In the summer of 1991, a white envelope marked "Confidential" dropped on to the desk of the Chief Constable of North Wales. The note inside was about a former care worker in North Wales, who had just been jailed for 12 years for rape and indecent assault.
He was not the first care worker in North Wales to appear in court, nor would he be the last, but his case was pivotal because of the evidence that had been given. "I understand that when your officers investigated this case they were at one stage concerned as to the question of the existence of a paedophile ring," read the letter from Clwyd Council. "This question exercises my mind greatly and I believe it will be a matter of equal concern to you."
Shortly afterwards, a wide-ranging police inquiry began. Over two years, some 2,500 people were interviewed, with allegations against 365 people. The Crown Prosecution Services recommended action against eight, and six were convicted. There, the affair might have ended. There was no widespread clamour for inquires – and no internet through which allegations and names could find their way into the public domain.
It is hard to appreciate today, as the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announces an investigation into claims that a senior Conservative figure was involved in abuse at North Wales care homes in the 1970s and 1980s, but in those days attitudes to child abuse and to children in care were different. After all, the Paedophile Information Exchange, which campaigned for acceptance and understanding of paedophilia, had disbanded only seven years earlier.
And the interests and welfare of children in care were not issues that attracted great public attention In these closed worlds, too many children were easy prey to abusers.
Nonetheless, with the police inquiry complete, Clwyd Council decided to review its residential child care provisions, and commissioned John Jillings, a former director of social services in Derbyshire, to chair a tribunal,
It took nearly a year to complete its inquiry and much was expected. But, astonishingly, the council decided not to publish the 300-page report and it was regarded as so sensitive that copies were numbered and, at one point, recalled.
It was the non-publication of Jillings that triggered the interest of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday, and abuse at children's homes in North Wales rapidly climbed the news agenda.
Malcolm King, then chairman of Clwyd County Council, whose tenacity had helped to put the spotlight on abuse, did not hold back. "The evidence emerging is that children's homes were a gulag archipelago stretching across Britain – wonderful places for paedophiles but, for the children who suffered, places of unending nightmares," he told The Independent on Sunday.
It emerged that there were other unpublished reports, one of which showed that warnings about the possibility of a paedophile ring operating around children's homes in North Wales and the North-west had been given four years previously. There were 12 internal reports on alleged abuse in all. Only six made it to the social services committee and just two were reported in any detail. As a result, it was almost impossible to have an overview of what was happening in children's homes.
Had anyone put the reports, convictions, suspensions, suspicions and resignations together at any time during the 1980s, they would have seen a worrying trend in abuse and allegations of abuse. They would have also have seen that there were links between some of the convicted abusers. Four – Peter Howarth, Stephen Norris, Frederick Rutter and David Gillison – worked at one time or another at the Bryn Estyn children home.
At this stage it seemed that more than 100, possibly more than 200 children might have been sexually abused in the homes. At least 12, perhaps 16, were dead, some by suicide. Prominent public figures were persistently rumoured to be among the abusers: members of a paedophile ring to whom the children were supplied as sexual playthings.
The Jillings report had been expected to provide an overview and answer some of these questions, but it had been suppressed. The Independent and The Independent on Sunday gained access to some of the recommendations, and eventually were given unrestricted access to one of the numbered copies.
Its contents were explosive: "It is the opinion of the panel that extensive and widespread abuse has occurred within Clwyd residential establishments for children and young people. Our findings show that time and again, the response to indications that children may have been abused has been too little and too late." It condemned professionals: "There has been a conflict of interest between safeguarding professional positions versus the safety of children and young people. The interests of children have almost invariably been sacrificed.
"It is clear that in a significant number of cases the lives of young people who have been through the care system in Clwyd have been severely disrupted and disturbed. "
The report, which called for a judicial inquiry, contained information which suggested council insurers might have feared that its contents could provoke a flood of compensation claims. "Every inquiry is a dress rehearsal for claimants and a further incentive to the bandwagon syndrome," they said in a letter to the council. The outcry over non-publication of Jillings and continuing revelations about what was actually in it, eventually led to the North Wales Child Abuse Tribunal. This judicial inquiry, chaired by Sir Ronald Waterhouse, spent a year – and £20m – listening to more than 350 former residents, and other witnesses, trying to get at the truth.
