Forgotten Children – the background to the children’s homes scandals

In the 1970s and 1980s, an epidemic of abuse swept through Britain’s children’s homes. More than 100 care workers have already been convicted; more than 1,000 await trial. But no one has yet explained how such a grotesque scandal could have come about. Christian Wolmar has spent two years trying to do so. Here are some of his conclusions.

The scandal that unfolded in British children’s homes in the 1980s and 1990s is, on the face of it, inexplicable. A modern western nation with a tradition of caring for the weak – the birthplace of the welfare state – houses thousands of children in residential homes where they end up battered and sexually abused.


It is, according to a government minister in the Lords, “the greatest scandal of the 20th century”. Unfortunately, the minister’s view has not found much echo in society at large. The story has been largely ignored by the press. It has, too, been the subject of little academic research, despite the obvious need for a greater understanding. Successive governments have commissioned reports into particular incidents, but most of these have been at a local level. Yet the importance of understanding the wider history of these scandals cannot be overstated, for without such understanding, it is impossible to frame a policy to tackle the problem.




The scandals cover the breadth of the UK, from Aberdeen to North Wales, East Belfast to Plymouth; and while cases occur from the early 1960s into the 1990s, they predominate in the 1970s and 1980s.


The story really started to unfold in public view in 1989, with the revelation of abuse in Castle Hill – a privately owned home in Ludlow which took in children from local authorities around the country. In response to a series of complaints, police began to interview past residents. Allegations of abuse were made by 57 victims, and in 1991 Ralph Morris, proprietor of the home, was sentenced to 12 years. New investigations rapidly followed: in Staffordshire, in North Wales, in Leicestershire. By the end of last year, there were major investigations in progress by 32 police forces around the country – at which point, following a decision by the Association of Chief Police Officers, Gwent started creating a national database of careworkers against whom allegations had been made. Called the Historical Abuse Database and backed by the Home Office, it is being compiled with reports from all the major abuse inquiries across the country. At the time of writing, there were 1,500 names on the database. The final figure is expected to be much higher.


Even if one argues that there was a concentration of abuse in homes in the areas of the major inquiries (a proposition for which there is no evidence), and that some of the allegations under investigation are bound to be false, one could conservatively suggest that 2 to 3 per cent of all children who went into children’s homes in the 1970s and 1980s were abused. The Tribunal of Inquiry headed by Sir Ronald Waterhouse found in February this year that at least 650 people had been abused in the children’s homes of North Wales alone. Nationally, over two decades, it is not unreasonable to infer that, of the 600,000-700,000 children who went through children’s homes, between 12,000 and 15,000 were abused.


The reasons for this epidemic are many and debatable. But one possible cause that has received little attention – and that seems particularly relevant to the question of why the epidemic occurred when it did – is the general tenor of the period in question, especially where sexual politics was concerned.


THE ROLE and function of children’s homes changed dramatically between the mid 1960s and the early 1970s. As late as 1967, the service was very female dominated and most of the staff lived in the homes. The Williams committee, reporting on the staffing of residential homes that year, noted: “Two-thirds of people at present employed in residential homes are single women and one-third of all staff are over 50 years of age.” All but 7 per cent of workers in the survey lived on the premises, which provided an important but barely noticed safeguard for the children.


Many of these women had worked all their lives in the system. They were part of the cohort of war widows or those left unmarried by the shortage of men following the Second World War, who had found both employment and a home by taking up jobs in children’s homes. As they left, they were replaced largely by men – since the jobs were now full-time and, increasingly, non-resident.


“The 1970s saw… a deliberate move away from the traditional arrangement whereby children’s homes were in the hands of a husband and wife team as superintendent and matron, or officer in charge and deputy,” noted the Kirkwood report, which followed the gaoling of the notorious Leicestershire abuser, Frank Beck, in 1991. Kirkwood outlined two main reasons for this trend. Such joint appointments were increasingly regarded as collusive because there was no separation between the senior manager and the deputy. And work in the homes was becoming regularised into shift patterns, which might encourage the husband and wife, who would want to share their leisure time, to leave the home in the charge of a junior employee. It was also felt that the “Uncle and Auntie” style of leadership was no longer appropriate now that more difficult children were coming into the system because of changes resulting from the Children and Young Persons Act of 1969.


