REVIEWS

The Secret of Bryn Estyn

The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt

by RICHARD WEBSTER

SHORTLISTED FOR THE ORWELL PRIZE

The Orwell Press Hardcover 2005 Paperback 26th January 2009

Book

IN 1991 RUMOURS BEGAN to circulate in North Wales that Bryn Estyn, a home for adolescent boys on the outskirts of Wrexham, was the centre of a paedophile ring. A massive police investigation was launched which, over the next ten years, spread to care homes throughout Britain. Thousands were accused, hundreds arrested, and the prisons began to fill up with convicted care workers. Some of these pleaded guilty for the simple reason that they were guilty. But the majority continue to protest their innocence to this day. In this book Richard Webster examines how a number of genuine cases of sexual abuse became the basis for an extraordinary collective fantasy and how rumours of a non-existent paedophile ring shattered the lives of hundreds of innocent care workers and their families.

‘This is an extraordinary book … gripping and coherent … a major achievement … Webster has admirBably succeeded in what the police … and two successive [inquiries] failed to do: discover what really happened.’ – Professor Jean La Fontaine, Evening Standard

‘This is a tragic story. I am in no doubt at all that a whole new genre of miscarriages of justice has arisen from the over-enthusiastic pursuit of allegations of abuse – some of which date back several decades. Richard Webster has done us all a service by documenting so meticulously what went wrong in this seminal case.’ – Chris Mullin MP

‘courageous…fearless…so closely and cogently argued that it demands attention’ – Gerald Haigh, Times Educational Supplement

‘I was one of those people who, until I read this book, believed what the press had told me about the North Wales scandal . . . I can remember how shocked we all were about what the [Tribunal] report contained … This book has made the scales fall from my eyes … It is a book of national importance.’ – Earl Howe, Shadow health minister

‘… meticulous and admirable …’ – Tanya Luhrman. Times Literary Supplement

‘It’s a story that has everything: personal animus, fantasy, intrigue, alleged Masonic conspiracy, bizarre sex acts and courtroom drama … This is brilliant stuff. It is fair, measured and brave. Webster does not deny abuse – only that it was endemic in residential care. This book should be read by … anyone interested in the human condition.’ – Mark Smith, Child Abuse Review

‘The Secret of Bryn Estyn is simply a marvellous book …It is thorough, well balanced and as compellingly written as a mystery novel.’ – Professor Mary de Young

‘In his massively researched, compelling recent book The Secret of Bryn Estyn, about the notorious North Wales child abuse scandal, Richard Webster demolishes the belief that there was a vast conspiracy of sexual corruption in Welsh care homes in the 1980s’…. – Leo McKinstry, Spectator

‘It is unarguable that Webster has a powerful case. The book will make uncomfortable reading for all those involved in investigating these cases, from police and lawyers to journalists and judges. Webster’s forensic skill … could well have been used by all of them, too. . . [His] detailed exposition of how the “scandal” unfolded, despite scant hard evidence, should be required reading for newsdesks. ’ – Christian Wolmar, The Oldie

‘Webster’s book … uses hard evidence, much of it released for the first time during Waterhouse, to chart the genesis of a modern witch-hunt … 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.’ – Simon Caldwell, Catholic Herald

Two book reviews :

Kelly, H. (2007). Kathy’s Real Story: A culture of false allegations exposed . Dunleer: Prefect Press.

Webster, R. (2009, paperback edition). The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The making of a modern witch hunt.  Oxford: Orwell Press.

By Mark Smith

As the Jersey historic abuse episode stutters to an ignominious conclusion with the sacrificial conviction of an elderly couple on what, in the great scheme of claims made, were pretty trivial offences, it is worth asking some serious questions about the wider phenomenon of historical abuse. These are questions that, over the past 15 years or so have been difficult to ask without risking accusations of being at best an apologist for child abuse or perhaps even a fellow traveler. One of the few crumbs of comfort I take from the election of the Con/Lib government is that it may take a more measured approach to this issue in contrast to the ideological obsession with child abuse and cavalier suppression of civil liberties evident under New Labour. David Cameron was in fact a member of the 2002 Home Affairs Committee that looked into the investigation and prosecution of cases of historical abuse and drew some pointed conclusions about that process, subsequently ignored by the Government. He could not have sat on that Committee without realizing that something at the heart of this whole business was rotten. I am encouraged, too that Professors Pat Sikes and Heather Piper this year published a book Researching Sex and Lies in Classrooms. Perhaps the tide is beginning to turn and we can at least start to engage with this issue on the basis of evidence and rational argument without being silenced by the shrill emotivism that it has come to surround it.

