Younger children were bullied by older boys and three men who worked there have been jailed for abuse.
The horror was compounded, an inquiry heard yesterday, by the concerted activities of paedophiles carrying out organised and systematic abuse of the children. Gerard Elias, QC, told the Waterhouse tribunal investigating child abuse in North Wales that this was an important issue facing the tribunal.
He said: "If there was such an infiltration, this raises the question of the existence of a paedophile ring. If such a ring did exist, was it organised, or simply a loose and informal arrangement between abusers to share information and opportunities?
"There can be little doubt that most or all the most serious sexual abusers knew each other. The homes presented attractive targets for them. Children in care form a particularly vulnerable class and it was not difficult to obtain employment at one of the homes.
The now-closed, mock-Tudor children's home in Wrexham was an evil place where the only escape for some was to run away. The fear felt by children at Bryn Estyn was vividly recounted by Mr Elias from a statement made to the tribunal's investigating team by a former resident: "After going to the dormitories a male member of staff would come to the door and call out one of the boys who would get up and leave. They were normally gone for half an hour to an hour. When they returned they went back to bed and I often heard them sobbing. I never asked what happened because I was afraid to ask."
The tribunal, whose hearings are expected to take a year, also heard yesterday of the role of Clwyd Council's insurers in the non-publication of reports. In one letter to the council they said: "Every inquiry is a further dress rehearsal for claimants and a further incentive to the bandwagon syndrome. We are concerned to avoid stirring up claimants, particularly as two of the ringleaders have given up."
Mr Elias said: "With this approach, what might perhaps be called the hold-the-lid-on-at-all-costs approach, the Clwyd authority appears to have connived."
The tribunal, chaired by Sir Ronald Waterhouse, was set up by the Secretary of State for Wales, William Hague, to investigate the allegations of abuse and the care system in North Wales.
Almost 140 people who passed through Bryn Estyn have complained of abuse. Four more who alleged abuse are dead. "It is beyond dispute that others have been gravely damaged not only by their experiences at the home, but also by their inability to speak of those experiences to those in authority and thus commence the healing process," said Mr Elias.
More than 60 people have made allegations of physical or sexual abuse against one man. One three occasions police sent files to the Crown Prosecution Service, but he was never prosecuted. Clywd Council carried out inquiries but almost all of these were never published.