Simon Caldwell on a disgraceful witch-hunt
The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt by Richard Webster, Orwell Press £25 ‘Did you ever see anyone with the devil?” asked Judge Danforth in The Crucible. In the late 1980s, similar questions were being asked in this country, but the “satanic ritual abuse” cases were exposed as fantasy.
Not to be put off, those building careers around such theories responded to criticism by secularising them. In came the idea of “organised” abuse, orchestrated by a national network of “paedophile rings”. This theory was promoted by credulous journalists, overzealous social workers and crusading politicians.
Such rings were said to operate in care homes. Children were unable to complain about them because the police, through Masonic connections, were in on the abuse. But this was as much a fantasy as the satanic ritual abuse scares that preceded it, notwithstanding, of course, the fact that a number of staff had abused children in their care.
The witch-hunt took off in spectacular fashion after a national newspaper published a front-page article in December 1991 that focused on Bryn Estyn care home in north Wales. The article hinted at the existence of a paedophile ring and implied the involvement of a recently retired police superintendent, whom it named.
Three years later, the officer won a libel case against HTV, Private Eye, The Observer and Independent newspapers after a jury concluded that the three men who accused him must have been lying. But by then the police had also bought into the popular narrative and were “trawling” for abuse allegations from former care home residents. These led to a proliferation of false allegations. Secular versions of Judge Danforth’s leading question, “Did you ever see anyone with the devil?”, were being asked of a pool of potential witnesses, many of whom had records of dishonesty.
Just how dangerous it was to suggest names, ideas and, on some occasions, compensation to some of these people was illustrated when the case of David Jones, the former manager of Southampton Football Club, was brought to court by Merseyside Police in December 2000. Jones’s main accuser had worked as a homosexual prostitute to fund a £150-a-day cocaine habit. When this man appeared in court he was half way through a sex change carried out while serving a seven-year sentence for armed robbery. In prison he was said to have boasted of making allegations against Jones to win compensation to pay for his operation.
St George’s, the care home where Jones had worked in the 1980s, was run by the Nugent Care Society, the social services branch of the Archdiocese of Liverpool, and was the subject of the largest trawling operation ever conducted. The inquiry produced hundreds of accusations against 91 former members of staff, including Stonyhurst-educated Basil Williams-Rigby, jailed for 12 years in 1999, and Mike Lawson, a former police officer who in 2000 received seven years. Both maintained their innocence. “I go to jail with a clear conscience,” Lawson told the courtroom after sentencing.
Such was the panic caused by the scale of the allegations that a Tribunal of Inquiry under Sir Ronald Waterhouse was set up to investigate homes in north Wales, where the scare had originated. Richard Webster shows how the inquiry failed to establish the truth. The report, Lost in Care, published in February 2000, was damning. But at least Waterhouse did not suggest the existence of paedophile rings; he also exonerated the police from complicity in the alleged crimes.
That the truth ever found its way to the surface was largely down to the thousands of falsely accused care workers and their friends and families organising themselves into campaign groups. A breakthrough came in 2002 when a Home Affairs Select Committee of MPs recognised that trawling operations, by then being carried out by more than 30 of the country’s 43 police services, were creating a “new genre of miscarriage of justice”. The findings were received sympathetically by the judiciary and within months Williams-Rigby and Lawson walked out of the High Court as free men after winning their appeals.
Webster’s book is a work of national importance. He uses hard evidence, much released for the first time during Waterhouse, to chart the genesis of a modern witch-hunt to its horrifying conclusions. He investigates the accusations that led to the imprisonment of some of the most notorious offenders, such as Peter Howarth, and demonstrates why they were false; he reveals the failings of the criminal justice system and offers remedies; exposes the key figures behind the scare, and puts the propensity for witch-hunting in its cultural, sociological and historical context.
The book is rich in anecdotes that bring to life the human cost of the scandal. In 1996 a convicted fraudster obtained a wheelchair, pretended to be braindamaged and persuaded a friend to pose as his carer. They joined an evangelical church and conned the congregation into giving money for a new wheelchair. Then one day the conman stood up, walked to the front of the church and declared that he had been miraculously cured. When shown to be lying, he accused parishioners of sexually abusing him. The police didn’t believe him. He then said he had been abused in care, and a trawling operation was launched against a care worker, Paul Hadfield. The jury did not accept the original complaint but convicted Hadfield on charges levelled by a second man.
While waiting to be sentenced, Hadfield committed suicide. He left a note protesting his innocence. “There is so much wrong with the way retrospective allegations of sexual abuse are investigated... Something must be done about this,” he wrote.
Now, with the publication of this remarkable book, Hadfield and others like him may find some justice and some peace.