The making of a modern witch hunt

Richard Webster's investigation into the North Wales children's home scandal raises crucial questions about how our society deals with allegations of child abuse.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt , Richard Webster, Orwell Press.

The Secret of Bryn Estyn, the former children’s home in North Wales that became the focus of one of the biggest child abuse scandals of recent years, is, according to Richard Webster, the very opposite to the version of events supplied by the police, the media, the courts and the government. In a 700-page book, the result of nine years of research, Webster claims that, far from being members of a ‘paedophile ring’, staff at the North Wales children’s homes were the victims of a modern witch hunt and grotesque miscarriages of justice.

The bare bones of the Bryn Estyn story, also supplied on the Orwell Press website (1), are this. On 15 March 1992, 40 police officers arrested 16 men and one woman in and around Wrexham in North Wales. All but one had worked at Bryn Estyn, a care home for adolescent boys on the outskirts of Wrexham, which was closed down in 1984. According to reports which began to appear in the press in 1991, Bryn Estyn had lain at the centre of a conspiracy which supposedly involved the extensive homosexual abuse of adolescent boys by a paedophile ring, whose members terrorised their victims and subjected them to a regime of violence and brutality.

This triggered the largest child abuse investigation in Britain, which used a novel method of police investigation: trawling former residents of care homes for retrospective allegations. This method means that, instead of acting upon allegations of abuse made spontaneously by individuals, the police contacted those who were resident at the care home at the time of the alleged abuse.

The trawling method resulted in allegations from 650 witnesses, who accused 365 people of abusing them at homes throughout North Wales. When only six prosecutions followed, with only two new convictions for sexual abuse, the police and the authorities were accused of mounting a cover-up, with police officers said to belong to the very paedophile ring they were supposed to be investigating.

The story became a national scandal. A senior police officer, publicly accused of raping adolescent boys at Bryn Estyn, sued two national newspapers, a magazine and a television company for libel and won. However, rumours of a cover-up persisted; and in 1996 the government set up the largest Tribunal of Inquiry in British history, under Sir Ronald Waterhouse. In February 2000, the Tribunal made damning findings of extensive abuse in North Wales – although it did not find evidence of a police cover-up. By then, the police trawling operation which had begun there had spread to the whole of Britain. Police forces collected allegations against 5,000 former care workers and teachers, and hundreds were arrested.

What really happened? One purpose of Webster’s book is to conduct his own investigation into the Bryn Estyn affair, providing a powerful counter-narrative to the officially endorsed story of widespread institutional abuse. Webster argues that, while there were cases of abuse at Bryn Estyn, and two former members of staff pleaded guilty to physical and sexual abuse respectively, many of the allegations of abuse, and particularly those related to supposed police cover-ups and paedophile rings, simply could not be true. Using an impressive volume of documentation and a tight chronology of events, the book details inconsistencies and implausibilities in many of the allegations, and points out the flaws in official procedures that prevented these from being identified. He concludes that the ‘secret of Bryn Estyn’ is that ‘it was an ordinary community home where the majority of the staff did their best to look after the difficult adolescents in their care’ (p579).

This investigation is compelling, and at times fascinating. But it is not the most significant aspect of the book. While Webster’s writing skill makes the tome readable, what Webster terms ‘the story of the story’ is ultimately bewildering. Even when you make it through the mass of names, dates, and places, all of which are confused by the fact that Bryn Estyn closed in 1984 but the police investigation did not start until 1991, the gulf between the official version of events and the version uncovered by Webster’s investigation is so wide as to be incredible. The more persuasive Webster’s version seems, the harder it is to believe that official procedures came to such different conclusions. By page 581, when the appendices start, you are left not really knowing what to believe.

But that, in many ways, is the point. For in exposing the difficulties in attempting to prosecute for alleged cases of child abuse that happened in the past, The Secret of Bryn Estyn offers some undeniable truths. Allegations of child abuse, solicited from damaged young men by police officers and social workers actively seeking such allegations, should not simply be accepted as matters of fact. Changes in the law, which have sought to make prosecutions for child abuse more efficient and effective, make people highly vulnerable to being convicted as a consequence of false allegations. And these changes have taken place in a climate of insecurity and mistrust, which provides fertile ground for witch hunts of the most dark and dangerous kind. In these circumstances, not knowing what to believe is far preferable to accepting allegation as fact.

