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Keeping Quiet on Child AbusersPaul Foot
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Vol. 18 No. 13 · 4 July 1996

Keeping Quiet on Child Abusers

Paul Foot

1796 words
The Kincora Scandal: Political Cover-Up and Intrigue in Northern Ireland 
by Chris Moore.
Marine, 240 pp., £6.99, June 1996, 1 86023 029 6
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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.

Over the Welsh border, in Cheshire and in Liverpool, stories of abuse in state 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. One Cheshire solicitor represents a hundred young people who say they have been abused in county council homes – and no one denies their claims. Perhaps the most extraordinary feature of this is that in most cases the abuse went on for more than a decade before it was exposed.

The inquiries could start by looking at Chris Moore’s study of the first big child abuse scandal in Britain – at Kincora Boys’ Home in Belfast. A large Victorian building off the Newtonards Road, Kincora was opened by the local Health Board in 1958 as a residence for boys from broken homes. The warden was a young man of 26, Joe Mains, who almost at once started to insist on sexual favours from the boys in his care. Those who co-operated got privileges and treats; those who didn’t were punished. Over the next 13 years Mains recruited two ‘housefathers’: Raymond Semple, like Mains a practising paedophile without any training in child-care, and the equally unqualified William McGrath. McGrath was a founder member of a ludicrous and fanatical Protestant paramilitary organisation which held that Irish Protestants were descended from the lost tribes of Israel, and that the coronation stone at Westminster came from Tara, Co. Meath, and had once been Jacob’s pillow. Mains and Semple were sexually greedy and indiscriminately attacked their charges, but McGrath was in a class of his own. He could carry out up to a dozen assaults a day, literally jumping on the boys whenever he felt the urge and, without a word, assaulting them, usually to the point of anal rape. One boy begged his foster parents to take him elsewhere. They agreed, and were due to arrive the following day. The boy’s witness statement is almost unbearable:

I was in the bedroom packing my clothes when Mr McGrath came into the room. He said ‘one more time before you go.’ I said ‘no’ and he said: ‘If you don’t do it this time, I’m going to tell your foster parents what you’re like.’ I asked him what he meant and he said: ‘I’ll tell them about the other times.’ I was a bit scared. Mr McGrath told me to take down my trousers and get onto the bed. He told me to open my legs and he got on top of me. He put his hands on my bum and put cream inside my bum. He did this with his finger. He pulled the cheeks of my bum open with his hands and put his cock up me. He moved up and down for about ten minutes. He pulled his cock out and got up off the bed and fixed himself. He told me not to say anything to anybody and my foster parents about what happened in the hostel. He then left the room. I then started to cry and went to the bathroom. There was blood on my backside and legs and my backside was very sore. I then went back to my room and finished packing.

Sex-slavery of this variety went on at Kincora for twenty years until it was finally exposed in a Dublin newspaper. Mains, Semple and McGrath were arrested, charged and eventually, after pleas of guilty and a rather hustled and embarrassed trial, sentenced to relatively short periods of imprisonment. McGrath, for instance, whose behaviour was by far the worst, got four years. The assaulted boys had tried everything they could think of to bring the abuse to the attention of the authorities, but their desperate and sometimes pathetic pleas all ended the same way: the authorities believed the staff at the home and refused to believe the boys. After suitable punishment for ‘disloyalty’, the abuse started up again. Partly, the disbelief was due to the instinctive solidarity of bureaucrats in authority, but Moore shows that there was more to it than that. There were people in authority who knew what was going on and did nothing about it, usually because they, too, were helping themselves to the boys in care. One of these men was the late John Young, Town Solicitor at Belfast, to whom many of the boys’ complaints were passed; another was Belfast city councillor ‘Joss’ Cardwell, who regularly visited Kincora on Saturdays, Moore discovered. Soon after Moore asked the councillor about these visits, Cardwell committed suicide.

