Michael Mason

  • Report of the Inquiry into Child Abuse in Cleveland 1987 by Elizabeth Butler-Sloss
    HMSO, 336 pp, £14.50, July 1988, ISBN 0 10 104122 5
  • When Salem came to the Boro by Stuart Bell
    Pan, 355 pp, £3.99, July 1988, ISBN 0 330 30503 4
  • The Last Taboo by Gay Search
    Penguin, 192 pp, £3.99, August 1988, ISBN 0 14 011049 6
  • Unofficial Secrets: Child Sexual Abuse – The Cleveland Case by Beatrix Campbell
    Virago, 226 pp, £4.50, September 1988, ISBN 0 86068 634 5

Among the people who almost certainly took comfort from the tone of the national discussion of events in Cleveland in the summer of 1987 were three middle-aged men from a housing estate in Congleton, Cheshire. As emerged in their trials earlier this year, these men had repeatedly been making sexual assaults of the most extreme sort on very young members of their families, sometimes in a spirit of revolting cruelty. One man had raped his sobbing five-year-old daughter, as she was held down by her mother, and buggered his three-year-old son. The other two had indecently assaulted and buggered children between the ages of five and nine. It is reasonable to suppose that these men would have applied the Cleveland affair to their own situation quite thoroughly. While sexual assaults on children are no doubt sometimes unpremeditated, the literature is full of cases where the activity is a highly conscious project, often the project of a lifetime, even when the behaviour that is planned is of the most cruel and selfish variety. Men do, in real life, get married in the spirit of Humbert Humbert – sometimes with much younger and more defenceless targets in view than Lolita. They do – pace the incredulity expressed about certain diagnoses of Dr Marietta Higgs – deliberately get themselves accredited as fit to foster children with the intention of abusing their charges. In the case of Congleton it appears that some fifteen other adults may also have been involved in child sex: it was a ‘sex ring’ – a vague expression which is nevertheless surely correct in its implication of group commitment to a particular sexual practice.

It is also reasonable to suppose that the signals reaching Congleton from Cleveland via the media would have been encouraging. There was the general incredulity that, in a population of over half a million, there could be as many, or even remotely as many, as 121 children who had been sexually asaulted in a way that left clinical signs. There was the persistent invitation to sympathise with the parents of these children, to envisage your own distress and outrage if you, as an innocent parent, had your own children detained in hospital against your wishes (an invitation which was extremely compelling – but only appropriate where the parents were not responsible for the venereal disease and injuries of the genitalia and anus with which most of their children were presenting). There was authoritative support for the protesting parents, in the sense that the local MP, the local Police up to the highest level, and the chief police surgeon of the district, all said that the pediatricians and social workers involved were wilfully irresponsible. There was almost no perception, it seemed, that these people were in a very difficult moral predicament in which they deserved understanding – and practical support. In Congleton it must all have looked like another buggers’ charter. Happily the Police and social services in Cheshire were not so inhibited by Cleveland that they failed to achieve exposure and conviction (indeed, they said they had been helped by the mistakes of Cleveland – but the value of criminal prosecution as a goal where child sex abuse is concerned was one of the issues which divided the parties at Cleveland). And the report of the Butler-Sloss inquiry, for all its reticences about names and numbers, brought in a verdict on Cleveland very antagonistic to the hitherto prevailing one: by far its harshest judgments are reserved for MP Stuart Bell, the Police, and the doctors who supported the Police in their hostility to Drs Higgs and Wyatt.

That human nature – or, probably more exactly, male human nature – has the capacity to perform deliberately and persistently the acts performed at Congleton is for most of us very disorienting, and incomprehensible. The fact, however, is stark (since Congleton, two more sex rings involving very young children, in Nottingham and South London, have come before the courts), and police, social workers and doctors have a duty to keep it in mind, grotesque and dismaying though it is. To remember that a father or stepfather who looks like other fathers and stepfathers may be an abuser of children in this sense, and sometimes deduce that he is, will indeed have an air of witch-hunting – the leading metaphor in Stuart Bell’s version of the Cleveland affair, When Salem came to the Boro – but this is in the nature of the case. At Cleveland it seems that the social workers and doctors were much more mindful of possibilities than the Police. Before the appointment of Marietta Higgs early in 1987, the social services in Cleveland had been creating machinery for coping with the physical child-abuse, including sexual, which they knew at least in theory that they might encounter. For Dr Higgs, theory was brutally confirmed in July 1986, in her previous post at Newcastle, when she saw the startling phenomenon of anal dilatation in a two-year-old girl: the finding was confirmed by a woman police surgeon and the parents arrested. For Dr Wyatt, a pediatrician with an enormous case-load who seems to have been oppressed by the scale of general child ill-health in his district, the emotional impact of the physical signs of sexual abuse was enhanced by the thought that much of the ‘failure to thrive’ which he had found distressingly intractable might have such abuse in its aetiology. The Butler-Sloss report notes that he had been ‘obviously affected ... deeply’ by a dramatic example of anal dilatation shown to him by Dr Higgs, his first acquaintance with the sign. He also remembered his first distressing encounter, in 1983, with child sex-abuse in any form at Middlesbrough, a six-week-old girl with a torn vulva; he had failed to diagnose abuse and had been surprised when the Police told him that the girl’s father had confessed to yielding to ‘a sudden sexual urge’.

The fact that gross sexual assaults are performed on very young children is the crucial background to the events at Cleveland in 1987. The whole ethical issue about the behaviour of the social workers and doctors comes down to this: how should they have used their powers in dealing with the children and parents they saw, given the knowledge that sexual abuse of children, sometimes very brutal, does occur? For example, the father of three young girls diagnosed as showing signs consistent with sexual abuse complained to the inquiry in written evidence about the running of the case conference on his children: ‘Came in at the end. Was informed about what the situation was – very little said. I complained at not being allowed to put my point of view across.’ Another father tried to resist bringing his son to the hospital for examination after his daughter had been diagnosed as sexually abused, and was warned by Drs Higgs and Wyatt that ‘he may be placed in the care of the Local Authority if we did not have him examined.’ The Butler-Sloss report goes on: ‘His wife told of returning to the hospital next morning and of Dr Wyatt saying: “If you dare to take your child out of the hospital she will be placed straight into care.” A place of safety order was obtained this day and the mother said: “[that evening] I arrived home and opened the door to find a place of safety order on my doormat.” ’

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