Galvanised by the above I review two books proffering contrary views on the subject of historical child abuse. Let me preface my reviews with some background. When accounts first began to surface over the course of the 1990s, I began by assimilating the emerging orthodoxy of widespread and endemic abuse in care settings. I reconciled myself that I had been lucky. Most of my experiences in residential child care over a 20 year period had been positive. Occasionally, misbehaviours could provoke a physical response from staff but I had not come across any systematic or institutionalised abuse. My ongoing PhD research, which is basically an oral history of Scottish residential schools confirms that I did not go about with my eyes shut and that no-one else who worked in the schools recognises the lurid accounts of daily beatings either.

Then allegations of abuse came closer to home. Over the course of the 1980s I worked in a List D School (the Scottish term for former approved schools), run by the De La Salle Brothers. Every year, a team of boys and staff travelled to an English CSE, St George’s in Merseyside, to play football. Towards the end of the 1990s staff there began to be implicated in abuse. In all nearly 100 staff were investigated for abusing children over previous decades. The tale of St. George’s features prominently in Richard Webster’s book, The Secret of Bryn Estyn.

Matters then reached still closer to home. The De La Salle Brothers became implicated in the abuse of boys in their care in Scotland. Allegations were laced with images of men in black robes indulging in gratuitous torture. I knew some of those against whom the allegations were being made. I knew one of those making claims of abuse. He and others spoke of experiences that were untrue to the point of being bizarre. I began to keep press cuttings of the emerging accounts and as cases came to court I sat through some of the sessions. I maintained this critical interest as other institutions I knew became embroiled in abuse scandals. A colleague who knew the St George’s situation told me that financial compensation was driving events there. While recognising that something funny was going on I struggled to find the compensation argument credible given the volume of allegations. I also didn’t think that the police would be taken in to such an extent. The publication of The Secret of Bryn Estyn caused the scales to fall off my eyes.

Bryn Estyn was the approved school at the heart of the North Wales child abuse scandal, which emerged over the course of the 1980s and 1990s and led, ultimately, to the UK government commissioning a Tribunal of Inquiry under Sir Ronald Waterhouse. Waterhouse concluded that while there was no evidence to support the more sensational claims of paedophile rings preying upon children in care there was, nevertheless, widespread physical and sexual abuse of children in council and privately-run children’s residential homes and schools across North Wales. Webster does not deny abuse noting that:

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. (p 4)

He does, however, provide compelling evidence to dispute the scale of the abuse averred by Waterhouse and in so doing casts serious doubt upon the efficacy of several prosecutions and convictions., including that of Peter Howarth, perhaps the most high profile conviction.

First published in hardback in 2005, Bryn Estyn received critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for political writing. Such acclaim, however, has not extended to the social work establishment, where the book has been largely ignored. This is illuminating because Webster, in a tome that extends to 700 pages, provides by far the most intellectually rigorous exploration of historical abuse available. At a time when we are assailed with injunctions towards evidence-based practice, the best available evidence on this subject is perhaps too uncomfortable to countenance. Webster is, however, persistent and Bryn Estyn was re-released in paperback on 15th February 2009, to coincide with the ninth anniversary of the publication of the Waterhouse Report. The paperback version also includes a post-script to take into account more recent events at Haut De La Garrenne in Jersey, where Webster was instrumental in exposing the obfuscation over the provenance of stories of human remains. Webster’s view of the Jersey situation would appear to have been borne out by events.

So where to start on this massively researched volume? Perhaps with the author himself. Webster describes himself as a cultural historian. His understanding of cultural history means that when he uses the term ‘witch hunt’ (as he does in the strapline to Bryn Estyn and, indeed, throughout his unfolding narrative) it is not a throwaway term but is grounded in a deep knowledge of the work of Norman Cohn, the chronicler of historical witch hunts. Witch hunts, contrary to public belief, are not the preserve of the mob but are invariably driven by the cultural elites of Church and State. They are constructed around a combination of fact and fantasy and when the two are mixed in unequal proportion, fantasy can overtake fact and can act to generate and intensify a particular web of belief, which becomes very difficult to unravel. When this happens Webster argues, “(T)here is only one way to undo its influence. This is to document how the narrative which has achieved such power was actually created in the first place. In short, it is to tell another story – the story of the story (p. 11). This is what he sets out to do in The Secret of Bryn Estyn. The ‘secret’ is that there was no widespread or systematic abuse there.

