A RIGHTEOUS ZEAL?

AFTER FAILING TO ATTEND two disciplinary hearings in front of local councillors, Taylor was finally dismissed on 3 November 1987. When she later took Gwynedd County Council to an industrial tribunal, the council chose to settle out of court rather than fight the action, but it is reasonably clear that this move was a pragmatic compromise rather than a principled reversal of their original decision.

The outcome of the industrial tribunal notwithstanding, Taylor had suffered a disastrous setback. If, as the evidence suggests, she had launched the original 1984 police investigation partly in an attempt to shore up a precarious position and keep her job with Gwynedd Social Services, she appeared now to have overreached herself. She had destroyed both her career and her family’s livelihood. As a direct result of her actions she was now distrusted by many of her colleagues and regarded with wariness by her former employers and the police.

Faced by such an outcome, most campaigners would give up the fight and rebuild their lives elsewhere. Taylor, however, did not give up. In part this was because she was an exceptionally determined woman who was unusually resilient. However, there was perhaps another reason. For, in choosing the role of a campaigner against child abuse, Alison Taylor had, almost inevitably, bestowed upon herself a quite extraordinary degree of power. The role of the moral crusader is well established in our culture. Those who find themselves playing this role most naturally are usually motivated by an idealism which is entirely genuine. Moral crusaders are often seized by the conviction that the world in which they find themselves is deeply corrupt and the only course open to them is to oppose the tyrannical regime to which they believe they are subject.

Although some observers might feel that the kind of righteousness described here is at odds with the indifference to the truth which Taylor appears sometimes to have shown, to think in this manner is to fail to understand what might be called  ‘the psychology of righteousness’. For throughout human history the pattern of conduct displayed by those people who seem to be motivated by a burning conviction in the rightness of a particular cause has been disturbing. Again and again it becomes apparent that those whose consciousness is dominated by feelings of righteousness, appear to be psychologically incapable of weighing the moral significance of individual acts according to any calculus, other than one derived from their own most passionate beliefs. Indeed, feelings of righteousness sometimes play such a role in an individual’s self-image that they overpower ordinary moral sensitivity. Such feelings make it psychologically difficult to acknowledge even the possibility that any action taken in pursuit of an aim which is considered right could conceivably be bad or immoral.

The pattern of conduct described here does not belong to any aberrant or deviant cultural tradition. It is implicit in much of the bible and was made explicit by Puritan writers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Puritan officer in Cromwell’s army who saw in the words of Psalm 137 – ‘Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the rock’ – a licence to murder the infants of Irish Catholics, was merely taking to its logical terminus a doctrine which was openly formulated by some of his Christian contemporaries. ‘God is an absolute God,’ wrote William Perkins, a pious academic and a fellow at Christ’s College, Cambridge, ‘and so above the law; and may therefore command that which the law forbids.’ Under such doctrines, deception could very easily become legitimate, as is recognised by the historian Michael Walzer:

Joshua’s stratagem in the battle for Ai, Abrahams father to avow his wife before Pharaoh, Rehab’s lie to the king’s messengers: all this might be justified by God’s command. Rehab hid the spies, Perkins argues, ‘not in treachery but in faith’. As God’s instruments, men may sometimes act in ways to all outward appearances unjust. … Alexander Leighton allowed considerable latitude to the saintly spy: ‘he may conceal the truth, or some part of the truth, change his habit, make show of what he meaneth not to do. In all of which he must take heed that [his lies] be not in matter of religion.’

Although we might like to think that this attitude towards deception is remote from the realities of modern secular society, there is no convincing evidence that this is the case. In business, in international relations, and in party politics there are many examples of the manner in which righteous duplicity, as sanctioned by Puritan divines, still plays a significant role in our public life. Indeed habits of righteous deception have become in some quarters almost second nature. In many cases the person who is in fact practicing duplicity may barely perceive the fundamental dishonesty of their own actions and may, because of the very intensity of their righteous zeal, sincerely believe in their own moral probity.

