A new police inquiry into historic allegations of paedophilia in North Wales care homes has uncovered a welter of fresh evidence and victims whose testimony indicates that there was "systemic and serious sexual and physical abuse" spanning nearly three decades.
The announcement that Operation Pallial is now investigating 140 allegations related to 18 care homes, including 76 completely new complaints, represents a dramatic widening of the scope of the suspected abuse, which was previously focused on three or four establishments.
The findings mean that one of Britain's biggest investigations into institutional child abuse is now under way. The NSPCC warned it was imperative that after decades of waiting by alleged victims for "their voices to be heard" it was imperative that the system did not fail them.
Officers leading the £500,000 North Wales investigation said a total of 84 individuals, among them nine women, had been named as suspects in alleged assaults carried out between 1963 and 1992, including 16 potential serial abusers accused of targeting more than one child. The ages of those allegedly abused, both boys and girls, ranged from seven to 19.
The complexities of bringing alleged abusers to justice - the majority of them adult carers suspected of grooming and then assaulting their charges - were underlined by confirmation from police that of the 16 people who may have committed multiple offences, ten are already dead.
The investigation was launched last year following the report by the BBC's Newsnight programme which highlighted concerns that only a small proportion of the abuse in North Wales, in particular at the Bryn Estyn home in Wrexham, had been uncovered. The probe falsely implicated former Conservative Treasurer Lord McAlpine in the abuse, leading to a substantial libel payout and a crisis in the BBC's journalism.
At the launch of an interim report yesterday to outline the findings of the first phase of their inquiry to discover the likely scope of the abuse, officers revealed that criminal conduct was now suspected to have been "systemic" across North Wales children's homes.
Detective Superintendent Ian Mulcahey, the senior investigating officer for Pallial, which is independent of North Wales Police and manned by officers from several forces and agencies, said: "These are serious allegations that will be thoroughly investigated. Many have provided graphic accounts of abuse, in some cases of very serious criminality."
The 18-page report revealed that the offences now being pursued range from physical and verbal assaults through to rape and buggery, adding: "The investigation has resulted in the collection of significant evidence of systemic and serious sexual and physical abuse of children while in care."
Categorising the evidence given by alleged victims as "graphic", it said: "Complainants have provided accounts of serious criminal offences being committed against young and vulnerable people by the adults charged with their care. In the vast majority of reports there was a clear element of grooming with a serious abuse of trust and dereliction of duty of care."
One victim who has come forward in public has complained of how he was placed on a mini-bus with other children at the age of 12 and driven to London to take part in sex parties with men. "Michael" told Sky News: "It was how compliant you were, how nice you were towards them and looking back it was all about what they could get away with."
Det Supt Mulcahey said the investigation had so far not found any evidence that abusers had acted together. He said: "We are still in the early stages of an investigation. We are looking at individual complaints at the moment and if evidence takes us there that tends to support allegations of collusion between other parties then we will investigate it thoroughly."
The Home Office-funded investigation, involving a team of 31 officers, will now move to a second phase of criminal investigation to build evidence against the alleged abusers. Officers said they were prioritising their inquiries to ensure that suspects who might be working with children or young people are targeted first.
Publication of the report comes less than a week after a man was arrested in Ipswich, Suffolk, accused of "a number of serious sexual offences against a number of individuals" linked to Operation Pallial, the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) said.
He was the first person to be detained so far as part of the inquiry.
A large number of those who have come forward as victims initially called a helpline run by the NSPCC, which yesterday noted their courage as potential witnesses.
Peter Watt, director of the helpline, said: "This investigation is a major step forward into probing claims of widespread child abuse. Many who have been waiting decades for justice and for their voices to be heard have now finally found the courage to come forward and we must not fail them this time."
Police said that of the total of 140 complaints, comprising 125 men and 15 women, a total of 122 had given or were due to give videoed interviews with trained officers and social workers outlining the abuse they had suffered. In addition to the 84 named suspects, a further 32 allegations have been made against unidentified individuals.
Operation Pallial, which is being conducted under the auspices of the National Crime Agency, also reviewed the original police investigations into the abuse. It found there was no evidence of "systemic or institutional misconduct" by North Wales Police.
A separate review is being conducted by a High Court judge, Mrs Justice Macur, into the Waterhouse Inquiry, which was set up in 2000 to look at claims linked to homes in the former council areas of Gwynedd and Clwyd since 1974, including Bryn Estyn.
It resulted in 140 compensation settlements but in the wake of the revelations concerning Jimmy Savile, who is said to have been a regular visitor to Bryn Estyn, victims have come forward to say that the inquiry examined only a fraction of the abuse which took place.
North Wales Chief Constable Mark Polin said it was "never too late" to report abuse. He added: "Offenders should quite rightly have to look over their shoulders for the rest of their lives."