The book is an incredible read in every sense of the word, propelling the reader through its various twists and turns. As Webster says, “If I have related it at times as though it were fiction it is because, in some respects, that is exactly what it is. What renders it dangerous is that, until now, it has generally been taken to be fact” (p. 11). The fact that the book is a gripping read only adds to its appeal, which, ultimately, is its sheer authority. It provides a compelling deconstruction of Waterhouse’s account of events in North Wales. It goes on to narrate how a belief in systematic institutional abuse crossed the Welsh-English border into Cheshire and Merseyside and indeed to almost every police authority in the British mainland. The result of this is that, over the course of the 1990s, a quite incredible 8000 care workers were caught up in police ‘trawling’ operations, where officers, rather than investigating reports of abuse, actually set about uncovering such accounts through largely unsolicited interviews with former residents of care homes. This process, hardly surprisingly, unleashed waves of fabrication and fantasy, engulfing thousands of innocent care workers. This is where the witch hunt metaphor becomes particularly apposite. What has happened in respect of care homes over the course of the past couple of decades has roots in the same need within the human condition for demonological fantasy that fuelled earlier witch hunts. Only this time it is a secularised version driven, not by the Church, but by the media, the new high priests and custodians of morality. Labouring under the conceit of modernist rationality only acts to obscure and entrench the fantasy at the heart of many of our beliefs.

Scandals, Lynch and Bogen (1996) tell us, occur at moments ‘when history is up for grabs’. And of course Ireland, where the shift from Church (or Church and State) to a secularised liberal or neoliberal democracy has taken place over such a short timescale, may be particularly prone to the dynamics that emerge when one moral order is displaced by another. Rejecting the moral authority of the Church might be more readily reconciled in the national psyche if the Church can be identified as having abrogated any moral claim to support. And what better way to strip it of any moral authority than by implicating it, institutionally, in child abuse? And while the Ryan Report undoubtedly provides evidence of abuse and neglect in residential care, might this fact coalesce with a number of broader sociological and cultural factors to create the conditions for a witch hunt of the nature described by Webster? Might an unequal mix of fact and fantasy come to exist?

The journalist Hermann Kelly begins to raise such possibilities in his book Kathy’s Real Story, which sets out specifically to refute Kathy O’Beirne’s account of relentless familial and institutional abuse in her best-selling book Kathy’s Story (published in the UK as Don’t Ever Tell). Kelly does this fairly effortlessly through some basic investigative journalism (a quality largely missing from most journalistic incursions into this subject). Specifically, he shows that Kathy O’Beirne was not in the Magdalene Laundry she claims to base her account upon (or indeed any other).  He casts his net further, however, and asks some telling questions of some of the source material on institutional abuse in Ireland, and in particular the RTE programme States of Fear. Through a fairly rudimentary examination of the records of residential institutions he refutes some of the central claims made in States of Fear. He then goes on to discuss some of the headline cases of clerical abuse, many of which, ultimately have been found wanting in terms of their veracity. Kelly also discusses the role of the Residential Institutions Redress Board in providing what he sees as a state sponsored apparatus for the construction of claims of abuse based around the lure of financial compensation.

Kelly tells a similar, if less sophisticated, story to Webster. Both authors confront taken for granted beliefs about what residential care was like with hard facts and, in the face of these facts, received orthodoxies are found wanting. Both books capture well what it must be like for those accused of abuse, recounting some tragic stories. Kelly speaks of those accused of child abuse as being ‘regarded as the face of evil’ (p. 200). This is a telling phrase, for it is this idea of evil and the seeming need for it in the human condition that Webster develops in his postscript to Bryn Estyn. The focus of this quest to identify and root out evil has shifted from its personification in religious discourse in the Devil to more secular arenas. In its pursuit of evil the State can become more oppressive than any religious regime, its adherents sustained by what Webster calls a pornography of righteousness every bit as strident and dangerous as erstwhile religious zeal. In a secularised discourse there is perhaps no more potent replacement for the Devil than the brutes accused of abusing those they were supposed to care for. Yet is the demonisation of residential care and those who worked in it justified? Chillingly, Webster concludes his post-script by quoting Frankfurter, an American writer on witch hunts who argues that “atrocities take place not in the perverse ceremonies of some evil cult but rather in the course of purging such cults from the world” (p.30). Might the clamour to be seen to respond to undoubted abuses in care have unleashed atrocities of its own through the manner in which allegations of abuse have been pursued and prosecuted? And it is not just individuals who are the victims of this process. The crusade to purify residential care has replaced the tyranny of abuse with tyrannies of indifference and stultifying regulation. Other victims are those genuine victims of abuse whose accounts risk becoming lost among the false ones.

