Don’t rush to judgement: The allegations against Edward Heath are truly sensational, but we must allow the investigations to take their course

 

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The Independent Online

The lurid allegations against Edward Heath are mounting up. In an atmosphere of believing anything of anyone – particular someone with a public profile in the 1960s and ’70s – it is perhaps inevitable that claims beget more claims. Let’s be clear, though, as a former Prime Minister Ted Heath is unquestionably the most high-profile figure to have been accused of sexual abuse against children. If any of the claims which have appeared in media reports over the past two days are true, the shockwaves will be widely felt.

That said, to get at the truth it is essential that speculation and innuendo do not get in the way of facts and a full, fair investigation. The secrets of a man under suspicion must not be allowed to follow him to the grave; but nor should reputations be buried without sufficient evidence of wrongdoing. Libel laws do not extend to the deceased, and rightly so, yet that should not preclude a sense of sobriety when discussing serious matters such as these.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission has announced an investigation into the first allegation to have emerged against Sir Edward this week: that charges against a brothel-owner in the 1990s were dropped when she threatened to expose the former Prime Minister’s peccadillos. But the IPCC’s standing is hardly at an all-time high and many will feel little confidence in the outcome of its inquiries. In any event, the additional claims which have been aired in the past 24 hours – the alleged rape of a 12-year-old rent boy, apparent associations with the Haut de la Garenne care home on Jersey, and other allegations whose details are unknown – are not matters for the IPCC and, indeed, three police forces are investigating separate allegations.

However, it is the wide-ranging Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse led by Justice Lowell Goddard which must come to the fore. Justice Goddard has already made clear that her work will not be done easily or quickly. Indeed, she opened the inquiry by announcing that it might last for five years. Fundamentally, this thorough approach is to be welcomed, for it is only by serious and exhaustive examination of the evidence that we can ever hope to garner a true impression of the abuse that has gone on in this country – especially in its upper echelons.

The price of a proper, judiciously focused investigation by legal officers and childcare professionals is that hungry journalists are left feeling in need of more immediate sustenance. The reality is that more shocking headlines are likely to follow those of the last day or two. It is important that they do not become definitively received wisdom at this stage.

This note of caution should not be misinterpreted: to show a care for the reputation of those once considered great or good is not to cast aspersions on those who have described being on the receiving end of the most appalling abuse. In the end, it cannot be doubted that for too long in this country young, vulnerable people were regarded as playthings by a circle of rich and powerful men. The difficult task of Justice Goddard and her inquiry team is to establish – in an atmosphere of feverish speculation – which men are truly guilty, and which are not.

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