Allegations of abuse were on a colossal scale. More than 700 complaints, relating to approximately 40 homes, were made, including 138 from former residents of Bryn Estyn. Although the inquiry made a series of recommendations, some issues remained unresolved. Were there – are there? – other people who should be investigated? Was a ring at work? Were prominent public figures involved?
"One of the disturbing features of Bryn Estyn is the large number of employees who were later to be identified as serious abusers. There can be little doubt that most or all of the most serious sexual abusers knew each other," said Gerard Elias QC during the tribunal hearings.
Clwyd Council was concerned enough to raise questions about a paedophile ring with the Chief Constable, and one of the internal reports, which was obtained by The Independent at the time, raised the issue, too: "There remain worrying current instances of conviction and prosecution for sexual offences of persons who are known to have worked together in child care establishments both in the county [Clwyd] and in other parts of the North-west," it said. "These suggest that abuse could have been happening unabated for many years and, that there could be operating a league or ring of paedophiles."
And were prominent public figures involved? Allegations and rumours of abuse of children in care in North Wales have been rife for many years, and leading politicians are consistently alleged to be involved. Some have been named on the internet – repeatedly so, in recent days.
The Waterhouse inquiry effectively barred the naming of anyone accused of abuse who had not been convicted, arguing that there was a "substantial risk that the course of justice... would be seriously impeded and prejudiced if there were to be general publication of the identity of the abusers and persons against whom allegations of abuse are made."
In fact, one or two politicians' names were mentioned at the tribunal, but they did not appear in the report, and, it being the pre-internet age, they remained anonymous. The report concluded: "No evidence has been presented to establish that there was a wide-ranging conspiracy involving prominent persons and others with the objective of sexual activity with children in care."
But for two or three decades, survivors of abuse have been adamant about who they thought was involved, and now some of those allegations have been resurfacing.
Should we take them seriously? As a journalist who was deeply involved in the story for some time, I saw the allegations as being sincerely held, and they have persisted. But to publish them would have needed solid evidence. Sadly, the very nature of sexual abuse of this kind means that such solid evidence was and is very hard to come by.
Yet, despite two tribunals, 10 or so court cases, more than a dozen reports, and several internal inquires, there remain unanswered questions about exactly what happened in and around those children's home in North Wales over two decades.
Jillings, too, had encountered talk of the involvement of public figures. His report said he was unable to tackle some issues because of the lack of a mandate, adding: "This includes the suggestion that public figures may have been involved in the abuse of young people in Clwyd."
None of these allegations has diminished over time. If there is a new inquiry, it needs to be structured in such a way that it can have a reasonable chance of finding conclusive answers for the survivors of child abuse that wrecked so many lives.
Q&A: Abuse in Welsh care homes
Q When did the abuse occur?
A Between 1974 and 1990. About 100 children, and possibly many more, were sexually abused in children's homes in Clwyd.
Q What was done about it?
A Seven men were eventually jailed for their role in the abuse, including John Allen, head of the Bryn Alyn home.
Q Shouldn't there have been an inquiry at the time?
A There were several: 12 internal council reports; an inquiry for the Welsh Office, which concluded that a full judicial inquiry would not be in the public interest; the 300-page Jillings report, prepared for Clwyd council in 1996 but never published; and a £20m judicial inquiry under Sir Ronald Waterhouse QC, which reported in 2000.
Q What were the Waterhouse inquiry's conclusions?
A The inquiry's report, Lost In Care, concluded that widespread sexual abuse had taken place. However, it reached no conclusions about persistent allegations that prominent public figures had been among the abusers.
Q Why not?
A The difficulty of substantiating claims against named individuals was seen as making it harder for victims to get a hearing for their claims of abuse, so the Waterhouse inquiry granted anonymity to all such named alleged perpetrators.
Q Did the guilty go unpunished?
A We have no way of knowing. Now, as then, claims about "prominent perpetrators" mean little without corroborating evidence.