After William McGrath started to work at Kincora, this ring grew much larger. McGrath had a wide circle of friends and disciples in the Orange Movement. Moore shows that McGrath was not just an absurd fanatic who believed in a united Ireland for Protestants which would ban the Roman Catholic Church (which he denounced as an ally of Communism). From very early on, McGrath was also an important agent of British Intelligence, first of MI6 and then of MI5. In this capacity he made frequent visits to his controllers in London, not to mention to South Africa and Rhodesia to buy arms for Protestant paramilitaries. This is not a wild allegation: it is conclusively proved by all sorts of witnesses throughout Moore’s book. But the most powerful proof of all is the protection which McGrath, his extremist and paramilitary organisation, Tara, and his activities at Kincora were afforded by the security services. When another British intelligence agent tried to infiltrate Tara, he was told by his own bosses to keep off. When a senior military intelligence officer heard rumours of what was going on at Kincora and started making inquiries, he was told at the highest level to drop the whole subject. Most amazingly, when senior officers from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, on an official government inquiry, sought to interview McGrath’s controller in British Intelligence, they were rebuffed. Once the Kincora story came out in the press, the authorities had to act – but even then a veil of secrecy seemed to cover the trial. McGrath served only a few months in prison and when he came out he was as closely protected as ever. (‘Never,’ he boasted, ‘have I committed an act unbecoming to an Orangeman.’) Chris Moore’s own research was incorporated in a BBC news programme which delighted his boss – but was inexplicably ‘pulled’ before it got on air.

Moore’s account is slightly marred by his over-indulgence of his police sources. The record of the RUC in reacting to complaints about Kincora is not outstanding. But it is hard to quarrel with his central conclusion that McGrath ‘received the protection of the British secret service because for a number of years they put the integrity of the state above the abuse of boys at Kincora’. I am not sure what he means by ‘integrity of the state’, and certainly ‘integrity’ seems an odd word to use in this context. What is clear is that during most of the Seventies and even the Eighties and Nineties, MI5 and military intelligence in the North of Ireland took a firm stand in favour of the Protestant population and against the Catholics, a stand which led them to employ agents who directed policy in Protestant paramilitary organisations – including the authorisation of the assassination of Republican opponents. William McGrath was such an agent, and his behaviour at Kincora had to be tactfully overlooked.

McGrath and his colleagues would often take selected boys out for the evening to clubs and meetings with friends and associates who had the same sexual predilections. These visits were of course kept very quiet and, with the exception of a dead English civil servant, the identities of the ‘friends’ to whom the Kincora boys were ‘introduced’ have never been disclosed. Moore wonders whether some of them were friends of Anthony Blunt, who spent long periods in Tyrone and Belfast with Peter Montgomery, once Vice-Lieutenant for County Tyrone, and was known to be interested in ‘rough trade’ supplied from local state homes. But there is no proven link between this circle and Kincora.

Such allegations will always be made, however, when widespread abuse is kept secret for so long. They abound today in North Wales and in Cheshire and Liverpool as more and more names of people in high places are bandied about as likely exploiters of boys provided for them from homes. In every major particular, the recent revelations from North Wales, Cheshire and Liverpool share the features of the Kincora case. There has been the same systematic abuse, the same consistent refusal of the authorities to believe the young people when they complained, the same ‘ring’ of abusers in different homes, constantly shifting from one home to another, the same apparent involvement of people high up in authority on the relevant councils and government bodies, the same tight-lipped police (Merseyside police, unlike their colleagues in Cheshire, have refused to hand over any information to the solicitors representing the abused children). When the Kincora allegations first became public, some observers in Britain believed that the scandal was peculiar to the rarefied social and political atmosphere in Northern Ireland. That belief is no longer tenable and the haunting suspicion remains that there is nothing special either about Kincora, or about the abuse in Cheshire and Merseyside. It seems quite probable that serial child abuse in ‘caring’ homes has been common practice all over the country for at least two decades.

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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.

Patrick Wormald
Christ Church, Oxford

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.

Richard Webster
Southwold, Suffolk

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