Dark forces treated lightly

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PROFESSOR Jean La Fontaine, whose report refuting the existence of satanic child abuse was published last week, may be destined to become the Freud of her generation: young survivors' stories of tyranny and torture seem so terrible that she prefers to locate their origin in fantasy rather than real events.

Her report accuses Britain's childcare professionals of being contaminated by evangelicals and 'experts' from America. This new myth is as grandiose as the claims made by satanic conspiracy theorists.

Professor La Fontaine is wrong. Child protection staff were hearing children's accounts and consulting mainstream British experts long before they discovered what was happening in other countries. The professor says the children's testimony has not proved that the adults were possessed by a magical or religious motive. Why was she quarrying the evidence of traumatised children for the motives of adults when the children could only offer their own experience? Their determined narratives revealed what the children, not the adults, believed.

Professor La Fontaine's report was not concerned about whether satanism, with its overt interest in sacrifice, is as prevalent as its commercial publications imply. Nor was she concerned with the behaviour of sex offenders attracted to satanism. She decided not to investigate adults. Instead she has re-interpreted children's reality and disdained those carers, social workers, police officers and judges who have taken them seriously.

She demanded 'material evidence' from the wrong people - the children. But who should we expect to provide the evidence? None of the cases examined could ever have yielded the 'material evidence' she sought - paraphernalia with forensic allure - because they were investigated after the children had been removed and the accused adults already alerted.

She offers no data on investigations: when they began, whether they were completed, on the difficulty of detection, how often social workers and foster carers felt thwarted by police inertia or indifference or how often police officers were prematurely pulled off investigations.

Class stereotypes infuse her report. Since the professor chose to trawl social services cases, not surprisingly her data focused on poor children. She proposes another thesis to explain the response to the terribly traumatised state of these children. The social workers and carers themselves, she says, cannot accept that parents 'will harm their own children'. And so, 'involvement with the devil explains it'. Thus people are 'demonising the marginal poor'. But she is marginalising the children of the poor: she doesn't think they have anything important to tell us.

She doesn't extend her class consciousness to the carers, mainly working-class women, who transmitted their experiences to social workers and police officers and thence to a stunned public domain. That transaction of trust has yielded a terrible archive of suffering.

But these poor children's stories are being echoed by middle- class children and by adults whose pain is being routed not through the welfare system but the mental health system.

Some foster carers felt they got less than the professor's full attention. A couple in one county, where she could have consulted a dozen but saw only three, say they could have explained that they were not evangelicals, nor led by US 'experts'. But 'she didn't seem interested in what we had to say. She left after half an hour or so - the police taxied her to us.' This was a constabulary whose chief constable had vowed to 'kill off once and for all' children's reports of ritual abuse.

Professor La Fontaine's report contrasts starkly with the 1992 findings of Lord Clyde, whose humane inquiry into the Orkney ritual abuse controversy was commissioned by the Government. Unlike the professor, he was stringent in his record of the sequence of events - they make sinister reading. He was worried that the abandonment of proceedings was 'mistaken' and the return of the children to their homes was 'precipitate'.

Where the professor deems the carers to be unreliable, Lord Clyde regrets that they were not treated with greater respect. Where the professor pathologises workers for showing sympathy and stress, he urges that they should receive support and be taken seriously. Where the professor claims that professionals contaminated children, he considers and then dismisses the case for contagion.

Last week Orkney parents were again on our television screens, feeling vindicated by the professor's report. We never heard from Lord Clyde.

These two reports are emblems of a great schism between those who can contemplate what may be happening to children and those who cannot. The latter want to control the conditions in which children may speak and confine their disclosures to experts. Let's not forget it was experts who were deaf to children's painful stories for a century.

We should be concerned that this stingy Government, content to understand such children less and condemn them more, has been swift to support her.