Keeping Quiet on Child Abusers
- The Kincora Scandal: Political Cover-Up and Intrigue in Northern Ireland by Chris Moore
Marine, 240 pp, £6.99, June 1996, ISBN 1 86023 029 6
Under intense pressure from an outraged public and press, the Government last month set up public inquiries into two monstrous scandals involving serial sexual abuse of young people and children in homes in which they had been placed for their own ‘care’. The first inquiry is into abuse in private and council homes in North Wales and follows an earlier inquiry commissioned by Clwyd County Council (now disbanded) and conducted by a high-powered team of three experts led by John Jillings, a former director of social services in Derbyshire. That inquiry concluded that ‘appalling’ sexual abuse went on for years in homes throughout the area. Jillings’s report was so devastating that Michael Beloff, a QC who specialises in libel, warned Clwyd Council not to publish it in case the council received some nasty libel writs. The council’s insurers also warned against publication. Indeed, they said that if the report was published and any of the abused young people sued the council, they would not stump up any damages. Thus pressurised, the councillors kept the report secret. The Secretary of State for Wales, Boy Wonder William Hague, also refused to publish it.
Vol. 18 No. 15 · 1 August 1996
Paul Foot, in his review of Chris Moore’s The Kincora Scandal (LRB, 4 July), suggests that there are parallels between what happened at the Kincora Boys’ Home thirty years ago and more recent incidents of sexual abuse in children’s homes. For various reasons, some of which involve the role of M15, many of the parallels he suggests are open to question. But what is more important is that Foot’s account of recent events in the North-West is seriously, and perhaps even dangerously, misleading.
He writes that in Cheshire and in Liverpool, stories of abuse in children’s homes ‘have emerged piecemeal from a series of carefully separated trials in which the accused – all of them staff from the homes – have pleaded guilty to a series of charges of buggery, rape and indecent assault on the children in their care’. He goes on to note that one Cheshire solicitor ‘represents a hundred young people who say they have been abused in county council homes – and no one denies their claims’. The impression which is created is that the huge number of allegations made in Cheshire and Liverpool have not been contested in any way.
It certainly is the case that there are at least four well-established cases of sexual abuse in which the men involved have pleaded guilty, and in which there appears to be no doubt either about their betrayal of trust or about their conviction. But this is only a part of the story. At least seven more cases are in preparation and a number of investigations are still in progress. In six other cases which have already been heard the investigations are still in progress. In one of them, Shirley Brennan, who faced charges of physical abuse, was acquitted. When police eventually returned the photographic evidence which had been confiscated before her trial she was able to prove conclusively that the most serious allegation against her had been fabricated.
In another case in Cheshire a care-worker with an outstanding record was convicted. One experienced local court reporter, who has covered 20,000 cases, said that this was the only one in which he had ever become emotionally involved. When the guilty verdict was passed the defendant broke down in the dock and his family wept. Having heard all the evidence, the reporter felt that it should not have been possible for any jury to arrive at a guilty verdict beyond all reasonable doubt and that this care-worker, who is now in prison, was almost certainly innocent. Even the judge, who said during the trial how impressed he had been by letters from those who had formerly been in the man’s care, spoke of how these letters suggested ‘love in the true sense of the word’.
In a case heard earlier this year, Liverpool care-worker Phil Savage was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment after pleading not guilty to a series of charges of sexual abuse which he believes were fabricated in order to gain compensation. His family and friends continue to believe in his innocence and his barrister is launching an appeal against his conviction. In yet another case in Liverpool, which came to an end shortly before Paul Foot’s review appeared, James Traynor was given an 11-year prison sentence. He was led from the court crying out that he was innocent. A local solicitor said that in twenty years’experience of work in criminal courts he had not witnessed such a scene.
Neither protestations of innocence nor the opinions of journalists can prove that miscarriages of justice have taken place. But if we are to avoid creating the kind of climate in which miscarriages of justice will actually become invisible, it is important to remember, as Paul Foot uncharacteristically forgets, that there are two sides to any process of justice. Above all, we should both respect and report the simple fact that a number of those accused in North Wales and the North-West have pleaded not guilty and that in some cases they have continued to protest their innocence vigorously while in prison.