It was no coincidence that the few scandals that did emerge in the immediate post-war period were in approved schools, which were run by male-dominated authoritarian regimes. When, in the early 1970s, the approved schools were merged into the social services system and became community homes with education, this again increased the proportion of men in the homes.


There was, therefore, a change not only in the sex ratio of employees, but also in the prevailing atmosphere of many homes. According to the report on the abuse carried out by Malcolm Thompson in Sheffield, “only masculine interests and activities were approved, so football and being taken to sporting events were the order of the day”. The male staff drank together in the pub and also, on occasion, with senior social services staff. Women were excluded from this controlling inner circle.


Among the incoming cohort of men, there is a very clear trend which leads to suspicions that many deliberately obtained these jobs in order to exploit children sexually. And, in contrast to the figures for society generally (where there are six times more cases of abuse against girls than against boys), the vast majority of these scandals relate to homosexual abuse of boys.


One has to be careful about referring to the culture of these institutions, as they were so varied. But it is possible to see some traits which were common to many of them. Some, principally the former approved schools which were in remote locations, could be described as “total institutions”, where the very nature of their isolation determined the prevailing culture – repressive, authoritarian, punitive and so on.


“John Smith”, a convicted but repentant abuser, recalls the effects of the change in atmosphere in such institutions in the late 1960s. “I joined the home in 1967 and worked until 1974. At the beginning, I was the only male other than the head of the home. From a ratio of one man to 12 women at the start, by the end it was one to three.” The women in the 1960s had been largely treated as domestics; and, Smith recalls, “We weren’t a profession. Our advice wasn’t asked for in case conferences of future planning. Somebody might just ask how a child was getting on, but that was it. These attitudes resulted in care staff compensating by creating their own culture.” This, as he put it, meant that juniors would “kick the office cat” – the children – since it was the only way to compensate for their frustration.


THE OTHER significant group of institutions where abuse took place was a series of homes run by mostly Labour councils in urban areas. These had different problems, equally of their time, but brought about by the imposition of new and insufficiently thought-out ideologies.


One of the most notorious of all modern children’s home scandals was that exposed from 1992 onwards (largely by the London Evening Standard) in the London Borough of Islington. The scale was relatively small, with about a dozen homes involved; but the range of the alleged abuse was staggering. Allegations concerning 22 named staff included: armed pimps bringing girls back to children’s homes with clients; sexually assaulting other staff; encouraging residents to be rent boys; sale of drugs; staff involvement in sex and paedophile rings; abduction of a child to France; introducing children to pornographic movies; and staff having sexual relationships with children. But perhaps the most shocking aspect of the scandal was the way that none of these allegations had been properly followed up. Junior staff who were worried about girls bringing back older men were told that young people, too, had a “right to sexual self-expression”.


The various subsequent inquiries – of which there were a dozen before a definitive report was produced by Ian White in 1995 – showed that there had been sufficient evidence for managers to intervene much earlier, and that the scandal had been allowed to carry on for many more years because of the failings of both management and councillors.


The events in Islington represented a systemic failure of the whole social services department, which had had a good reputation until around 1982, when the newly elected Labour council decided to set up a revolutionary new structure of devolved management, with 24 neighbourhood offices. This devolved structure led to a chaotic system in social services, with what were later called “confused lines of accountability”. Record-keeping was spread between the local offices, and this made it very difficult for social workers to keep up with “clients” who moved around the borough, or to follow up allegations of abuse.


There was also experimentation with equal opportunities policies on a grand scale. While the central management on many aspects of services may have been weak, the diktats of the personnel department on equal opportunities had to be obeyed. For example, if social services managers decided that a particular post required five years’ experience in a children’s home, this could be overruled by the equal opportunities policy, which could dictate that a far less qualified person should be taken on because otherwise the selection process was discriminatory. Moreover, managers making an appointment could not insist on a reference from a previous employer and could not challenge the references given on the basis of the status of the referee (in other words, an applicant could get away with references from two friends). Muddled management procedures also meant that it was not always clear who was the appointing officer, and appointments could, therefore, be made by a group of residential home managers, thereby increasing the likelihood of collusion over appointments.


