accept the due process of law and we followed that advice."
She said that Nugent had to balance its responsibilities to its staff with those to the complainants, who had been in the care of the society.
Miss Pitt added: "We didn't only assist the police, who were making the inquiries, but also assisted staff and their defence solicitors and consequently feel we have been fair and evenhanded throughout." Chris Saltrese, a solicitor who specialises in representing victims of false allegations, disagreed. He said: "Practically no support was given to these men by their former employers, which I think is to say the least regrettable.
"They were all too willing to assist the police and that was not balanced in any way by assistance given to former and present employees.
"Nugent Care gave too little assistance too late. Although Nugent Care's officers were helpful towards the latter end of the Operation Care inquiry, their assistance at the outset of the inquiry was missing."
He said Nugent was unwilling to help victims of false allegations in the wake of a mistake it had made in 1986 when it rejected advice and publicly supported Alan Langshaw, a care worker who was later jailed after he pleaded guilty to abusing boys.
Mr Saltrese said: "They made a bad decision in the 1980s and have compounded that error by sitting on their hands for the last seven or eight years. If they didn't think there were cases against 91 people they had a duty to speak up and say what was going on."
He added: "I don't think there can be much doubt that there have been over a hundred wrongful convictions as a result of trawling operations. We are talking about the greatest series of miscarriages of justice in English legal history."
Archbishop Kelly told The Catholic Herald that he could not express any reservations about trawling operations because he simply did not have enough time to examine the "details".
But he said it would be wrong, in his view, to speak against false allegations in case it caused distress to a single person who had been genuinely abused.
He said: "I have people saying I am not bothered about false accusations, others saying I am not bothered about the abuse of children. We have had a lot of people coming to us saying they are suffering greatly.
"To put it sharply, there has to be a pastoral response to the person who is guilty. There are some situations where you have to realise that the pastoral response to one person becomes a burden on another."
But Mr Lawson said he believed he and his family were victims too. "We produced evidence to show a lot of these people who made allegations were lying," he said.
"Does he (Archbishop Kelly] believe that 91 people in one of his schools, who had independent police checks, were guilty? Does he really believe they are guilty? Come on!"
Mr Lawson was sent to jail for seven years in 2000 for
17 counts of indecent assault against seven people between 1978 and 1988, while Stonyhurst-educated Mr Williams-Rigby was jailed for 12 years in 1999 for 22 sex offences against four people in the early 1980s.
Lord Justice Kennedy, Mr Justice Crane and Mr Justice McCombe heard new evidence in both cases that contradicted the original, uncorroborated accounts.
Former residents John Kellaher from Warrington, Cheshire, and Robert Harrison from Manchester testified that the abuse alleged to have been committed by Mr WilliamsRigby in a dormitory could
not have occurred without
them witnessing it.
Another witness, Wade Walsh from Birkenhead, the Wirral, came forward to say that he had heard one accuser boast in jail that he had made up allegations against Mr Lawson to obtain compensation to pay for a sex change.
Mr Walsh said the man told him he had made similar allegations against Wolverhampton Wanderers football manager David Jones to gain compensation and was "brassed off" that the case had collapsed in December 2000. The accuser is now involved in a class action against Nugent Care.
The investigation into the care home where Mr Jones, Mr Williams-Rigby and Mr Lawson worked has resulted in 22 arrests and five convictions, two of which were for comparatively minor offences. Most people were either acquitted or the cases against them collapsed or were dropped.
Operation Care has now concluded but it has formed the model on which many of the trawling operations in more than 30 of the country's 43 police forces are based.
Editorial Comment: Page 9