At the time it may have seemed a lurid and alarmist claim. There had been some isolated, if notorious cases, such as the Frank Beck affair in Leicestershire and the Pindown scandal in Staffordshire. The terrible saga of Clwyd - at least 100 children sexually abused over 20 years, of whom 12 subsequently died - was only just becoming known. It still seemed too much to suggest that this was a nationwide problem.
But if anyone wanted to dismiss Clwyd as a freak, a one-off instance of systematic sexual mistreatment of children in care, they must now reckon with Cheshire. All the evidence now indicates that what has taken place there is actually worse than Clwyd, in the sense that it was on a larger scale.
The figures tell their own story. Six care workers have so far been jailed in separate court cases. Another nine trials are in the pipeline. Four residential establishments in the county are implicated. One hundred instances of abuse have come before the courts so far and the final figure for children abused may be 300 - one in seven of those in care in those institutions. The squad of 24 detectives in Cheshire, conducting Britain's biggest investigation of its kind, is also studying links with Clwyd and Liverpool.
Who now could deny with any confidence the claim of a gulag archipelago stretching across Britain?
THE victims of these crimes were among the most vulnerable children in the country. Many came from broken homes, or homes where the parents could not cope. Some were rowdy children, officially declared beyond parental control, and some had already been abused by their parents. They were all, in one sense or another, victims even before they came into public care.
Their allegations are mounting up today, rather than at the time in the 1970s and 1980s when residential children's homes - and the abuse - were at their height, for a clear, understandable reason. When a child is being abused he or she is often both threatened and made to feel guilty by the perpetrator. That guilt later turns into shame and a reluctance to discuss what happened. Many victims feel that their failure to speak out at the time made them accomplices.
Most of today's complaints come from people in their thirties, a time when the lucky ones among them have settled down and found a stable lifestyle. They have begun to recognise the injustice of what happened to them. They see that they were not to blame, and in a climate of opinion where abuse is more openly discussed than before, they feel able to come forward.
The Cheshire inquiry has its origins in just such an initiative. Four years ago, a young man walked into a police station and made a complaint about the abuse he had suffered. A second complaint followed some time
later and the work got under way in earnest in February 1994, with a team of detectives based initially in Warrington.
A crucial decision was made at an early stage which was to determine the character and scale of the investigation: detectives decided to cast their nets wide. Instead of limiting inquiries to original complainants, they went looking for victims. One officer explained. "We decided that ... the last thing we wanted was somebody knocking on the door six months after we finished and saying, `You never came to see me'."
So they set out to trace every single young person who had been in care in the area since the mid-1960s. The list came to 2,500 names. "The aim was to trace and speak to them all, to ask them about their experiences. We left nothing to chance. It has been a detailed, thorough inquiry," said the officer.
In each case, the police explained that they were investigating the specific homes and they asked: did they have any complaint to make about their time there? When personal calls failed, registered letters were sent which had to be signed for, showing they had been received. Those who received letters but made no contact were assumed to have no complaints. In all, just over 2,000 people were contacted and more than 300 made allegations that they had been sexually abused.
The investigation has resulted in the following convictions:
Alan Langshaw, care worker, pleaded guilty at Warrington Crown Court to 30 counts of serious sexual assaults and indecent assaults against boys aged under 16 at homes in Cheshire and Liverpool. Jailed for 10 years.
Colin Dick, care worker, guilty of nine counts of serious sexual offences and indecent assault against children at one home in Cheshire. Jailed for four years.
Dennis Grain, care worker, pleaded guilty to 19 cases of serious sexual offences and indecent assault at homes in Cheshire and Yorkshire. Jailed for seven years.
Terrence Hoskins, found guilty of 22 counts of indecent assault and physical assault and serious sexual offences at home where he was the head. Jailed for eight years.
John Clarke, convicted of indecent and physical assault at a care home in Cheshire. Jailed for three-and-a-half years.
Roy Shuttleworth, care worker, found guilty of 11 counts of serious sexual offences and indecent assaults on boys in a care home in Cheshire. Jailed for 10 years.
In addition two men have been jailed in Liverpool in prosecutions arising from the Cheshire inquiry. They are: Philip Savage, who was given 13 years, and Edward Stanton, now serving 15 years.
To take just one of those cases in more detail: Shuttleworth, who was jailed just a week ago, molested boys over an 11-year period starting in 1974 when he first got a job at the home. Now 63, he abused them both sexually and mentally. In court, he denied 11 charges of serious sexual offences and indecent assault and claimed that the former residents were making up the allegations to get money from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board.
One 33-year-old witness in the case told the court that he had been unable to tell his father about what Shuttleworth had done to him; it was only when his father had died and he was standing at the graveside that he poured out his feelings. Judge Robin David, passing sentence, told Shuttleworth that his behaviour had been beneath contempt.
Detectives have explored the idea that the perpetrators of these crimes belonged to organised paedophile networks, but they have been hampered by the refusal of all the convicted abusers to talk. "In the ideal world, and on TV, one of these offenders would break down in court and tell us everything," said the officer. "But no one has said anything. There were guilty pleas, but no one has told the story. There have to be some links - everyone networks at some stage - but no one has ever said anything."
CHESHIRE may be the biggest scandal so far, but there are grounds for believing that we might have woken up to the dangers in our children's homes long ago. It was in 1980 that the story broke of the abuse of boys at the Kincora home in Belfast. This was revealed by the Irish Independent after several years in which complaints by residents and social workers were ignored. Three men were later jailed.
The abuse in Staffordshire occurred in the 1980s and compensation claims were made in 1992. It involved abuse at two homes in the county and led to an inquiry by Allan Levy QC. The scandal of Frank Beck, who abused dozens of children in care in Leicestershire between 1973 and 1986, became known to the public when he was prosecuted in 1991. He has since died in prison. The Clwyd abuse scandal emerged in the early 1990s and subsequently led to a police investigation lasting two years in which 300 cases were referred to the Crown Prosecution Service. The scale of the scandal, and the refusal of the authorities to be open about it, were revealed in this newspaper in April.
In retrospect, it is not just the high-profile cases that ought to have alerted us. Many of the indicators of abuse were always there: children running away from homes; complaints against some care staff; lack of regulation and consequently the entry of unsuitable people into care work. Council homes were run almost at arm's length from the local authority; in some cases the homes were outside the council area and out of sight. In this climate, an attitude took hold that the children were an underclass who had no rights, and should have been grateful for anything they got. It seemed that the public did not care.
Should there be a public inquiry? "I have no doubt in my mind that there has to be - will be - an inquiry," said one Cheshire police officer. "I think the whole bloody child-care system needs looking at."
The Cheshire MP Mike Hall agrees: "I am concerned about the number of cases of child abuse in Cheshire. There is a level of concern within the county to merit such an investigation." Pointing to Clwyd, where the latest of 14 separate inquiries has taken place but the results have again been withheld from the public, Mr Hall said: "I am predominantly concerned with what happens in Cheshire, but it is now quite alarming that we still haven't got the Jillings report published. I think it would be quite useful to get a nationwide picture of what is going on. There is a growing body of evidence about child abuse. A national look at this would be in everyone's best interests."
One of the parents who has written to John Major about the issue, but who cannot be named for legal reasons, said: "There must be an investigation to find out what really went on. There are still hundreds of people out there who were abused but who are ashamed to come forward because of the guilt complex that these molesters instil in them."