The subject of historical abuse is, according to Webster, one of the most extraordinary stories ever told, one that is crying out for rigorous and sophisticated sociological and epistemological examination and interpretation. In beginning to tell that story there is a need to consider all sorts of questions, such as what is abuse and might its definition change over time and indeed whether many abuse narratives may actually construct rather than merely describe experiences. (In support of this latter point I draw upon a statement given by a woman who claimed to have been abused in Kerelaw School in Scotland, where she said that she was unaware that she had been abused until the police came to question her about the claims of others). Instead of engaging in the level of analysis and interpretation required to reach conclusions about this subject that might do justice to its importance, it has been reduced to a latter day morality play, replete with its heroes and villains. This sorry state of affairs is bolstered by self-referential inquiry reports and, in Scotland at least, government funding of projects sustained by ideology rather than evidence. Sadly this is the level at which political and professional establishments seem happy to engage with the issue. As I said in the introduction, I wonder if there may be some signs of a shift.

If that were the case then reading Webster should be an essential starting point in any emerging understanding of historical abuse.

Mark Smith teaches at the School of Social Work of the University of Edinburgh and his writing on residential child care has been published widely. Mark’s book Rethinking Residential Child Care was published by Policy Press in 2009.  

READERS REVIEWS:

‘T has got hold of the book before me and is well into it. He says it’s gripping and frightening and obviously courageous. Will read it ASAP myself! Good luck.’ – A

‘I have completed reading your brilliant book and am going to read it again . . . It’s an astonishing book.’ – S

‘I do hope someone has the courage to run reviews. Have you had any personal threats? I thought it was an impressive and scholarly book, very badly needed. I literally felt ill on reading about some of the outcomes.’ – Professor X

‘I have just finished reading it. Absolutely superb, I shall now read it again. What a masterly job you have done!’ – E

‘The book is excellent! I must say I had assumed it would be very informative but rather like a text book. Not at all. I found it compelling reading and difficult to put down. Well done and thank you.’ – J

‘Thought I’d let you know that I was not really looking forward to reading 700 odd “dry, dusty” pages. But last night I couldn’t put the book down till 2.30am and was again reading it at 6am!! Riveting stuff.’ – R

Moral Panic ‘The Secret of Bryn Estyn’, first published in 2005, is an indictment of the British press, judiciary, police and the chattering classes. The story represented the projection of the mythical into the public arena in the form of a moral panic. The story became a national scandal, paraded through the press whose peddling of pap was in itself a scandal of horrendous proportions. Fired by “superstitious secularism” – devised and subsequently discredited in North America – it found apologists such as the Marxist journalist Bea Campbell who proclaimed the existence of Satanic cults infiltrating whole communities. The damage done to the victims of such “crusading” journalism (snatched from loving homes by intellectually limited and professionally myopic social workers) was incalculable.

According to first reports Bryn Estyn was a network of evil – a paedophile ring whose members included a senior North Wales police officer and other public figures. Over a period of ten years thousands were accused and hundreds arrested using the now discredited system of police trawling which reversed the age old principle of innocent until proved guilty. As Webster made clear some allegations were made almost by police invitation. In many cases the motivation for the allegations was to make money. The alleged paedophile ring never existed. Just two men were convicted.

In 1999 the BBC broadcast a programme entitled A Place of Safety in which several former residents of Bryn Estyn made allegations against staff members. Yet all the accusers had left the institution before the accused staff members had joined and had never met them. At least five of the seven complainants had previously made allegations which had been proved to be manifestly false, yet their new allegations were uncritically accepted at face value.