To say this is not to suggest that Alison Taylor stands simply and transparently in the tradition of righteous crusading which is described here. For one of the enduring temptations for almost anyone who is brought up in a Puritan culture is to borrow the robes of righteousness. These robes can then be used to clothe motives which may sometimes have a great deal more to do with self-interest than altruism, or withheld opportunistic acquiring of power than its renunciation. Because ‘pure’ righteousness is itself, almost inevitably, stained with some form of self-interest, and because it may go hand in hand with an element of dishonesty, it may be extremely difficult to distinguish it from dissembled righteousness; indeed often these two forms are inextricably woven together. But it is perhaps only if we locate Alison Taylor’s conduct somewhere in this wide spectrum of behaviour that we can begin to understand the nature of her crusade, and the extent to which an entire society has come very close to entering into complicity with it. What seems clear is that whenever a cause is regarded as holy and righteous, as the pursuit of alleged abusers now undoubtedly is, it follows that any society which remains essentially Puritan in its outlook will tend to look with a degree of sympathy on any conduct apparently devoted to that cause, however doubtful or devious that conduct may seem. It is also sometimes the case that those who begin by disassembling righteousness for their own ends may actually succeed in deceiving themselves about their true motives. They may end by believing in their own righteous vocation and may actually find it difficult to acknowledge the extent of their own dishonesty in the cause to which they have devoted themselves.

Indeed there are many indications that a course of conduct which may originally be developed through conscious acts of ‘justified’ deception may gradually come to be seen by the person who follows it in very different terms. Claims which appear to be consciously false, and which may originally have been so, can all too easily become delusions or partial delusions – components in a distorted belief-system which is maintained with at least a degree of what would ordinarily be termed ‘sincerity’.

Whether or not this perspective on Taylor’s conduct is accepted, it is important to recognise the extent to which Nefyn Dodd remained in many respects vulnerable to criticism. Knowing what she did about his regime at Tŷ’r Felin, Taylor may well have felt that a victory for her own particular kind of righteousness was still possible. To many who knew him professionally at this time, the idea that Nefyn Dodd was vulnerable might seem surprising. Dodd himself was highly regarded by many senior officers in the social services department and he had also impressed many others who had come into contact with him, from police officers to head teachers. He held firmly to the view that difficult and disturbed young people needed a strong structure imposed upon their lives before they would feel secure, and the force of his own personality, coupled with his sheer physical size (during his time at Tŷ’r Felin he weighed eighteen stone) made him more effective at imposing such a structure than many. Some of those who spoke well of the regime he maintained at Tŷ’r Felin would readily admit that he was ‘rough-tongued’ and that he would chastise young people verbally. But reliable evidence that he punished young people physically is much more difficult to come by. Many former residents have spoken well of him in this respect. Even Hannah Thomas appeared almost reluctant to believe her own allegations when she reaffirmed them in 1991. In her police statement she made it clear that ‘My times at Tŷ’r Felin were happy times. That is as happy as you could be whilst in care. I was allowed a lot of freedom and was never struck by any member of staff. In fact I still felt some allegiance to Mr Dodd.’

Others have been less qualified in their praise. In 1992 for example, after publicity about the latest allegations against Tŷ’r Felin, the Dodds received a letter from former resident Peter Millett which expressed what many others almost certainly felt about their time at Tŷ’r Felin. The letter, which ends by sending a greeting to the Dodds’ daughter, Sian, is reproduced here as it was written:

Dear Mr and Mrs Dodd, Just a few lines to see how you are keeping. I’m sorry to hear about the troubles you two have been having. I my self have been interviewed by the NORTH Wales cid, and let me asure you i told them if anything you helped me with my Problem’s and in no way did you Abused me in any way what so ever and if need be i would stand in court and say my part for you. Mr and Mrs Dodd if anything this sounds like some little shit is trying to Get his own back on you. Mr and Mrs Dodd if anything i owe you a big favour because if it wasent for you and youre staff putting up with my tantrum’s and violent outburst’s i would surely be in H.M. Prison. As you know im in the Welsh Guards at the moment serving in Northern Ireland About fifteen miles from Londonderry Well the both if you i WISH YOU the very best in the future and all the best in the troubles youre having Again i thank you for having me.

Good luck
Peter Millett x
P.S. Please say hello to sian

In a number of respects, Peter Millett’s letter is a powerful testimony both to the value of the regime at Tŷ’r Felin and to the fact that, at the heart of it, was a strong and determined impulse to care for the exceptionally difficult and disturbed young people. However, it would be wrong to suggest that Dodd’s approach to childcare was beyond reproach.  The major criticism of his regime,which was outlined by some observers at the time, is that it depended too much on an ethos of control and regimentation.

Writing in January 1978, Dodd himself had expressed the desire to achieve a balance between control and permissiveness: ‘Our setting should not demand conformity, but there should be an underlying sense of control. A moderate amount of permissiveness, space and freedom are essential so that our children have an opportunity to behave in a characteristic way, and within limits give vent to their anxieties and feelings, otherwise observation of their behavior should not be meaningful.’

