Saturday, 10 November 2012

Aaronovitch: Beware a modern Salem over child abuse

The following piece from two days ago by David Aaronovitch is too important to hide behind a firewall:

Beware a modern Salem over child abuse - Pursuing witch hunts is as dangerous as ignoring victims. Don't launch inquiries on the back of lurid claims

This is a difficult column to write, because a lot of people won't want to hear what it's going to say and some will accuse it of saying what it doesn't. And because it's provisional. It is based on a fraction of the research that would be needed to be completely sure of the case I'm going to make anyway — which is that we are in danger right now of passing from one kind of injustice to another.

The Savile affair was just the latest form to be taken by a phenomenon that sometimes seems to have been endemic to postwar British society. It was in the Catholic Church (here and abroad). It was taking place in boarding schools. It was happening in care homes. On mattresses above kebab shops. In BBC dressing rooms. In people's own homes. (Above all there, actually.) Children were being abused sexually or physically, or both. When the abuse was discovered we realised that many of the victims were either too ashamed or frightened to complain, or else had their complaints dismissed by agencies and authorities who did not want to listen.

The misery of abuse was compounded by the misery of disbelief. I remember watching the Channel 4 film Chosen a couple of years back, and tears of shame — though what had I to do with a posh little prep school back in the Sixties? — ran down my face. And something of a revolution in our attitudes towards this abuse and its victims took place in the 1980s, after which it became as possible to pretend that there wasn't a problem as it was to deny that smoking was a health hazard.

But. But it seems we have had to pay an unnecessary price for our new understanding. In Cleveland in the late 1980s, alongside real abusers, completely innocent people were deprived of their children on the basis of the beliefs and a faulty diagnosis of a paediatrician and social worker. Not long afterwards there was panic on Orkney and in cities such as Rochdale and Nottingham, amid claims that there were networks of abusers using satanic rituals as a pretext for acts of abuse, including infanticide and cannibalism. Books were written, front pages were splashed, serious conferences convened, in which dark caverns and human sacrifice were earnestly discussed.

When it all collapsed, as it had to, what was left was the continuous problem of the zealous imposing new histories on the impressionable. The care workers — sometimes the police — had implanted and rewarded the telling of fantasies. It wasn't exactly a new thing. "I saw Goody Osburn with the devil," says a child in Arthur Miller's The Crucible. When the Newcastle nursery workers Dawn Reed and Christopher Lillie won their libel case against an official inquiry team that had accused them of scores of acts of child abuse on the flimsiest of evidence, what emerged was a modern Salem of one accusation breeding the next.

The unattractive (because complicating) truth is that sometimes people do lie about being abused. Sometimes it's for money, sometimes for attention, sometimes because that's what they infer their listeners want to hear. Or they're genuinely mistaken. Or fantasy has become solidified as fact, the dream as daylight. Now there are elaborate protocols to make sure that the testimony of children is uncontaminated by the prior judgment of adults. But for someone who may have created their story years ago, no such safeguard can exist.

So we must not dismiss allegations, but they can never be taken or repeated with anything other than the most tedious sobriety. And that, if you like, is a generic rule applying to all situations. This week's specific horror concerns child abuse in care homes in North Wales. For this, there is a second thing that needs saying. One fairly persistent modern meme in conspiracy theories is the idea of the paedophile network of powerful men. I say this not because such an accusation must always be false, but just to point out that the idea is somehow attractive. It unties some knots for us. And I know of no case where it has turned out to be true.

On Tuesday night, the Channel 4 News anchor Cathy Newman asked a Conservative MP about the accusation that there had been a hidden political dimension to child abuse in the 1970s and 80s. This had been claimed by Steven Messham on Newsnight days earlier and raised at a Prime Minister's Questions last month by the Labour MP Tom Watson. Was there, she asked, "danger for the Conservative Party that these allegations may not concern isolated figures in the party?" A paedo network, in other words.

That morning I'd spoken to a senior journalist at the BBC who'd covered the North Wales care home abuse story in the early 1990s. He had heard the Messham allegations several times over the past 20 years, was deeply sceptical about them and could not see what had suddenly impelled Newsnight to put them on air. Or rather, he thought he could see: Savile.

Nevertheless, based, as far as I can see, solely on Mr Messham's appearance, the Government on Tuesday announced what was, in effect, a re-inquiry into the exhaustive Waterhouse Inquiry into abuse in North Wales care homes, which had reported in 2000. The announcement repeated Mr Messham's solicitor's line that Waterhouse had had too limited a remit to inquire properly into the idea of an abuse network.

I have to say that having read chapter 52 of the report I find it quite hard to accept that claim. I also note that John Jillings, who chaired the first local inquiry, in the early 1990s, into abuse in North Wales, had no recollection of Mr Messham claiming that a senior political figure was one of the abusers. Mr Messham has claimed abuse at the hands of many, many people.

A second inquiry will look into previous police investigations into child sexual abuse — which may be more appropriate but seems to have been dreamt up on the hoof. Meanwhile the net buzzes with speculation fed by the Messham and Watson appearances as to who these evil Tories may be. Some of these sites are lurid and preposterous. But then, in Parliament on Tuesday Mr Watson, having made claims about paedophile links to No 10 and in government, suddenly raised the bar to refer to child "rape and torture" in Whitehall.

This was worrying. But more worrying still was a line in a letter Mr Watson sent to Mr Cameron before the inquiries were announced. "Your advisers will tell you to be wary of 'opening the floodgates'," he wrote. "They are wrong. Their decorous caution is the friend of the paedophile."

That's what you become if you don't join in the clamour, but ask first for the evidence — "the friend of the paedophile". I saw Goody Aaronovitch with the devil.

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