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REVIEW In his introduction, Webster describes the

North Wales story as “one of the most


extraordinary that has ever been told. If I
have related it at times as though it were
trawling for further allegations which woul
d back up the original allegation. Trawling
investigations, described to Webster as ‘the
reverse of normal police methods’, involve
fiction it is because, in some respects, the police in a search for allegations of
that is exactly what it is. What renders it unreported crimes rather than a response to
dangerous is that, until now, it has generally an identified crime. Concerns about false
been taken to be fact”. His account of the allegations appear not to have arisen.
‘story of a story’ is based on meticulous
and painstaking research, and at the end In March 1992, Howarth was among
of this book there remain few of the dark 16 former Bryn Estyn staff arrested in
corners and uncertainties that surround othe a dawn raid. Webster’s examination of
r child abuse scandals. In the manner of an his subsequent trial demonstrates the
epidemiologist who tracks back to find the impossibility of a fair trial when charges
cause and progress of a disease, Webster rely on allegations trawled from multiple
has returned to the story’s small beginnings complainants in a context that remains
THE SECRET OF BRYN ESTYN: to discover how such a powerful narrative concealed. But despite the influence of the
The making of a modern witch hunt came into being. He is a gifted writer, and lurid allegations, the shortcomings of the
his account of this reallife story leaves the defence, the judge’s summing up, and the
Richard Webster reader as eager to turn each page as in any press coverage, the ultimate responsibility
work of detective fiction. for the injustice of Howarth’s trial is shown
to lie with the legal process. Much of the
by TANIA HUNTER Webster is adept at identifying the evidence in this book was not available to
connections between individuals and events Howarth’s defence team.
and demonstrating how their interactions Webster describes in detail the changes in
In 1996 a Tribunal of Inquiry was set up influenced the course of the North Wales the law which have resulted in the removal
under the chairmanship of Sir Ronald story. He records in detail the part played b of safeguards designed to prevent the
Waterhouse to examine the alleged abuse of y injustices illustrated by Howarth’s trial,
children in care in North Wales. When the central figures such as the former residentia and in effect destroyed the similar fact
report – Lost in Care was published four l social worker, whose first complaints principle. Under the law as it now stands, a
years later, it found that the horrific claims developed into a determined and escalating n
of widespread child abuse were substantiall campaign, and the freelance journalist innocent person may stand trial on the basis
y true. The report received massive and who inspired the Independent’s hugely of contaminated evidence and a series of
sensational publicity, and the collage of influential campaign which placed Bryn prejudicial but unproven sexual allegations.
screaming headlines which Estyn at the centre of an evil vice ring. In In Webster’s view, without the restoration o
forms the back endpaper in 1991 a sensational article f the similar fact principle the current witch
The Secret of Bryn Estyn is named Peter Howarth, the hunt will continue. Other necessary reforms
a striking reminder of the home’s deputy head, as a are the withdrawal of offers of compensation
impact of its findings. By child abuser, and identified in cases where there is no proof of a crime,
virtue of its prestige and a senior North Wales police and the restoration of the corroboration
authority, the Waterhouse officer with the conspiracy. warning.
report not only set the seal on The journalist’s suggestions
what had become the accepted that compensation could be In the wake of each new child abuse
version of North Wales, but claimed by those making scandal, the press clamours to know why
endorsed a modern mythology allegations of abuse, and the lessons of the past have not been learnt.
which identifies the care that the alleged paedophile Subsequent inquiries with limited remits
worker with the horrendous network might not be tend to focus on individual action, while
abuse of vulnerable children. confined to North Wales recommending yet more bureaucratic
In setting himself the task Sir Ronald Waterhouse had a significant influence reforms. The outcome is that the lessons
of challenging the received on future events. But, as are not learnt because the circumstances
wisdom of such a potent modern myth, Webster points out, the are never fully explored or understood. But
Richard Webster faced a formidable suggestion of a police coverup would prove one of the many strengths of Webster’s
undertaking. The extent to which he has even more important. When Howarth’s trial book is the way in which he sets the North
succeeded is remarkable. opened in 1994, highly prejudicial excerpts Wales investigation in a wider contemporar
from the Independent article took pride of y and historical context. He traces its
In common with the North Wales story, place in the prosecution opening. historical roots back to the emergence of
Webster’s book, which has taken nine the ‘Californian model’ of child protection
years to complete, grew out of small and Webster has likened his work to the which developed in the United States in
accidental beginnings. His initial acceptanc construction of a giant jigsaw. And one by the 1970s. This model, which was largely
e in 1996 of the Independent’s claims of one he has fitted the pieces into place. The responsible for the influential doctrine that
sexual abuse in North Wales children’s Independent article placed the police under children do not make false allegations and
homes was based on his trust in a newspaper tremendous pressure to find evidence of the should always be believed, had achieved
that had previously challenged the satanic criminal network of evil which appeared to considerable acceptance amongst British
ritual abuse scare. But following a chance have been discovered by a journalist and social workers by the mid1980s. Another
meeting with two former members of staff social worker. The new methods of trawlin American influence of the 1980s was
from Bryn Estyn, the Wrexham home for g belief that preschool nurseries were being
adolescent boys at the centre of the scandal, for allegations devised by the North Wales infiltrated by an organised conspiracy of
he was faced with the alternative possibility Police appeared so successful in obtaining satanic ritual abuse. However, scepticism
that a particular group of people were being allegations that they were adopted by other about the satanic abuse cases which surface
demonised in ways reminiscent of historical forces across the country. In 1996 the polic d
witchhunts. e in Britain in the late 1980s, did not prevent