With the normal checks no longer available to those making appointments, Islington became wide open for sexual predators to move in, and the lax procedures were systematically exploited by determined men seeking to use the children for their own ends.


The equal opportunities team could also intervene in disciplinary procedures. In the comprehensive report which was finally published three years after the first London Evening Standard story appeared, Ian White, who is now the social services director of Hertfordshire, wrote: “We were told that managers believed they would not be supported if they triggered disciplinary investigations involving staff who may be from ethnic minorities or members of the gay community.” Many of the 22 against whom allegations were made were from these groups, in particular gays. Much of the abuse resulted from the fact that there was an overemphasis on recruiting people who called themselves gay but were in fact paedophiles. White concludes that positive discrimination allowed staff to exploit the children in their care for their own purposes.


One former council worker suggested that there was a conscious element of anti -professionalism at the root of Islington’s aggressive equal opportunities policy, which made it very difficult for managers to exercise control. For example, already harassed social workers were expected to take their turns on reception duty despite their massive workloads. This was part of an anti-specialist egalitarianism that had grown up in the radical 1960s and 1970s and had become part of the prevailing ethos, as many of those radicals had obtained positions of power. Weak management was an inevitable consequence of this political philosophy.


Other councils were affected by the same influences. The Barratt report into abuse in neighbouring Hackney, for example, blamed a failure of management for the abuse carried out at Trowbridge House by Mark Trotter, a care- worker who died of Aids just as the police were closing in on him. Published in January 1998, the report was highly critical of the failure to suspend Trotter both in 1981 and 1984 following allegations about the sexual abuse of boys in his care.


Indeed, the whole social work profession was open to influences which changed the balance between management and workers in ways that were against the interests of children. Thus, in Sheffield, a worker who was under suspicion was promoted rather than being suspended or sacked. Like Trotter, the worker in question was a union activist who was able to claim victimisation as soon as allegations were made.


In Liverpool, meanwhile, and in several other authorities, there was a deliberate policy of expunging any mention of unsubstantiated allegations from an employee’s record. Given that paedophiles often have a standard modus operandi, the retention of such allegations is very important: evidence of similar types of allegation, at different times, by victims unknown to each other, would be a powerful pointer to something being amiss. The policy of expunging allegations was, therefore, just another example of how such ways of operating prioritised the rights of council employees above the needs of the children in their care. In the inquiry into the Trotter case, a union representative, recalling the early 1980s, said: “We tried to make it as difficult as possible for an employer to sack.”


THERE WAS ALSO a more insidious influence at work. The social work profession was forced to work out a way to respond to the new liberal mores of the 1960s and 1970s. The sexual revolution came in stages, each wave being initiated in the United States and quickly travelling over the Atlantic. These were heady and exciting times, and they undoubtedly changed society fundamentally for the better. But it was also a period of experimentation, and no one quite knew what the new boundaries were. Challenges were being made by a wide range of alternative groups to virtually every tenet of the post-war consensus: anti-war protesters, anti-apartheid campaigners, ban-the-bomb activists, gays, feminists and so on formed a huge rainbow coalition whose aims, beyond the negative of disliking the established capitalist order, were hazy and diffuse.


Encouraged by all these liberation movements, in October 1974 a group of paedophiles, who defined themselves as child lovers not necessarily interested in sex with children, formed the Paedophile Information Exchange to “provide the means for paedophiles to feel less isolated and gain a sense of community”. Their aim was also to “alleviate suffering of many adults and children” by campaigning against the laws on the age of consent, to allow adults to have sex with children. But knowing that this was an unpalatable message, they did not put it like that. Instead, they talked of the right of children to have sex at any age. If the Gay Liberation Front represented homosexuals and the feminist movement supported women, then paedophile activists were for children’s rights.