Webster’s complaint was that journalists, who should have pursued the truth, simply regurgitated falsehoods by neglecting their primary investigative duty. Facts were no longer sacred, opinion became “truth” and the journalists and false accusers received public awards which some, to their shame, have never acknowledged were bought at the expense of public trust and personal integrity. The recent case of alleged child abuse on Jersey shows the lesson has still not been learned and, meanwhile, the innocent remain in jail.

Webster never denied that some abuse took place. Indeed, he was relentless in his pursuit of the truth, identifying flaws in the police and public case against care workers, which transformed many baseless accusations into prosecutions by means of tactics worthy of a police state, in which the rules of normal justice were abandoned in order to “get a result”. False allegations were effectively encouraged and believed by those who had the intelligence to know better but lacked the capacity to use it. The real result was systematic injustice. It was a modern day witch hunt which the subsequent Waterhouse Enquiry, which Webster regards as a “judicial disaster”, failed to recognise, still less discover the truth which Webster so painstakingly uncovered.

I disagree with Webster’s correlation of moral panic with the “continuing reverence for the idea of evil” which he considers is “not only unreal” but “part of a fantasy of righteousness which has been encouraged by the Judaeo-Christian tradition over a period of centuries.” Using this analysis he suggests that “we disown and deny our own sexual and satanic impulses and attribute them to others” then licence ourselves to indulge such fantasies with ferocious condemnation of the supposed evil conspiracy.

In the case of Bryn Estyn was not the idea of evil which created the moral panic but the inability of human beings (individually and collectively) to identify or recognise objective reality. This failure was not motivated by the concept of evil but by personal pride, jealousy, untruths, lack of professional detatchment, vanity and willful myopia. The capacity of human beings to place themselves at the centre of a mythical world of their own creation is not necessarily tied up with the concept of evil. Yet such disagreement pales into insignificance against the damage done to society during this irrational affair.

We should never forget that facts remain sacred, opinion comes at a cost. In a free society people need to use their intellect to distinguish between one and the other. The real Secret of Bryn Estyn (ruthlessly exposed by Webster’s brilliant and enduring work) was that on this occasion they did not. Everyone should read this book to make sure it never happens again. Unquestionably five stars for this investigative classic. Buy it, read it. Your trust of those in authority will never be the same again.’ – Vine Voice

”We are back from holiday in Spain [and] we took the Bryn Estyn book with us. S. was quiet for four days. He just couldn’t put it down! Unbelievable yet horribly believable … I am sorry that we haven’t read it before but it came at a time when things were pretty awful … We knew we would have space in October. I hate flying, but the return journey wasn’t long enough I just want to read it in every spare moment.’

‘To quote from the book,”Both he and Wynne had led lives so troubled that they might have been driven to suicide even if the North Wales investigation had never taken place. It is almost certainly the case, however, that in making false allegations against people who had once cared for them and who genuinely tried, however inadequately, to help them, all three of these men had driven themselves – or been driven by those who encouraged them to make their allegations – even deeper into the misery which eventually overwhelmed them.” Says it all for me I’m afraid.’ – LS

Zoompad

@darrenlavertyx ‘I hope you suffer a slow, painful death like Webster’ – Darren Laverty

‘This is a book that MUST be read and I would hope that it will feature in libraries and discussions in the National Police College, Bramshill, Police Training Centres, universities, law schools, Houses of Parliament, social services departments etc etc. . . . . I feel that in writing this book you have performed a valuable public service. I wish it booming sales.’ – R

‘This is a monumental work which forensically disseminates the whole Bryn Estyn myth. My only criticism is that Webster is far too kind to some of those who made false allegations and engineered the whole thing. Greed and maliciousness abound throughout the telling and it should have been highlighted for what it was.’ – J

‘A story of false accusations, judicial blindness, bad journalism and innocent lives destroyed. The Secret of Bryn Estyn tells of the greatest series of miscarriages of justice in recent British history – how innocent lives have been destroyed, the public deceived and millions of pounds wasted in a witch-hunt against innocent people.’ – AP

‘Some very wild claims indeed were made about alleged events at the Bryn Estyn home, as detailed by Richard Webster – so wild that they could not possibly have been true. Yet they have been accepted by many as fact and lives have been ruined as a result. In times of heightened speculation fear, suspicion and good old fashioned gossip can make what in other times might seem unlikely, seem plausible, as Arthur Miller so vividly illustrated in The Crucible and non-fiction examples of which abound throughout history. This doesn’t mean that the claims are not true, merely that emotional detachment and verifiable evidence are vital to our search for the truth and justice.’ – D