FACTION / March/April 2005 3


organised paedophile rings. Neither police
trawling operations nor a culture of credulity
there are no global statistics he warns that
“in the Englishspeaking world alone, the
and others say ...
were constructed in a vacuum. number of false allegations of sexual abuse
made in all contexts in the last thirty years
In writing The Secret of Bryn Estyn, Webste must certainly be numbered in hundreds of Occasionally, our society does worry
r set out to dismantle the received version thousands and has probably already reached that it is in the grip of a ʻpaedophile
of North Wales for the most important of millions”. panicʼ, and points to illiterate mobs on
reasons. For as long as it was accepted as housing estates running intimidation
an accurate version of events, there was At the end of his book, Webster pays campaigns against the local
no possibility that people would be able to a moving tribute to the dedicated care paediatrician. The Secret of Bryn Estyn
comprehend that what had happened was workers whose lives and reputations have reminds us that the real danger comes,
the creation of a modern witchhunt. By been so affected by the witchhunt that he not from the passionate mob, but from
demolishing the Waterhouse report, has so vividly described. He suggests that the higher echelons of the British state.
Webster’s book ensures that the previously the North Wales story should be studied However the North Wales childrenʼs
received version of the North Wales story “because it constitutes one of the most home scandal started, in the end the
is no longer an immovable obstacle in the terrible instances of collective ingratitude protagonists were politicians, the police,
way of achieving his aspirations of reducin in our recent history … In the closing and the law courts.
g years of the twentieth century …rather
the chances of other innocent people being than recognising retrospectively that we In the name of protecting children and
wrongly accused, and the release of those in had grossly undervalued care workers, we punishing perverts, the state was able to
prison. compounded our historical ingratitude by embark on a crusade to cleanse society
demonising them. Many people appear to of an unspeakable evil, overturning core
Despite his devastating and comprehensive have come to the conclusion that, in the principles of truth and justice as it went,
account of the role of individuals whose absence of significant financial rewards, on regardless of the wider damage this
actions were so crucial to the construction e could cause to care workers around the
of the North Wales tragedy, Webster refuses of the major factors motivating residential country and those who had grown up
to vilify them or to blame care workers to join in childrenʼs homes. And now, it takes a
them for the horrendous an underpaid and book like Websterʼs to force us to think
outcome of their actions. lowstatus profession what has become the unthinkable: that
Instead he argues that more was the opportunity not every residential care worker is a
significant than individual it might afford for paeodophile just waiting to get caught.
action is the question of sexual contact with
why in Britain in the late young people. This Jennie Bristow
twentieth century so many notion, which in Spiked
other individuals, groups the overwhelming
and organisations were so majority of cases is Itʼs not, Webster argues, that
willing to believe without entirely false, has paedophilia doesnʼt exist, or isnʼt
question the allegations helped to shape the widespread; quite the reverse in fact:
offered by social workers attitude of an entire “Sexual abuse is one of the most serious
and journalists. society”. social problems of our age.” However,
he goes on: “But on to this palpable
Following on from his Webster concludes and disturbing reality we too have
account of the North Wales his unique and projected a fantasy. So powerful has
story, Webster makes a remarkable work by this fantasy become and so urgent is
convincing case for the expressing the hope our need to rid the world of anyone who
existence of a modern that it will in some might conceivably be a paedophile, that
day witchhunt. And it way help to shift the requirement for evidence has all but
is this that provides an Author Richard Webster the climate of moral disappeared.”
explanation for so much panic which has
seeming irrationality resulted in so many Websterʼs book is courageous, not
and injustice. Once child abuse had been innocent people being imprisoned. But it least in its fearless dealing with the
defined not simply as the serious social ill will only achieve its author’s wider aims people who, in his view, unjustly and
that it clearly is, but the supreme evil of our if it conveys the larger tragedy of which dishonestly lit the fires that consumed
age, a resurgence of ancient fantasies of North Wales is but a part. In his preface the good name of the North Wales care
evil appears inevitable. The fantasy of the he expressed the hope that his book would home network and the reputations of its
paedophile as the incarnation of evil which be seen above all as an account of human staff. At the same time, it is so closely
has been projected alongside the reality of nature. Although he likens the modern child and cogently argued that it demands
child sexual abuse, has become so powerful protection movement to a secular church attention and deserves considered
that the desire to hunt down paedophiles whose roots can be traced back to Victorian response from those who are criticised.
has led to the abandonment of healthy England and a revivalist movement, he If heʼs right, grave injustices have
scepticism and the requirement for evidence warns against demonising child protection been done, and the whole business
. workers and an inverted witchhunt. Perhaps of child abuse investigation has been
It is for this reason that the innocent are as Webster’s greatest strength lies in his own compromised to a degree that, ironically
likely to be convicted as the guilty. refusal to demonise an enemy and his and tragically, puts children and their
understanding that if we are to have any carers at greater risk than before.
Although the actual scale of the witch hope of moderating the destructive power o
hunt concerned with police trawling and f Gerald Hague
care homes is unknown, there is enough today’s child protection movement, we nee Times Educational Supplement
evidence to show that it is considerable.
Child abuse scandals tend to be viewed as
incidents separate from the wider world.

4 FACTION / March/April 2005