PIE suggested that, as homosexuals had become “gays”, paedophiles should be called “kind persons”. They realised that supporting the right of men to bugger children was unpalatable; but giving young people the right to express themselves sexually was a message that might have resonance in the newly liberated sexual climate.


Despite the preposterous nature of its ideas, PIE was for a while accepted among the rainbow coalition – the range of groups on the left which grew out of the 1960s liberation movements – as a perfectly reasonable cause representing just another oppressed group. As Andrew Lumsden, a former editor of Gay News, says, looking back on the attitudes of the time: “We were fighting against a lot of outmoded laws, and perhaps the ones against paedophilia were as outmoded as those against homosexuality or cannabis.” PIE deliberately set out to be brought into this fold.


The National Council for Civil Liberties was targeted, and a fierce debate within the organisation ensued after PIE applied to become a member. Eventually, it was rejected at the organisation’s annual general meeting. PIE also attempted, for a while, to use the same mailing address as Release, the drugs charity. (I know this because I worked at Release at the time.) And the National Association of Probation Officers was approached as well.


PIE also approached Gay News and tried – unsuccessfully – to get themselves included with other helplines in its listings; and a member of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, a relatively conservative reform group, recalls that, at the organisation’s 1982 conference, the Gay Youth Movement put up a motion which said that CHE should support the “liberation of paedophiles”. The campaigner was later asked along to a meeting of PIE in a pub in Soho, where what he called “a rather naive group that seemed very disorganised” attempted unsuccessfully to win him over.


A social worker who has worked for many years on cases involving paedophiles reckons that the attempt to merge gay and paedophile issues was a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters: “They did it to prepare their defence, so that when they were arrested or there was a complaint, they could cry homophobia. It is a very useful charge for them. It can delay, subvert, divert investigations. This is a deliberate defence, particularly from the men who came up in the 1970s, many of whom knew each other.”


PIE was backed by the nebulous Campaign Against Public Morals, which used the language of the left in an attempt to bring PIE into the fold of the rainbow coalition, attempting to portray them – at a time when Mary Whitehouse was at her peak – as an oppressed group. In 1981 it produced a pamphlet, Paedophilia and Public Morals, couched in Socialist Worker- speak with graphics to match; it was published just before the Old Bailey appearance of Tom O’Carroll, PIE’s chairman, and four others on charges of conspiracy to corrupt public morals. (The trial had resulted from a News of the World expose and subsequent police investigations, but the police had been unable to find any hard evidence and had therefore gone for the rather dubious common law offence of “conspiracy to corrupt public morals”.)


The pamphlet characterised the prosecution as a “show trial” which the Thatcher government was going to exploit to its advantage: “The government and all other levels of state apparatus are likely to adapt to the press- created climate by launching an offensive against the gay community, against women and, most important, against children.” But it was all couched in “kids’ lib” terms: “We can be certain of a clamp-down on the autonomous activities of children inside the family in all spheres of life, and specifically of an attempt to smash any gay youth groups. And we can be certain of a concentrated effort to split the women’s movement on the question on which they have been historically the weakest: paedophilia and child sexuality.”


PIE’s defence was always that it wanted recognition for the feelings of paedophiles, not that it was sanctioning sex with minors. But since its supporters and many of its publications then went on to argue that sex was a healthy activity for even the youngest children, it was a difficult line to maintain. Tom O’Carroll, for example, was put on the defensive during his trial when he was asked why he sanctioned a small ad in Magpie, the organisation’s newsletter, from a man seeking to meet a mother with young children. He explained, rather unconvincingly, “Members of our organisation get a lot of rejection in their lives. The last thing I wanted was to be rejecting, to turn people down.”


PIE maintained that it was an organisation that supported paedophiles and campaigned for them but did not advocate breaking the law through sex with minors. Indeed, the prosecution did not attempt to prove that it did – instead they relied on statements and publications from PIE to demonstrate the attempt to “corrupt public morals”. The first trial resulted in one man being acquitted and the jury being unable to agree on the others, but at the second trial Tom O’Carroll was convicted and received a two- year gaol sentence. Combined with earlier setbacks, this spelt the end of PIE, which ceased functioning – whereupon its members (around 450 people had joined at one time or other) went back into the closet.


