No smoke without fire?

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Accusers lined up when care home staff in North Wales were hit with abuse claims. Gerald Haigh is riveted by a book that argues the ensuing outrage gave birth to a witch-hunt

The Secret of Bryn Estyn: the making of a modern witch hunt

By Richard Webster

The Orwell Press pound;25

Imagine this. You're sitting at home when the police arrive, bringing to life the nightmare that lies dormant in the minds of all who deal with groups of children. A former pupil of a school you worked in some years ago - then a teenager, now a young adult - has alleged that you sexually abused him. You're arrested and the scene you're familiar with from television drama - someone being led to a car as the family weeps on the doorstep - has come true. Worried, are you? Of course, but you're confident of the legal process.

Then you discover that actually there are several allegations. The first one was unsolicited. The others were the result of the police contacting former pupils and asking them if you or your colleagues ever did anything similar to them or to anyone else they knew. They've gone so far as to set up a helpline (advertised in the local press) for people with complaints to call in. Each potential witness has been told there are already accusations against you. Some witnesses may also have got wind of the possibility of five-figure compensation payments.

Two things can happen at your trial, which won't happen for another two agonising years. What you hope for is that the evidence will be thrown out, because you're sure it's hopelessly contaminated, and you will walk free.

The other possibility is that even though, taken individually, your accusers' stories seem unconvincingly weak, you are still convicted. The problem, you realise, is that what you're accused of is so disgusting, so demonised in our culture, that the momentum towards conviction and punishment is irresistible.

That, essentially, is Richard Webster's analysis of the story of Bryn Estyn, the Wrexham care home for adolescent boys which, in the 1990s, became the focus first of press revelations, and then of a police investigation for child abuse that spread across a number of residential homes in North Wales. Allegations were collected from 650 witnesses, who accused 365 people of abusing them. In March 1992, 16 people were arrested.

Six were prosecuted, four were convicted, three of sexual abuse. One of these, Peter Howarth, 10 years after he retired as Bryn Estyn's deputy head, was found guilty in 1994 on 14 counts of the abuse of eight complainants. He got 10 years, but died in jail three years later.

The huge disparity between the number of allegations and the paucity of convictions tells two possible stories. One of these, that there must have been a big cover-up, possibly involving senior officials and police, was widely believed and given prominence by the press. As a result, in 1996 a tribunal of inquiry was set up which, four years later, on February 15, 2000, confirmed in its report "Lost in Care" that there had indeed been widespread sexual abuse in North Wales care institutions. (But no "Masonic conspiracy", as had been suggested; and no police cover-up.) Webster argues for the alternative explanation for the lack of convictions, suggesting that the real Bryn Estyn secret is one of witnesses making up stories. These stories were then encouraged and borne forward by a wave of moral outrage that, in Howarth's trial and throughout the tribunal, simply trampled on doubts and swept aside basic principles of jurisprudence. His book is, he writes, "about the consequences for individuals and society when a large number of false allegations are taken to be true and ratified by the courts".

The detail of his support for that view is compelling. The suggestion is that, for example, the police (and, ultimately, the tribunal) allowed themselves to be persuaded by the sheer quantity of the "trawled" evidence, rather than by its individual quality or the degree to which it was truly corroborative. Webster writes: "The assumption appeared to be that if allegations were piled up high enough they would somehow validate themselves and the problem of corroboration could be dissolved." He quotes a senior police officer's use of the term "corroboration by volume".

(Webster prefers to call it "the 'no-smoke-without-fire' principle.") In legal terms, what's at issue here is "similar fact evidence", which resonated through Howarth's trial and is a theme in the whole North Wales affair. Webster deals with it in detail in several places in his book, and it will repay careful reading by teachers who, after all, are potentially vulnerable to allegations.

Essentially, the question is whether, if several people make similar allegations, the case becomes stronger than if just one of the allegations had been made. Over time, judges have been understandably cautious about this. Webster quotes Lord Justice Hewart pronouncing on an appeal in 1924:

"The risk, the danger, the logical fallacy is indeed quite manifest to those who are in the habit of thinking about such matters. It is so easy to derive from a series of unsatisfactory accusations, if there are enough of them, an accusation which at least appears satisfactory."

There's so much to resolve here. What is "similar", what is "satisfactory"? Crucially, too, there's the question of collusion between witnesses. It's an area where great care is needed if our bedrock right of the presumption of innocence is not to be compromised. Webster argues that, over time, the original rigour around "similar fact evidence" has been compromised by various judgments, which he describes, and that much injustice has been done as a result.

The much broader story for Webster, though, is to do with the climate in which accusations of sexual abuse arise and thrive. It is his thesis that fear of paedophilia has given rise to a witch hunt. Through the Seventies and Eighties there was a fever of paedophilia scares, some (in Nottingham, Rochdale, Orkney) invoking the spectre of "satanic abuse" or of "paedophile rings". These were fed partly by the received social work wisdom of the time, which centred on techniques to encourage "disclosure" by children, sometimes in circumstances that drove a coach and horses through any notion of impartial evidence-gathering.

It's not, Webster argues, that paedophilia doesn't exist, or isn't widespread; quite the reverse in fact: "Sexual abuse is one of the most serious social problems of our age." However, he goes on: "But on to this palpable and disturbing reality we too have projected a fantasy. So powerful has this fantasy become and so urgent is our need to rid the world of anyone who might conceivably be a paedophile, that the requirement for evidence has all but disappeared."

Webster's book is courageous, not least in its fearless dealing with the people who, in his view, unjustly and dishonestly lit the fires that consumed the good name of the North Wales care home network and the reputations of its staff. At the same time, it is so closely and cogently argued that it demands attention and deserves considered response from those who are criticised. If he's right, grave injustices have been done, and the whole business of child abuse investigation has been compromised to a degree that, ironically and tragically, puts children and their carers at greater risk than before.

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