The evil that must be made to speak its name
Article on the leader page of a UK Sunday newspaper
22 February 1998:
THE EVIL THAT MUST BE MADE TO SPEAK ITS NAME
What's in a name? Let's try two.
The first is Barry, a young man with dark eyes as intense as Welsh coal. You will not have heard of Barry, although his story is public and his tale most appalling.
Barry is one of some 400 witnesses who for almost a year have been giving evidence to a tribunal taking place under the direction of silver-haired former High Court judge Sir Ronald Waterhouse. The pace of business is slow, sometimes painstaking. Usually no more than three of four members of the public attend.
"No one ever paid any attention", Barry explains. "That's why it happened. No one gives a damn".
There is a greater chance that you will have heard of John Allen, another witness who gave evidence in Caernarvon Crown Court last week. On that occasion the public galleries were more crowded, observers straining to catch a glimpse of a man whose name once meant something in North Wales.
For John Allen was a pillar of the community. Public carer. Founder of the Bryn Alyn network of children's homes that local authorities supported to the astonishing tune of £28 million. And a man who was sentenced to six years for crimes of the most unimaginable foulness.
But even as I write the next words, many readers will go no further. For I have led you into one of the great taboos of our time, the shame that dare not whisper its name.
The Waterhouse enquiry is considering accusations that for more than 20 years the children's homes of North Wales were turned into an evil empire dedicated not to caring for children, but to their wholesale physical and sexual abuse.
Hundreds of children, mostly boys, were systematically tortured and terrorised. Their assailants were their so-called carers within the local social services. People like John Allen. And - allegedly - policemen, peers, even priests. These children claim they were brutalised into acts of oral and anal sex, sometimes committed simultaneously, and sodomized with crowbars, bottles and chair legs.
(You'll find more comfortable reading on almost any other page of this newspaper. You can turn the pages, pass by on the other side as so many have done all these years. But don't. These children need you).
They were subjected to a daily, almost casual regime of cruelty and ritual humiliation. Beaten so fiercely that they ended up in casualty wards. Forced to clean toilets with their toothbrushes. One had his pet gerbil chopped to pieces in front of him. With a shovel.
Of course, many of the allegations are just that - allegations. But in the words of Gerard Ellis QC, the leading counsel to the tribunal, there is no doubt that physical and sexual abuse was inflicted "on an almost unimaginable scale".
Elected councillors visited these homes regularly, even claimed expenses for doing so, but heard, saw, and said, nothing. After all, children have no votes.
Clwyd County Council commissioned a report into the allegations. And when it was delivered they shredded every copy. Because their insurance company, Municipal Mutual, threatened to withdraw cover if the conclusions were made public and opened the door to claims. Money was put before justice. The truth was buried.
All too often officials who fell under a cloud were allowed to retire on pensions or move to other jobs. It was so much easier, less messy that way. Or the facts were simply ignored.
Roger Saint was a foster parent who became a member of the adoption panel in Clwyd. The local authority was told by police that he had a previous conviction as a child abuser. What did it do? Absolutely nothing.
The cowardice ended only last May when Saint was jailed for a string of further sex offences against children.
Wilful ignorance was the habit in the local social services departments of North Wales. It couldn't be happening, not here. After all, the accusers were only children. But not everyone turned a blind eye. One local social services officer demanded that something be done. Her bosses' response was to sack her. They decided she wasn't enough of a team player in the great game of cover-up and sweep-aside.
But perhaps the greatest cowardice is the one that goes on deep within us all when we are confronted with the disturbing images of child abuse. It's simply too offensive. Turns the milk sour on our cornflakes. We don't want to know. We give it a name - paedophilia - that sounds like a medical complaint and makes it so much easier to block out the bloody realities of crowbars, bottles and chair legs.
Yet all of us are in part responsible for this national taboo. "I talk about child abuse like other people talk about football," Barry explains, "because that's what my childhood was about. I was the football. But people get embarrassed. Ask me to stop because they find it upsetting. They don't want to know."
This is the ferocious challenge for Sir Ronald Waterhouse and his tribunal. Controversially, he has offered anonymity to most witnesses during the hearings and, so far, has refused to allow those complaining of abuse or accused of abuse to be named. ("Barry" is not his real name and John Allen is an exception only because he has already been convicted). By offering anonymity, Sir Ronald hopes to get to the greater part of the truth.
But previous reports have been little more than worthy wodges of paper urging social services to pull up its socks. Sir Ronald's objective must be far more ambitious: nothing less than the destruction of the national cowardice that refuses to face up to child abuse.
And what's in a name? The names of officials who repeatedly failed in their duty. And the men who have been repeatedly named as abusers. He must name them all. Yes, this will cause a media feeding frenzy, it may undermine the rights of the accused. But children have rights, too, and in the delicate balance of justice, theirs is the greater right.
And, for once, the media piranha pool might just be a good thing, the teeth that will tear to pieces the conspiracy of silence. We need to be confronted with the full horrors of what has gone on in North Wales and shaken into indignation, not allowed yet again to look the other way for fear it may spoil our breakfasts.
Fourteen of the children connected with this empire of evil in North Wales have since killed themselves or died in mysterious circumstances - almost as many as died at Dunblane. Many, many more have had their emotional and mental sanity ripped to shreds. Through the Waterhouse tribunal we have a chance, at last, to put right a very great wrong.
So go to it, Sir Ronald. Make them famous. Name them. Every damned one.