The importance of the PIE story is not that its members went out deliberately infiltrating children’s homes but that its lobbying, both overt and covert, helped to create a climate in which sex between adults and children became more acceptable. Social workers were clearly confused. Gay sex had suddenly become acceptable: why not sex between adults and young people?


Community Care, the social workers’ trade paper, took PIE’s case seriously enough to print a four-page article under the heading “Should we pity thepaedophiles?” in the autumn of 1977, when the paedophilia “debate” reached its zenith. The article was non-judgemental and neutral in tone, and was illustrated by stills from the recently released film Death in Venice, about a man falling in love with a beautiful boy. The author, Mary Manning, found Tom O’Carroll to be “a likeable and gentle young man who has an ongoing interest in social history” but who, at that moment, was concentrating on the promotion of aims such as “the acceptance of paedophilia as a sexual orientation as natural as any other; the liberation of children to enjoy their natural sexuality; and general recognition of the value of paedophilic relationships”.


Manning argued that paedophilic activity was not as frightening as some of its more vociferous advocates implied. She cited a survey of 96 PIE members of whom 54 were homosexual paedophiles: “Only three homosexual paedophiles and one male heterosexual paedophile were attracted by children aged 3-5; 14 homosexual, 14 heterosexual and 10 bisexual being attracted by children in the 6-8 age range.” Most of the rest preferred 10-16 year olds. Therefore, Manning argued, “the realities in terms of the aspirations and practices of most paedophiles is somewhat less frightening than their campaign implies.”


A couple of weeks later, the New Statesman ran a sober article on PIE by Maurice Yaffe, a clinical psychologist who had studied paedophiles. He also argued that the realities of paedophilic behaviour were less threatening than PIE’s hardline campaign might suggest. Such non-judgemental coverage in such respectable publications would be impossible today; and, even bearing in mind the historical context, it is remarkable to look back on.


The overwhelming evidence, of course, points to the fact that child sexual abuse is deeply damaging. This has been proved beyond doubt by many researchers. Studies on the impact of child abuse demonstrate a wide range of associations with various disorders and psychiatric conditions. The campaigning group, Accuracy About Abuse, has uncovered studies demonstrating correlations between child sexual abuse and depression, suicidal tendencies, asthma, ulcers, drink and drug addiction, admission to hospital for psychiatric treatment, sexual dysfunctions and many other disorders.


The issue of whether there are milder and more serious types of abuse is a real one. It seems obvious that a distinction has to be made between the repeated rape of a five-year-old and a consensual relationship between, say, a 15-year-old and a 20-year-old.


But ultimately, as far as abuse in children’s homes is concerned, there is no room for moral relativism. Children in residential care should be safe. They should not be involved in sexual relationships with care workers whatever the circumstances, and that should be axiomatic in the rules of all homes.


The coverage in Community Care and elsewhere in the 1970s does not seem to have addressed the debate in this way. This lack of clear thinking cannot have helped social workers trying to differentiate between acceptable and abusive relationships. As one youth worker from the time put it, “If we opened a door and saw a worker having sex with a resident, we would probably have just shut the door again.”


To confuse the issue further, PIE had a fifth column. Right at the core of social work education, there was an influential apologist for paedophilia.


PETER RIGHTON WORKED variously as a probation officer and as a teacher before becoming a lecturer in social work. In the mid-1970s, he became director of education at the National Institute of Social Work, and a consultant for the National Children’s Bureau. He also taught social services managers at the Open University, and he was widely regarded as an expert on residential care. In the late 1980s, he became a consultant for the New Barns school in Gloucestershire for emotionally disturbed children sent by local authorities. His lover, Richard Alston, ran the school. Righton was openly gay when being “out” was considered brave and “right-on” in liberal circles.


After he had been building this successful career in social work for 30 years, the police intercepted some child pornography that had been sent to him from Amsterdam. Righton claimed it was for research purposes, as had been his one -time membership of PIE, but he was prosecuted for possession of the material and fined. The police launched a major investigation to find evidence of paedophile offences committed by Righton. But they were unable to bring any further charges.


