Abuse of the Innocents

by padraigcolman

This article was published in the Sunday Island on December 10, 2011.

I have been reading a lot in the Sri Lankan press recently about sexual abuse of children. All right-minded people abhor such predatory behaviour and corruption of the innocent. Because of this universal horror, it can be a dangerous subject for public discussion. Debate often generates more heat than light.

I worked at one time as a ministerial advisor on child protection. A lot of disturbing material, in the form of social services reports and police evidence, crossed my desk. I had many upsetting conversations with victims (then having reached adulthood) and with those who claimed to be falsely accused.

One of the depressing things about those files was the number of allegations against those whose job it was to care for already damaged children. Perhaps people who had an unhealthy sexual interest in children might deliberately seek a career in the social services. This was added dimension to the horror – were those entrusted with the care of children merely there to exploit opportunities to harm them? It also tainted dedicated people doing a difficult and necessary job for society.

I recall a time when it was impossible to believe that such a thing as sexual abuse of children existed. When I was a social security visitor in a working class district of Manchester in the early seventies, someone tried tell us, in a somewhat cryptic manner, their suspicions about what was happening to their neighbour’s babies. I and my colleagues, did not at first understand. How, or why, would anyone do such bizarre things?

Over the coming years, naivety gave way to hyperawareness. In the UK, child sexual abuse came into general public consciousness with a shock when two paediatricians working at Middlesbrough General Hospital, Marietta Higgs and Geoffrey Wyatt, used a diagnostic test called reflex anal dilation and concluded that there was suspicion that 121 children had been sexually abused. Many of the children had come to hospital for treatment for complaints such as asthma, one had scratched her arms while picking bilberries. While in foster care, the children continued to be regularly examined by Dr. Higgs. She subsequently accused foster parents of further abuse and they too were arrested. I recall being in Stockton-on-Tees at the time, listening to the stunned local people talking in shops and bars. Overnight, the town had become a byword for perversion and cruelty. Ordinary people could not believe it.

Ordinary people were right. After a number of court trials, 26 cases involving children from twelve families were found by judges to have been incorrectly diagnosed. Dr Higgs experimented with the test on her own children and, finding a negative result, concluded that any positive result must mean the child had been abused. Cases involving 96 of the 121 children alleged to be victims of sexual abuse were dismissed by the courts.

In 2007, people affected by the scandal spoke on British TV about what happened in 1987. It was revealed that Marietta Higgs is still in practice. Also in 2007, Higgs said in a TV interview that she would do the same again and she suspected the numbers being abused were even greater than the 121 named. BBC Radio interviewed a 29-year-old who recalled not being allowed to see her father for seven months during the height of the crisis in 1987. “I’m determined to show they have not beaten me. But it was cruelty we received at the hands of people that were supposed to protect you.” Some of the children are now complaining that what Higgs and Wyatt did to them was sexual abuse and had a traumatic effect.

The Department of Health made an honest effort to steer a course through these dangerous waters. When I was there, the guidance was called Working Together, stressing a multi-disciplinary approach involving co-operation between social workers, police, schools, religious bodies. Even members of the general public were given a “responsibility to protect”.

Although benign in intent, Working Together’s consequences were malign. The evidence-based ethos of the police came up against a very different ideology. The police coped by giving in to it. Social workers and those in other disciplines who came to see child protection as a career path (to some it was almost a religion) based on apparently scholarly research, whose flawed methodology was not readily apparent to the uninitiated. The police set up their own child protection units and went native, buying into to the child protection culture.

The Castle Hill investigation involved only one care worker but the report on it expressed ideas about “organised institutional abuse”. The new ethos coming from California was: because allegations of sexual abuse had been disbelieved too often in the past, now everything had to be believed. When the police had the responsibility to investigate allegations of abuse, there was a need to provide evidence for a court and to presume innocence. The new therapeutic approach replaced scepticism with credulity. It became an article of faith that children did not make false allegations of sexual abuse. Ronald Summit, an LA mental health consultant said: “The more illogical and incredible the initiation scene might appear to adults, the more likely it is that the child’s description is valid”.