The police method of trawling for allegations of abuse that happened is based, it would seem, on a humane and commonsense notion: that children who are abused often do not report the abuse, with the result that their abusers can get away with it. If an adult later reports that they were abused as a child, it is even more difficult to prove the abuse, and convict the abuser. But by trawling the alleged victims’ peers, who would have also been in contact with the alleged abuser, it is deemed possible to ascertain whether the accused is likely to have committed those crimes, or whether the individual complainant is making a false allegation. In short, the idea seems to be that if a lot of people claim to have been abused by the same person, they probably were.

Logically, this process seems to make sense. However, it is fraught with dangers. The fact that allegations of abuse collected by trawling are not made spontaneously immediately introduces the power of suggestion into the proceedings. This can be compounded by certain psychological theories to do with the denial of abuse by its victims and the need for ‘disclosure’. This assumes that victims of abuse often initially deny they are abused, and therefore need to be prompted, or questioned several times, in order to disclose the ‘truth’ that they were in fact abused. It is not hard to imagine that individual police officers, working to build a case, can sometimes inadvertently steer their witnesses in a particular direction.

Major press coverage, with lurid stories of unimaginable horrors allegedly suffered by former care home residents, appeared at the time of the North Wales investigation. The offers of financial compensation to those who had been abused during their time in care could, one would think, easily sway young men with little money at their disposal towards making allegations when they might not otherwise – and how much more so when law firms realise the potential rewards of seeking compensation on behalf of those who could be victims.

All of this creates a situation ripe for false allegations of abuse – which, it should be stressed, often does not mean stories that are consciously or systematically made up. False allegations are fundamentally untrue. However, in a climate where individuals are continually confronted with the possibility they may have been abused and the awareness that their peers were allegedly abused, and when they are offered rewards for saying they were abused, they become highly suggestible, to the point where it is possible for them to believe that they were abused by a particular person in a particular way, even if it never happened in reality.

This is especially the case when dealing with such a vulnerable group as the former care home residents in North Wales. For the most part, these were young men with troubled backgrounds, who often ended up in care because of their brushes with the law and gained criminal records when leaving care. The significance of finding oneself suddenly on the other side, treated with respect by the police officers who would normally be arresting you, and hailed as a victim/hero, should not be underestimated.

As Webster writes: ‘People who have previously felt overlooked and insignificant may suddenly find themselves the centre of attention, concern and sympathy. At the same time the idea that they are now engaged in a battle against evil, in which many other people, including counsellors and social workers, are fighting alongside them, can be a source of great emotional energy. It may give people both a raison d’etre and a feeling of strength and solidarity which they did not previously have.’ (pp131-132)

This is not to say that police trawling operations, such as the one in North Wales, will solicit nothing but false allegations. Some allegations will be true. The difficulty lies in sorting which cases of abuse actually happened from which did not. But this is where Webster’s criticisms of the legal process used to prosecute child abuse cases comes into play.

As Webster notes, different alleged offences are normally tried separately in order to protect innocent defendants against the presumption of guilt. However, in certain circumstances, if crimes are sufficiently similar they can be tried together under the rules governing ‘similar fact’ evidence – meaning that testimony about one crime can be offered as corroboration of another. Again, this makes a certain logical sense – and it is easy to see how, if somebody stands accused of indecently assaulting several children in a similar way a long time ago, to try the crimes together appears to be both an efficient use of resources and the only possible way to secure a conviction.

But what if the allegations are false? Focusing on the sheer volume of allegations of depravity against an individual must surely sway a jury in a particular direction, and when many allegations are being dealt with, the quality of the specific allegations comes under less scrutiny. A crime that, because of the lapse of time between the alleged abuse and the allegation, is necessarily a case of the defendant’s word against the complainant’s, is tried on the basis of a defendant’s word against that of several presumed victims. At worst, this invites the possibility that false allegations are collected against individuals who are not guilty of the charges they face, and these false allegations are used as corroborative evidence that other false allegations are true. How can somebody hope to defend himself against that?