Some visitors to the home came away feeling that these aims had been achieved. A Welsh Office inspector in 1978 expressed the view that there seemed to be a ‘warm relationship’ between Dodd and the children. Much later, in 1989, inspectors noted that ‘the general atmosphere was relaxed and friendly’. However, others have since expressed different views. Dewi Evans, the director of social services for Carmarthen, visited the home in 1981. He told the North Wales Tribunal in 1997 that Tŷ’r Felin had the atmosphere of an army camp: ‘the kerb-stones were all painted white, the youngsters were in uniform and were required to wear a tie with Tŷ’r Felin on it, and every time they went to the shop for sweets they had to bring back a receipt.’

Under cross-examination, however, Evans admitted that the report he had written at the time, while mentioning the use of uniforms and expressing non-specific reservations about Dodd’s management style, had made none of the criticisms he now expressed sixteen years later. Whatever disputes there may be about the degree of Dodd’s authoritarianism, there can be no doubt at all that the regime at Tŷ’r Felin was informed by it. It is clear that this affected not only Dodd’s relationships with children, but also in the way he treated his staff. Like many people with powerful personalities he appears to have been unaware of the extent to which he could intimidate people almost by his mere presence. Massively confident in his own approach to child-care, and touchingly intolerant of criticism, he tended to drive dissent underground.

One feature of Dodd’s regime was his habit of communicating with his staff in writing. Partly because he was frequently absent from Tŷ’r Felin while engaged in his other duties, and partly because his staff worked staggered hours, he rarely held house meetings. Instead he relied on what he called ‘management by memo’, writing opinionated and sometimes abrasive messages for his staff in the Tŷ’r Felin log book.

‘My systems are based on several years in the work with more formidable colleagues,’ ran one entry, ‘so don’t doubt my ability, question your own’. Perhaps because he was himself aware of the negative effects of his frequent criticisms, another entry, written in January 1980, ran as follows: ‘There is a true saying “To be continually admonished, is to be continually discouraged” so for God’s sake and the children’s give me an opportunity to express satisfaction of your work.’

Although he frequently rebuked his staff for criticising him behind his back, the vigorous and sometimes bullying nature of his log book entries would almost inevitably tend to encourage the very tendency they ostensibly opposed. All members of staff, except June Dodd, were subjected to criticism. As the Waterhouse report noted, however, Alison Taylor, as deputy officer-in-charge ‘fared rather better than the others’.

In the entry Dodd wrote on 29 March 1980 there seems even to be a note of regret at her imminent departure to her social work course in Wrexham: ‘AGT has responded by doing that bit “EXTRA” which separates the professional from the wage earner. I am sure she will be missed when she goes on CQSW …’

Like many insecure leaders in all walks of life, Dodd ran the institution over which he presided as a kind of fiefdom and was vigilant about any attempts to challenge his authority. ‘Do not be tempted to usurp my position,’ he wrote in the log book, ‘or you might have to take on something no one else at this time can cope with.’ It would be quite wrong to stress this side of Dodd’s character to the exclusion of all else, but it was an important dimension in the way that Tŷ’r Felin was run. This was reflected in the view of Dodd’s regime that was contained in Gwynne Owen’s report to the Crown Prosecution Service:

In the opinion of the investigating officer,  Joseph Nefyn Dodd is a strict disciplinarian, jealously protective to maintain and be seen to maintain a well run establishment. He displays varying attitudes of rigidity and flexibility and sternness and kindness, he is somewhat vain and immature in some respects, but he seems anxious to provide a secure and loving environment for unfortunate children.

Whereas some members of staff appear to have accepted the regime he imposed uncomplainingly, other staff members – not only Taylor herself would undoubtably have been aware, and this can only have strengthened her determination to press on with her campaign against the council in general and Nefyn Dodd in particular. In the first place it meant that she could wage her campaign in the knowledge that at least some elements of the resentment she harboured against Dodd were soundly based. Insofar as she really did experience Dodd’s regime as rigid and oppressive she could the more easily justify to herself bringing forward allegations against him whose reliability she was in no position to guarantee. In the second place the resentment harboured by some of her colleagues (and by some social workers) towards Dodd meant that there was a significant pool of people who were ready and even keen to think the worst of him.

What was perhaps even more important was that there were some occasions on which Nefyn Dodd’s behaviour had provided even clearer grounds for the kind of righteous criticism that Alison Taylor was intent on bringing forward. It is to the most important of these that we now must turn.

The Secret of Bryn Estyn the making of a modern witch hunt – Richard Webster @2005

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