Unfortunately, the problem was not the truthfulness of children but the use that adults made of their testimony. Kee McFarlane developed coercive interviewing methods that led children to fabricate accounts of satanic abuse at the McMartin Preschool. She became recognized as an ‘expert’ and trained numerous other social workers, resulting in a national hysteria which engulfed several preschools across the nation and led to the wrongful conviction of large numbers of day-care employees.

Satanic abuse hysteria hit Britain while I was at the Child Protection Unit at the Department of Health in London. We commissioned the anthropologist, Professor Jean La Fontaine, an expert on witchcraft and witch hunts, to conduct a study, Speak of the Devil, which I had the honour of editing. The Californian craze had been taken up by powerful advocates in the media in the UK. One of the most significant voices was that of the journalist Beatrix Campbell, whose steely gaze I encountered at various conferences. Another strong advocate of the satanic conspiracy was Valerie Sinason, a psychotherapist, whom I also met many times, and whose argument kept reverting to one single case for which she did not have first-hand evidence. These conferences became religious rallies (or pyramid-selling meetings) where one was afraid to voice any doubts about the faith that satanic abuse existed.

These satanic rites supposedly involved breeding children for sacrifice, child murder and cannibalism. I recall a forensic psychiatrist saying at one of these conferences that she had never, in many years of wide experience, seen any evidence of satanic child abuse. I thought she would be dragged from the hall for hanging, drawing and quartering as a heretic.

Social workers all over Britain were convinced that they had a divine duty to protect innocent children against an evil conspiracy whose tentacles stretched deep into the establishment, involved free-masonry and reached into the police forces who were supposed to be investigating it.

A number of police inquiries concluded that thorough investigations had produced no bodies, no bones, no bloodstains and that, if ritual abuse presentations did not cease, there was a likelihood of a witch-hunt developing which might result in grave injustice.

Professor La Fontaine had previously been sympathetic to the Bea Campbell view of the existence of satanic abuse but in her report concurred with the police view that there was no evidence. She argued that what is presented as the testimony of children in most satanic abuse cases is almost always an adult construction. This comes about either because of selective over-interpretation of innocent remarks or through coercive or suggestive interviewing. The social workers shaped the evidence they were pre-disposed to find.

What happened in Britain from 1987 onwards a kind of viral mass hysteria generated as the result of a global village rumour whose specific origins, documented by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker in their book Satan’s Silence (Basic Books, New York, 1995), can actually be examined.

While I have no doubt that it correct to be vigilant in the protection of children in Sri Lanka, I am somewhat concerned about some of the things I am reading. For example, I was editing a Sarvodaya paper which boldly stated that unspecified “1998 research studies show 50,000 Sri Lankan children engage in prostitution”. The paper then goes on to say “100,000 engage in prostitution as estimated by NGOs and media”. There is one single footnote to support this and the website referred to does not exist. A Googling wild-goose-chase led me to what seemed to be an authoritative UNESCO site but it turned out they were just quoting Sarvodaya. The Asian Human Rights Group claimed 40,000 in 2006 but they were just quoting the Daily Mirror who gave no indication where they got it from. Other Googling turned up Tamil Net propaganda against the government or Karuna.

This is not to say that child sex abuse is not a serious problem. However, it needs to be dealt with on a basis of fact rather than churnalism, factoids and distortion similar to those used in Channel 4’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.

When I worked at the Department of Health I saw a vast police investigation aimed at uncovering organised paedophile rings in care homes in North Wales. Many false allegations were made and many innocent people went to prison and had their careers and reputations ruined. Some died. (Channel 4 was involved.) Richard Webster wrote a 700-page book about the affair called The Secret of Bryn Estin: the making of a modern witch hunt. None of it might have happened had it not been for one disgruntled care worker, Alison Taylor, who encouraged vulnerable people to seek the limelight and financial reward by fabricating allegations.

When the late and unlamented News of the World campaigned against paedophiles a mob attacked a paediatrician (not Marietta Higgs). The Grease Yaka phenomenon has shown Sri Lanka how frightening this kind of mass hysteria and lynch mob mentality can be.