TAKE these facts: probably more than 100, possibly more than 200 children were sexually abused in the children's homes of one county council. At least 12 of them, perhaps as many as 16, are now 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 abuse continued, in an organised manner, for 10 years and more, making this council's homes a "gulag archipelago" of misery for the hapless children exiled into them; but the council itself, and the social work inspectorate, and the relevant government department, and the local police, all failed to stop it for a decade.
It is almost certainly Britain's biggest child-abuse scandal, but you are probably not aware of it. This is a scandal the full scale of which simply has not penetrated the national consciousness. But, paradoxically, the latest attempt to suppress the truth may be what finally brings it the attention it deserves.
The council is Clwyd, in north-east Wales - or rather it was. It ceased to exist last Monday in the reorganisation of Welsh local government into smaller authorities. Two of the council's last acts, however, were to take delivery of a 300-page report on the lengthy saga of child abuse in its children's homes - and to decide not to publish it.
The Independent on Sunday has had access to the report, by three leading independent experts in child care: John Jillings, former social services director for Derbyshire, Professor Jane Tunstall of Keele University, and Gerrilyn Smith, a distinguished chid-care expert formerly attached to Great Ormond Street hospital. It calls for a judicial inquiry into the whole affair, saying: "It is the opinion of the panel that extensive and widespread abuse has occurred within Clwyd residential establishments for children and young people.
"An internal social service inquiry such as that of the independent panel cannot hope to address successfully the wider areas of concern which we identified during the course of our investigation, having neither the resources nor the authority to do so. This includes the suggestion that public figures may have been involved in the abuse of young people in Clwyd."
The report denounces those who should have stopped the abuse, saying: "Our findings show that time and again, the response to indications that children may have been abused has been too little and too late. Furthermore, the needs and interests of young children have tended to be an incidental rather than a primary concern. Our criticisms in this regard apply not only to the county council, but also to the Welsh Office, North Wales Police and constituent agencies."
It condemns the way the professionals involved put their own concerns first, saying: "A second overarching finding is that 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 condemns in particular Welsh Office social service inspectors for failing to visit a single children's home in the 10 years during which most of the abuse took place.
And it sums up: "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. At least 12 young people are dead.
"These issues are all of fundamental importance and we regard it as imperative that they are addressed in the full view of public scrutiny... We consider that a public judicial inquiry under the arrangements set out in section 250 of the Local Government Act should be initiated."
This is not all. Remarkably, the report predicts its own suppression, at the behest of Clwyd County Council's insurers, Municipal Mutual, who were hostile to the inquiry from the start, fearing it might provoke a flood of compensation claims. "We do not see why it is necessary to have such a wide-ranging inquiry," says one letter from the insurers quoted in the report. "Every inquiry is a dress rehearsal for claimants and a further incentive to the bandwagon syndrome," says another.
According to the report, the insurers or their solicitors also successfully opposed plans by the inquiry team to look for other children who may have been abused. They warned that public dispute between the council and the North Wales Police was unacceptable, and suggested that the chairman of the council's social services committee, Malcolm King, should be sacked if he wanted to speak out, writing: "Draconian as it may seem, you may have to consider with the elected members whether they wish to remove him from office if he insists on having the freedom to speak."
Last month Mr King told this newspaper of his fears about what had happened in children's homes in his own county - and beyond. He said: "The evidence emerging is that they were a gulag archipelago stretching across Britain - wonderful places for paedophiles, but for the children who suffered, places of unending nightmares."
Clwyd County Council voted not to publish the report on 26 March after Municipal Mutual threatened to cancel the authority's cover if it did so.
The Jillings report is not the only report into Clwyd children's homes not to see the light of day: it is the fourteenth. Twelve internal council reports were prepared at various times, on individ- ual homes, as well as other abuse allegations: none has been published. And only the conclusions were published of the one external inquiry, by Nicola Davies, QC, for the Welsh Office.
Ms Davies, who took no evidence herself but examined the papers, reported last December that she did not think a full judicial inquiry would be appropriate or in the public interest.
The then leader of Clwyd County Council, Dennis Parry, said at the time: "I am absolutely outraged and disappointed. The term of reference was such that Davies could not take any oral evidence. She has not interviewed one person who was involved in this whole business. The more I look at the notes that have come through from the barrister and the Welsh Office, I believe there has been a cover-up. They just don't want to know."
He said that a public inquiry would have looked not just at the role of Clwyd, but at other agencies. "There were all sorts of agencies involved in this whole business. Clwyd was one, there was also Gwynedd, the police and the Welsh Office inspectorate itself. Every one of these agencies should be properly bought to heel about this matter."
Mr Jillings and his panel, who spent two years on their inquiry, also want a full judicial inquiry. It is the scale of the affair which they think merits a public hearing to which witnesses could be summoned, and at which they could give evidence without the fear of being sued for libel.
The police inquiry, when it eventually got under way in August 1991, was enormous: for four years all 46 children's homes in the county were examined, with a special focus on seven of them. Most of the allegations covered the period 1980 to 1988; 2,600 statements were taken and no fewer than 300 cases were put up to be considered by the Crown Prosecution Service.
Eventually eight men were charged, and seven convicted. Most notably, Peter Howarth was jailed for 10 years in July 1994 for indecently assaulting seven boys between 1974 and 1984 at the council's Bryn Estyn home at Wrexham, where he was deputy head. John Allen, head of the Bryn Alyn home, was jailed for six years in February 1995 for six indecent assaults on boys in his care.
There are no published estimates on the scale of the sexual abuse of vulnerable children in Clwyd's homes. One senior source estimated that between 100 and 200 children were known to have been abused over an eight- year period, but admitted it may well be much higher.
When Clwyd decided not to publish the Jillings report it passed it on - complete with recommendation for a judicial inquiry - to William Hague, the Secretary of State for Wales, who will find it on his desk this week when he returns from a trade mission to Boston.
The county's last-gasp decision to keep the report secret has infuriated Welsh Labour MPs and child care agencies, who want Mr Hague both to publish it and grant the inquiry it recommends.
Labour's health spokesman in Wales, Rhodri Morgan, who has tabled a number of parliamentary questions on the affair, says that the figure of 12 deaths could be higher. "Although the report talks of 12 young people, there have been suggestions that it could be 16 whose deaths were related to what they experienced," he said. "We are very concerned about what is happening and we want the Welsh Office to honour a pledge made in September 1992 to hold a public inquiry." MARK HUMPHREYS was one of the 12 young men who died years after leaving the Bryn Estyn children's home in Wrexham. The 30-year old was found hanging from a staircase outside the door of his bedsit in the North Wales town two years ago.
His wife, Wendy Humphreys, told the inquest that he had made earlier attempts to kill himself after becoming very depressed about the Bryn Estyn affair.
A post-mortem examination found knife cuts on his wrists. Friends believe that Mark had been depressed for several years following his time at Bryn Estyn in the 1980s, and he had been allocated a psychiatric social worker.
Simon Burley, another former resident of Bryn Estyn, also hanged himself, as did Peter Wynne.
Lee Homberg died of a drug overdose, and Adrian John died in a suspicious fire in Brighton. Three others died in the same fire which occurred at a reunion of people who had been in homes in Clwyd.
Peter Howarth, the deputy head of Bryn Estyn, operated a regime of abuse and fear. His trial in 1994 heard how he invited boys to late-night "counselling sessions", insisting they attend in their pyjamas.
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