Lost youth, lost voices

As a TV documentary re-examines the `ritual abuse' cases of the late 1980s, Jack O'Sullivan wonders if media coverage let children down

Many of us in the press are justly proud of our campaigning work on child abuse. After all, it was the relentless inquiry of journalists which uncovered years of abuse in north Wales children's homes that local authorities and national inspectors had, amazingly, failed to spot or act upon. To vulnerable, institutionalised children, caught in a web of corruption, we have been steadfast guardians, willing to believe them in the face of denials from establishment figures, prepared even to fight expensive libel actions to support their claims.

But did we let children down over "ritual abuse"? The term refers to a batch of cases in Nottingham, Rochdale and Orkney in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Children were said to have been sexually abused during bizarre rituals, sometimes of a religious or "satanic" nature. Most shocking of all was the claim that human sacrifice had been involved - the killing of babies and foetuses during these alleged ceremonies.

Tomorrow night, the Channel 4 documentary series, The Death of Childhood, looks back at this period. It comes to no firm verdict about the truth or falsehood of the claims. It concludes, however, that the "satanic" episode which left social workers discredited and demoralised also reduced the likelihood that children will, in future, be taken seriously if they talk about bizarre forms of abuse.

"The danger we're in at the moment revolves around a reluctance to want to hear and believe something because it is too bizarre," says Ray Wyre, a consultant on sex offenders. "What this means for some of the offenders I work with is that if they put a goat's head on and abuse a child, they'll get away with it because no one will believe that it can go on."

Liz Kelly, senior research officer, for the Child and Women's Abuse Studies Unit, backs up the view that paedophiles gained out of the whole ritual abuse episode. "The message they got was the more crazy things you do with children in the context of abuse, the more children will not be believed and you'll be safe. The more we refuse to look at this and make a kind of sense of it that enables us to work with it, the more we're actually giving them carte blanche; we're creating an abusers' charter."

You can blame social workers for this outcome. They went on dawn raids in Rochdale and Orkney, removing children at no notice from their bemused parents, causing a national outcry at their authoritarian methods. They were amateurish in their interviewing techniques, leading children with their questions. Having believed the children, neither they, nor the police, could produce the sites of torture or the dead, mutilated bodies which would have established once and for all that the nightmarish accusations were indeed true.

But the press should accept a share of responsibility for leaving children less well protected after the ritual abuse scandals than they were beforehand. "There is no evidence that ritual abuse exists," was the mantra repeated in some sections of the media. Eventually, most people became convinced that the allegations were simply the result of inexperienced social workers with overactive imaginations effectively brainwashing suggestible children, so the claims were dismissed.

But the press was, and still is, in no position to pronounce in this way. We have never had access to the children in these cases. They were wards of court. They did not appear at press conferences. Hearings about them were held in private. The social workers who dealt with them, in the interests of confidentiality, were bound not to disclose their stories. With such limited information, it was not for us to dismiss what they were saying as rubbish.

There was, indeed, good reason, to retain an open mind. In the case of the Nottingham children, there was no doubt that sexual abuse had taken place. In February 1989, nine members of an extended family had been convicted for incest, cruelty and indecent assault against 24 children. They were sentenced to 43 years in prison. The only dispute was whether the children's subsequent claims of ritual practices were true.

Having covered this case for The Independent, I cannot decide one way or the other. But I remain open-minded. I interviewed at length the foster mothers who looked after these children when they were taken into care. These women were not easily taken in. Some of them had been fostering for more than 20 years. They knew about the capacity children have to lie and make believe. Yet each said that they had never fostered children like these. They were horrified by their behaviour and by what they said.

And they believed the children who unfolded their stories independently of one another.

But such nagging questions and doubts became buried in the early Nineties in the rush to "prove" that ritual abuse did not exist. As a result, some journalists replaced the inquiring spirit which characterised stories about children's homes with their own overriding feelings of incredulity when it came to ritual abuse.

Part of the problem springs from a tendency to establish a simple framework of heroes and villains in child abuse stories. When the spotlight is on children's homes, it is clear that the baddies are the paedophiles who have infiltrated council services. It is easy to portray social services departments as incompetents of the drama. In the ritual abuse cases, the press sprang to the defence of aggrieved parents understandably outraged at the summary justice they had received. They became the goodies. Social workers therefore became the baddies. The stories put forward by the children, via the social workers, were thus discredited in the black and white drama that was constructed.

"I'm still not sure whether there was truth in the allegations," says Nick Clayton, now of the Scotsman, but who in 1991 was press officer for Orkney Council. "But many of the reporters who came to cover the story had already made up their minds when they arrived. There was an assumption, almost without exception, that the abuse had not happened and the whole affair was down to the evil social workers."

There was, of course, good reason to be sceptical about the hysteria that accompanied allegations of ritual abuse. Parents' rights were ignored in the excitement and children were damaged by being removed at the crack of dawn. There was danger of a witch-hunt. Journalists had to be careful not to be taken in by self-appointed "experts" and "therapists", some of whom has lost any sense of perspective (one memorably told a conference that there were 10,000 bodies to be uncovered). Additionally, some evangelical Christian groups had an interest in spreading the notion that the devil was busy at work.

But journalists could have disentangled these issues while retaining, as they do when looking at children's homes, a sympathetic ear to what children were, and still are, saying to health professionals. The failure of the press to keep an open mind means these people now have no public voice or credibility.

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