Nobody can or should be obliged to believe what these men say without further evidence. But to silence their voices altogether, as Paul Foot effectively does in his article, can only serve to deepen the moral panic over children’s homes into which we seem to have fallen. At the very least these voices might persuade us to examine what has really happened in North Wales and the North-West a great deal more carefully and critically than we have yet done.
Vol. 18 No. 19 · 3 October 1996
To read Paul Foot’s Trenchiad within weeks of his piece on Kincora Boys’ Home and MI5 (LRB, 5 September) is a disturbing experience. The tone, the language, the hatred, is much the same for a case of paedophilic sexual abuse condoned and exploited by government agents and that of a schoolmaster who misused his legitimate powers of corporal punishment. These are not the same offences, nor ever have been in any legal canon. I know nothing of Kincora, but I did know Trench, probably not a lot less well than Paul Foot. The effect on me of reading the two pieces together is to doubt not my own memories but the balance of Foot’s Kincora judgments.
Foot will not have had to read far into the book to find my own encounter with Chenevix-Trench’s penchant. I seem to be one of few who bettered the little man, surely because I was by then very senior and potentially quite a nuisance. Like Foot, I was appalled by that aspect of his schoolmastership. In my final year, I conspired with the now Chief Secretary to the Treasury to conduct a public debate on corporal punishment that very nearly persuaded senior Etonians of the mid-Sixties – not easily persuaded of this or anything else – that corporal punishment had to go. Trench could have stopped us, and probably wanted to. But he didn’t. The reasons for telling which story are its demonstration, first, that a few, a growing few, of us were by then becoming aware that beating was a revolting means of punishment, precisely because of the way it distorted the behaviour of otherwise potentially enlightened people at both ends of the cane, our own headmaster among them; but second, as Foot well knows, that the Sixties saw the first steps towards the disappearance of a means of disciplining the young that had been standard since as far back as we know about education. Birch-rod humour had been a staple of young male culture for two and a half millennia at least. The point about Trench is not that he did it like his predecessors, the admired Robert Birley, the infamous Keate and all the rest – but that there was something odd about the way he did it. The reasons were doubtless sexual. No doubt they were so in thousands of other cases of pedagogic brutality. That does not make Trench or any of the rest of them into child-abusers on a Kincora scale. He deserves better than to become a by-name because he came at the end of a very long story where there have been many villains as bad or worse. If corporal punishment is child abuse, then it is a fact, regrettable but undeniable, that this vice lies at the root of Western (and not only Western) culture.
I carry no particular torch for Chenevix-Trench. He had many good ideas about what should happen to Eton, nearly all of which were blocked by unregenerate reactionaries of a sort that more usually people Foot’s well-stocked pillory. But he was not an easy man to like; and, yes, he was no great teacher. Foot is right about his pervasive charm. But he was a sad case, not a bad one. Which brings me to a final point. However many child-abusers Foot may or may not have known, he must have known many, many ‘drunkards’. He is surely conscious enough of alcoholism to be aware that those who drink as Trench did are not the exponents of yet another vicious habit but victims of a tragically destructive disease. The odds are that, had Trench been born twenty years later, that weakness could have been corralled, just as the other must perforce have been reined in.
In reading and admiring Foot’s searing pieces, I have sometimes wondered where all this fury comes from. Perhaps the answer is, after all, the wretched Trench; in which case, Foot stands convicted of the same posterior obsession as his tormentor. My view of the world, that of a historian rather than a journalist, is that it is peopled by inadequates, not villains; people who misuse (much more often than abuse) power, precisely because they have no real clue what to do with it. Foot persuades me that Kincora was a story of unrelieved villainy. My experience of Trench, as of most rulers of academic establishments where I have studied and taught, was not of a villain but of a figure both waving and drowning. Really good educationalists are extremely rare. Utter shits, in my experience, are rarer. Trench was neither. Foot’s villains need exposure. His inadequates deserve something more penetrating.
Christ Church, Oxford