None the less, several staff from New Barns were arrested, and the home was quickly closed. An ultra-authoritarian regime was uncovered, with cases being reported of children being locked in cupboards for hours. It also emerged that the home had been difficult for social workers and parents to get into – because they were not allowed past the front hall under the rules set by the headmaster. These were suspected of being a cover for allowing abuse to take place. But allegations of sexual abuse, in addition to general ill-treatment of the children, were never proved, and the subsequent trial of the teachers collapsed.


Righton was well-connected in child care circles, and several people he knew who worked in the field were later convicted of abuse. For example, there was Rod Ryall, with whom Righton had sat on various committees. Ryall was director of social services at Calderdale Council in West Yorkshire and was sentenced to six years for indecent assault on two boys. But the police failed to find evidence of a paedophile ring.


As with PIE, it is not Righton’s direct role that is important to this story but the influence he was able to wield over the social work profession and society at large. Righton was quite open about his views. In 1977, for example, in an article in Social Work Today, he was quoted as saying that sex between workers and residents in homes was OK. “Provided there is no question of exploitation, sexual relationships freely entered into by residents – including adolescents – should not be a matter for automatic enquiry. Nor should a sexual relationship between a resident and a worker be grounds for automatic dismissal.” The story was picked up in the Daily Mirror but no action was taken against him by NISW.


Righton also wrote an endorsement on the cover of Tom O’Carroll’s book on paedophilia. He recommended it as “written from the heart… (It) offers rational debate about paedophilia in place of… fear-ridden and hostile diatribe.” But it was in a book published in 1981, Perspectives on Paedophilia, that Righton’s views come out most clearly. A collection of essays by different contributors, it is an amazing book given that it was aimed at social work training courses. Its objective is made clear in the introduction: “The common intention of the chapters is to assist in mitigating ignorance about one aspect of human sexuality and hence, possibly, to inhibit, or at least inform, antipathy towards its discussion, its indulgence, or even its existence.”


In Righton’s chapter, there are a number of passages which clearly reveal his views. Attempting to distinguish between what he called “child molesters” andpaedophiles, he writes: “Most child molesters, if paedophile at all, are so only incidentally. Most of those I have called ‘dispositional’ paedophiles, when they engage in sexual activity with children, do not molest them… On the contrary, the child’s consent is usually of cardinal importance to them.” Again, the argument that penetration is not the principal aim of paedophiles is stressed: “The preferred sexual activities of paedophiles are, in general, those chosen by, or acceptable to the child – most often cuddling, caressing and fondling of the child’s genitals. Full intercourse or buggery are extremely rare, as is violence in any form.”


One of Righton’s co-contributors, later convicted of sexual abuse, writes: “When an instance of sexual abuse comes to light, we must find ways of dealing with it in ways that do not make matters far worse (original italics)… The opinion of most experienced professionals in that area is that children are usually much more traumatised by the uproar and the questioning that follows discovery than by the sexual encounter itself.”


The fact that Righton could blatantly tout his opinions and retain his senior position demonstrates the confusion over matters sexual which existed in the world of social work. Concern over the rights of oppressed minorities unbalanced the whole profession. There is no other explanation for the failure to tackle Righton.


ULTIMATELY, PIE and the paedophiles were rejected and lost the debate. A review in Gay Times in August 1997 charted the history well: “Gay attitudes to paedophilia have undergone a transformation. In the early days of gay liberation, ‘intergenerational’ sex seemed to occupy a legitimate place on the homosexual continuum. Homosexuals were vilified and persecuted, and so were paedophiles. Denying child sexuality seemed part of the ideology of repression. But genuine anxiety about child sex abuse has hardened attitudes. Gay law reform is a serious business nowadays. We have spent decades trying to shrug off the charge that we just want to molest children. We can do without real perverts hitching a ride on the bandwagon, thank you.”