‘I keep mentioning – you MUST read Richard Webster’s stunning book The Secret of Bryn Estyn. It explains the entire false allegations industry without, in any way, saying that abuse does NOT happen. As opposed to those (most of us) who either believe every claim or dismiss every claim, as usual, some are true, some are false but the great majority are somewhere in between. And the villains of the piece? The media, the police, the justice system and US – the stupid, lazy public.’ – Jonathan King

‘Richard Webster’s Secret of Bryn Estyn is a very important book. Social Care Managers, in particular, should read it carefully. It is hard to understand how the dismissal of one person could have such devastating consequences. There are lessons to be learned from almost every chapter. We owe Richard Webster a debt of gratitude for the time, the dedication, and the passion he brought to this work. His death brought his work back into the limelight again. May he rest in peace.’ – John Molloy

‘Dear Mr Cameron… if you (or Mr Hague) is really interested in the North Wales child abuse scandal (You’re not; these “Inquiries” smack of “our thoughts are with…” fake sincerity) – don’t bother with another Inquiry – read the detailed, researched ‘The Secret of Bryn Estyn’ by Richard Webster. It’s a doorstep of a book and costs £25 but will tell you everything you need to know – with explicit evidence and facts. Yes; Richard is indeed dead; but his research is so detailed – giving every proof and evidence, every date and day and time, statements from people alive and dead – that, at the end, you really believe you know the truth. One thing is for certain; if there ARE any charges on this historical inquiry, the book will be solid gold providing facts and information easily confirmed. And so many peoples’ accounts are proved false, it will illustrate what can happen when there is a “big story” – as this was, years ago. Also, I hate to say it but as a tax payer I could do without wasting millions more when simply reading a book will answer most of the questions.’ – TS

Allegations of abuse, particularly sexual abuse which has taken place a long time ago, pose particular problems for those investigating them. There are rarely any independent witnesses, and forensic evidence has obviously long disappeared.

Therefore, when allegations began to be made about abuse in care homes in North Wales, the police developed a novel approach to investigating them. They contacted former residents and asked them if they had been abused. This process poses a number of dangers. The police have to be very careful not to provide information that will contaminate the evidence, by inadvertently revealing details that can be used as the basis of false claims. The fact that such allegations could then lead to claims for compensation heightens this risk.

Webster’s thesis, supported by nine years of research, is that the whole investigative and judicial process in North Wales and other similar cases was fundamentally flawed and amounted to a societal witch hunt against child care workers.

There is, indeed, a sense of moral panic around child sex abuse which has now reached epidemic proportions – I have just noticed a sign in my cricket club saying I may no longer share the showers with anyone under 16.

In many cases, allegations that do not stand up to careful scrutiny have all too easily been believed. It is unarguable that Webster has a powerful case in much of his central argument: Alison Taylor, the main instigator of the North Wales inquiry gave conflicting accounts of various incidents, and Webster’s forensic dissection of her evidence will make an interesting libel case should she dare to instigate proceedings; the investigation by The Independent which first brought the story to wider attention was undoubtedly a shoddy piece of journalism that does not stand up to Webster’s detailed analysis; and, he is right to say that the Waterhouse inquiry into North Wales, which ran to 1000 pages, was a shoddy piece of work conducted by a judge who was past his sell by date and which started from the wrong premise because it was based on the assumption that the allegations were true, rather than making any attempt to assess their worth.

That is not to say there was not a lot of abuse of children in some homes. But, ironically, the homes in North Wales were probably not among them. Webster’s detailed exposition of how the ‘scandal’ unfolded, despite scant hard evidence, should be required reading for newsdesks.

However, there was at least one well-founded conviction since the defendant, Stephen Norris, admitted his guilt. Webster ignores the details of this case and clearly rather wishes it had not happened because he is so intent on concentrating instead on the flaws in the many others that emerged in its wake.

That is because Webster’s perspective is entirely from the point of view of the defendants. He glosses over the sheer horror endured by victims of child abuse and ultimately Webster seems only to accept the guilt of alleged perpetrators if they have actually confessed to their crimes. He argues, therefore, that the police should completely abandon all trawling operations into historic child abuse cases – interviews with former residents to ascertain whether they had been abused – on the basis that they are not only a waste of money but highly likely to result in miscarriages of justice. He accepts that the price will be many abusers going unpunished but he quotes Lord Woolf – ‘it is more important that the innocent are not wrongly convicted’ – to reinforce his point.