A report by the House of Commons Home Affairs select committee in 2002, titled The Conduct of Investigations into Past Cases of Abuse in Children’s Homes, included in its conclusions a caution against the increased use of the ‘similar fact’ principle, for precisely these reasons:

‘Whilst we accept that the criminal justice system needs to be more sensitive to the needs of victims and witnesses, we are concerned that the proposed removal of safeguards for the defendant…may further prejudice the defendant in historical child abuse trials. We are particularly concerned about the proposed relaxation of the rules of evidence, which may allow for greater admission of “similar fact” evidence. In our view, given the sensitive and difficult nature of investigating allegations of historical child abuse, there is a strong case for establishing special or additional safeguards for the exclusion of prejudicial evidence and/or severance of multiple abuse charges.’ (2)

As the Select Committee’s report indicates, since the North Wales children’s home scandal the law has been gradually moving further in the direction of relaxing the legal safeguards that presume defendants to be innocent, in order to secure convictions of sexual abusers whom it would otherwise be very difficult to convict. The trouble is that the extent to which these developments rightly punish sexual offenders for heinous crimes, and the extent to which they imprison innocent people on the basis of false allegations, we will probably never know.

The Secret of Bryn Estyn is invaluable in reminding us of these legal trends, and the dangers they can pose to people wrongly accused of abuse. It is also a timely commentary on cultural trends, and the dangers that the contemporary obsession with child abuse pose to the fabric of our society.

Towards the end of the book, Richard Webster details the numerous investigations into alleged abuses at children’s homes that were triggered by the investigations in North Wales, again involving massive trawling operations. As a consequence, residential care home workers – whether they find themselves accused of abuse or not – have become demonised. Such is the suspicion that now surrounds anybody working with children in such a setting, and so nervous have these workers become that they might face an allegation of abuse, that it is hard to imagine why anybody would choose to work in this low-pay, high-risk sector. Indeed, it is now assumed that the only reason why somebody would choose such a job is because they have a base motive for living in close quarters with children.

What this reveals, Webster argues, is ‘one of the most terrible instances of collective ingratitude’ towards people prepared to help the minority of troubled, abandoned young people our society produces (p574). And we have to ask what the general suspicion of care workers does to the young people in their charge. How does it affect young adults, having left care to gain jobs and families of their own, to be the subject of trawling operations that tacitly encourage them to think about their childhood in terms of abuse? Five minutes of fame and some small financial reward cannot compensate for the emotional pressure this must bring to bear: indeed, in the five years following the North Wales police investigation, three former residents committed suicide.

Moreover, the more false allegations of abuse that are solicited by police trawling tactics, the more this leads to what Webster describes as an ‘inflationary spiral of disbelief’, which sheds doubt upon any allegation of abuse. As Webster argues: ‘[O]ne of the greatest failings of the modern child protection movement is that, in its zeal to believe all allegations, it has betrayed the very children it seeks to protect and ushered in the return of the climate of disbelief that it sought to banish for ever.’ (p552)

Residential care workers are not the only group to find themselves vulnerable in this climate. An excellent review in the Times Educational Supplement encourages teachers to read Webster’s discussion of ‘similar fact evidence’ with care, as teachers too are ‘potentially vulnerable to allegations’ (3). Daycare workers, too, have found themselves accused of the most depraved acts, and been unable for several years to clear their names, despite acquittal early on by the criminal courts (see Child protection questions: Issues raised by the Lillie and Reed case, by Jennie Bristow). Where can this lead, except to a situation where we do not trust anybody to care for children without abusing them? Is this the kind of society that we want to create?

Introducing his book, Webster argues that ‘of all of 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 …[The witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries] were sent in motion not by ordinary people but by an educated elite consisting of bishops, ministers, magistrates and judges… Historically, indeed, witch hunts have always relied upon judges and magistrates, and on official inquiries, in order to maintain their power and authority’ (pp9-10).

Occasionally, our society does worry that it is in the grip of a ‘paedophile panic’, and points to illiterate mobs on housing estates running intimidation campaigns against the local paediatrician. The Secret of Bryn Estyn reminds us that the real danger comes, not from the passionate mob, but from the higher echelons of the British state. However the North Wales children’s home scandal started, in the end the protagonists were politicians, the police, and the law courts.

In the name of protecting children and punishing perverts, the state was able to embark on a crusade to cleanse society of an unspeakable evil, overturning core principles of truth and justice as it went, regardless of the wider damage this could cause to care workers around the country and those who had grown up in children’s homes. And now, it takes a book like Webster’s to force us to think what has become the unthinkable: that not every residential care worker is a paeodophile just waiting to get caught.

The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt by Richard Webster is published by the Orwell Press. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

(1) See the Orwell Press website. The Orwell Press is Richard Webster’s own imprint

(2) Home Affairs – Fourth Report, House of Commons

(3) No smoke without fire, Times Educational Supplement, 18 March 2005

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today