But the fact remains that the 1970s and early 1980s were confusing times for those who had been brought up in a world of certainties. One abuser, “Jim Clark”, describes with great feeling the way that these changes affected him: “Before the 1960s, life was easier to handle, everyone knew where they stood. You didn’t have to struggle with a conscience torn apart by free expression or grey areas; men and boys had short hair cuts, played men’s games, girls had dolls, sex was a taboo subject, at least in the circles I ever moved in. Then it seemed all of a sudden all the rules and guidelines were dismantled and lonely insecure people like me couldn’t handle this freedom. We may not have liked the austere 1940s and 1950s, but we knew where we stood. Decisions were made for us by unwritten cultures. In the 1960s, I didn’t know what to believe, even with religion, having been brought up as a strict Roman Catholic. Our elders were too shy to enlighten us or answer our questions. Temptations opened up to us with many people who surrounded us behaving as if this was acceptable. Behaviour previously considered unmanly was now OK. I remember listening to a discussion on masturbation – previously it was a great sin, you went blind. I believed this and then, all of a sudden, it was normal, natural, healthy even, as a doctor told me to do it when I had to see him over a painful groin. Hence my confusion and inability to cope mentally with changes.”


The role of the liberation movements of the 1960s is easy to misinterpret. It was not the climate which allowed freer discussion of sexual matters that was at fault. Indeed, it was that very new-found freedom that led to abusers in children’s homes being uncovered and convicted. As Peter Garsden, a Cheshire solicitor who is representing many abuse victims in claims for compensation, put it, “I’m glad we’re having these trials in the 1990s, rather than the 1960s, because we would never have got convictions then.” But the failure of supporters of greater sexual freedom to distinguish between openness and exploitation meant that, for a time, paedophilia almost became respectable. Some people realised immediately that PIE was different from other liberation groups and not to be given any leeway. But all too many humble, demoralised care workers – in Islington, and in other places where the door was shut when sexual activity was discovered – were unable to make that distinction in an institutional ethos that left them unsure about the boundaries they were supposed to patrol.


BY THE SUMMER of 2000, well over 100 care workers had been prosecuted. However, there may be up to 10 times that number of cases in the pipeline, depending on how some of the big cases pan out. According to evidence given at a trial in June, there have been allegations against 91 care workers at St George’s (in Formby, Cheshire), alone. And some investigations – such as those in Lancashire, Somerset and Avon – have barely got going.


One obvious and common response to such numbers is to wonder if an organised group of paedophiles was collectively responsible for much of the abuse. There have long been rumours among journalists of a conspiracy which goes to the very top of the Establishment. The same famous names – a lord, a couple of politicians, a well -known industrialist, a High Court judge – are often repeated; indeed, such rumours were so commonplace in North Wales (scene of John Allen’s notorious reign of terror) that they were investigated by the Waterhouse inquiry; but Waterhouse refused to release the names because there was no evidence to back up the allegations.


There is a similar paucity of evidence in most of the cases I have investigated. There were suggestions in Islington that an agency of care workers was, in fact, a front for a paedophile ring. These allegations were investigated, but, though there was strong evidence which the investigators took seriously, they remain unproven. In Leicestershire, too, there was quite strong evidence of a ring, but, after much effort, the police concluded that there was none. And the Waterhouse report did find evidence of a paedophile ring which operated in the Wrexham and Chester areas in the late 1970s and 1980s, partly centred on the local branch of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. However, Waterhouse managed to establish little connection between the ring and care homes, and he specifically rejected the idea that there was a conspiracy to recruit paedophiles in children’s homes or “to infiltrate them in some other way”.


The fact that so many like-minded abusers did manage to infiltrate so many homes in such a systemic, if not systematic, way must therefore remain, in part, a mystery. But in large part it can be explained by the reasons given above: by failures of management and ideology that prevented those whose responsibility it was to protect their charges from abusers from doing so effectively.


Paedophile rings do exist, but the abuse epidemic in Britain’s children’s homes in the 1970s and 1980s is not about rings. Rather it is about the pre -conditions of abuse letting in scores of men who were able to take advantage of them. Most of these crimes were carried out by lowly care- workers with little connection with the outside world. Indeed, it was precisely the lack of connection with the outside world which made it so easy for them to carry out the abuse.

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