Webster’s solution is to revert to the legal principle that allegations of similar behaviour cannot be used in prosecutions. Allowing ‘similar fact evidence’ opens the way for witnesses to make up evidence that cannot be easily refuted but which cumulatively makes an apparently good case for the prosecution.

The book will make uncomfortable reading for all those involved in investigating these cases, from police and lawyers to journalists and judges. Webster’s forensic skill in highlighting contradictions in statements – such as care workers not even having been employed in the home at the time of the alleged abuse – could well have been used by all of them, too. His accounts of the cases make for compelling reading, although he could have done with a more brutal editor to reduce the sheer bulk of this tome whose central message would have been made all the stronger had Webster shown just a bit more compassion towards the many victims he accepts do exist. – Christian Woolmer

Waterhouse Titanic hits iceberg’  After reading this, Waterhouse will flounder, along with the hitherto perceived unsinkability of the SS Child Protection Value Statements. Your emotions can hardly fail to be triggered by this book; if you have been professionally involved in statutory child protection you will scream “heresy”, trash the book and demand that the author be burned at the stake; if you have been falsely accused of child abuse you will sob “at last” and demand that Webster be fêted as the ultimate whistleblower. For, although the core of this book is the total demolition of the Waterhouse findings into the allegations of organised child abuse and paedophile rings in the child care homes of England, what gives it authority is the extraordinary lengths Webster has gone to place the whole Waterhouse episode into the context of the child protection industry, mass delusion and paedo-hysteria. You have only to read McLean and Elkind’s exposé of the Enron corporate bankruptcy fiasco to see a striking comparison. Enron managed to persuade their auditors to re-write the rules of financial investigation so as to make massive debts appear to be massive assets; North Wales Social Services managed to persuade their police to re-write the rules of police investigation so as to make what, at worst, were rare isolated instances of child abuse, appear to be child abuse on a massive scale. Yet, in both the Enron boardroom and the Waterhouse hearing room, in both the Enron rank-and-file offices and the grim social services case meeting rooms, the actors in these dramas were behaving in what they thought were entirely reasonable, indeed praiseworthy, manner. Groupthink rules, OK? Webster has of course the advantage over Waterhouse in that he could devote several years to poring over the evidence and ruthlessly testing it, going back to the original source material, without a hard newspaper or tribunal deadline, and working in a private and academic environment without a boss; Waterhouse had a few weeks to glance over thousands of pages, giving witnesses an audience rather than a cross-examination, assuming as accurate social workers’ impressionistic reports, with the press and politicians baying for answers right now, and working in a highly public setting under instructions, whether covert or not, from his bosses. In the end, the conclusions we should now draw from Waterhouse are self-evident: some children from care homes will, as adults, accept cash in exchange for making up stories of abuse; but the Waterhouse inquiry managed to construct on these foundations a magnificent castle-in-the-air which Webster demolishes brick by brick. Additionally, Webster is able to present us with the history of comparable episodes in the past: mediaeval witchhunts and the Waugh & Stead media-led child abuse hysteria of the 1880s. These witchhunts are reported as being run by the educated and literate of that age and not by the middle-ages equivalent of Portsmouth anti-paedophile vigilante groups or the lynch mobs of the North of England. Or is it history? Webster’s historical account takes us to the feminist MacKinnon/Rush manifesto of 17th April 1971, which he presents as the spring from which much of the river of present day child protection culture flows. This culture — ‘children do not lie’, ‘all men are potential abusers’, ‘children who deny abuse are psychologically blocking and will disclose given time’ — is still active in the minds of NSPCC staff, paediatric psychologists, expert witnesses, and even some Divorce Court judges, despite the Butler-Sloss recommendations and her report on the Cleveland non-abuse scandal. Webster’s book is the most significant objective narrative of how the child protection system has become corrupted by the very people who, though perhaps initially sincerely motivated out of care for children, have come to share in the same mass delusion, leading them to incarcerate the innocent and split up functioning families: it should be required reading for every senior manager in Social Services, teacher vetting panels and Custody Evaluation.’ – Roy Philip Everett

‘Your book has altered my perceptions. I was awed by the sustained level force of your argument – and I enjoyed it . . . It’s a great book’ – B

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