Leading article: Our blind eyes helped the paedophiles prey

Suppose 3,000 children, living conventionally at home with their parents, had been preyed upon by paedophiles. Imagine that they were on the way home from school, homework sticking out of satchels, and socks sagging. But suppose that each night, before reaching the comfort of tea and telly, those children were accosted by strangers, raped, bullied and abused. Parents would be in outcry, let alone extreme distress. The entire nation would have erupted, fuelled by screaming headlines. Politicians would have launched inquiry after inquiry. And no-one would have rested until the culprits were rounded up.

Except, of course, it could never have happened like this. The systematic abuse by strangers of thousands of ordinary children from ordinary families is simply impossible. Too many parents would notice too quickly and make too much fuss. Those children are largely safe - the people likely to abuse them are not strangers, but members of their own families.

However, we now learn that a lot of children from not so ordinary families may not have been safe at all. And no one noticed or batted an anxious eyelid about them for years. Today we report on a new inquiry into sexual abuse in children's homes in Merseyside. The police want to trace more than 3,000 former residents who passed through 15 different homes during the Seventies and Eighties. In neighbouring Cheshire, the biggest investigation yet is taking place into child abuse in children's homes; several former care workers have already been imprisoned. And in Clwyd, North Wales, a judicial public inquiry into institutional child abuse is set to start in the new year, after official inquiries were covered up. All three of these inquiries have been disclosed by this paper: the Merseyside inquiry is just the latest, and may conceivably be connected to the other two.

Altogether, that means 10,000 possible victims will be interviewed in the North West alone. Of course many may have been happily oblivious to the violence against other children. Lucky them. Nevertheless, wide-scale abuse of children went unnoticed for decades.

It is not hard to see how it happened. Most of us were not, then, paying very much interest to what went on in children's homes, or what happened to their residents. These were the tough cases out on the edge of the social worker's case book.

Even the milder cases turned us off: the families in grim, cold poverty, battered wives, alcoholic husbands, drug-dealing older brothers and pregnant younger sisters. As for the children in the most extreme circumstances - those who were in danger, perhaps who were dangerous themselves, or who just had nowhere else to go - we didn't think about them at all. Stuck out there in a shadowy world, far away from conventional domestic security, they were easily dismissed as difficult and dysfunctional.

So we failed to set up systematic and sophisticated inspections of homes; we didn't monitor care workers, we didn't investigate staff records and we failed to provide the resources for a fully professional care service. We left the staff in children's homes pretty much to their own devices, and we paid them poorly so jobs were always vacant. We could hardly have made it any easier for disturbed people determined to abuse those children. Worst of all, when the children cried out, we did not hear. Even now that police investigations and inquiries are finally allowing those children to tell their tales, most of us are not listening. Yet the fact that this abuse took place in children's homes should make us more angry, not less. These children were taken into the care of the state - in other words, we were all responsible for them. What happened to them took place while they were a public responsibility.

We cannot be complacent about the future, either. It is true that much of the abuse that is now emerging took place a decade or more ago. Most local authority children's homes are now closed, with children sent to foster parents instead. The rules about caring for children have tightened up considerably, and social services are extremely sensitive to the possibility of sexual abuse.

However, our responsibility for children on the edge of society has not vanished. Nor has our predilection to ignore their predicament. Children in trouble are still easily swept under the carpet. That is why we launched our Christmas Appeal for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's work with victims of abuse. Residential centres that might appeal to paedophiles as employees still exist, albeit under different names: schools for children with learning difficulties, centres for teenagers with challenging behavioural problems, homes for children with mental handicaps. And, terribly, there are many children who continue to suffer abuse in their own apparently safe home environment, at the hands of fathers, uncles, relations, family friends.

That is why we should strive to resist the temptation to turn protectively inwards towards our own families in the face of other children's pain. It is easy to do. Horrific cases of child abuse in Belgium and Australia are starting to trigger a moral backlash and homophobia. Retreating back behind the myth of the nuclear family, putting up barriers against the outside world and rejecting people (and children) who are different to ourselves would be the worst thing we could possibly do. That, after all, is how we got into the mess in Merseyside, Cheshire and Clwyd in the first place. That is why we are asking you to support our small seasonal attempt to fund support for children who are suffering abuse, not a decade, or even two decades ago, but right now.