FOR A DAY in July 2014, the advocates of children in care institutions who have been sexually abused by adults — including suspects shielded from scrutiny by the Establishment — tasted triumph: their campaign for an inquiry into historic abuse and cover-up had finally been rewarded, there was to be a public inquiry.
Then the government appointed a retired judge, Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, to lead the inquiry. The campaigners tasted defeat.
A woman of integrity, said her supporters. Yes, a member of the Establishment, but an honourable woman, well-placed because of her judicial inquiry into a child abuse in the county of Cleveland in the north east of England in 1987.
I wrote a book about the Cleveland crisis, the Butler-Sloss judicial inquiry and the consequences. My only encounter with her was when I asked her permission allowed to interview witnesses to her tribunal. After I’d submitted to her the stories written for the New Statesman, she agreed, on condition, of course, that my book would follow publication of her report.
Day by day after her appointment to head up a new inquiry, worrying evidence billowed around her — and not just because she is a quintessential Establishment figure charged with investigating the Establishment’s cover up of sexual crimes against children, but because her brother, Sir Michael Havers, was Attorney General in the 1980s, under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and allegedly implicated in cover-ups.
Oh no, nothing to do with me, she protested.
Then, on 11th July 2014, the BBC Radio 4 Today programme broadcast a report on Butler-Sloss, including a recording of a marvellous moment: a speech she made in 2003 at Gresham College in the City of London.
She gave a light-hearted insight into the Establishment modus operandi when Gresham Professor of Law, Richard Susskind, asked her: “Who instigated the inquiry? How does such an inquiry get set up?”
“I think it was my brother actually as Lord Chancellor,” she said.
“So the Prime Minister wanted somebody and my brother said it probably would be politic because there was some Marxist Leninist feminine…feminism area on there. The social worker had some strong views and there was a certain element of women against men.
“And so I think my brother said ‘well I think you’d better have a woman judge’ and there were only three women judges and by a process, I have to tell you, of elimination — because the other two were not available — I found myself doing it.”
This was simultaneously a laugh-out-loud moment — her exquisite difficulty with the f-word — and a bomb.
The Establishment recruited a woman to do in women in the child health and welfare professions at a radical moment in the history of childhood and protection from adversity and abuse. Thereafter, Butler-Sloss reserved her ire for the women in this case — seemingly impossible women, fortified with authority and knowledge; women who just would not yield, witches; women who mesmerised and discombobulated men, women who created professional alliances with men, women who weren’t afraid of men, of staring abuse in the face…’feminine’ and ‘feminist’ women, whatever…
Now we know.
That crisis was, of course, thoroughly gendered — but not for the reasons proposed by Butler-Sloss, not because there was a ‘women against men element…’
The crisis was something to do with men: men who buggered little children; physical signs on the bodies of children whose average age was six, suggested penetrative abuse; And a police force that refused to investigate suspected crimes against children.
By 12th July 2014, neither the government nor Butler-Sloss could cling on. She withdrew. Her demise takes our gaze beyond the horizon of the elite gene pool: it was not just her dynastic connection to the Establishment that offended people; it was her brother’s role in alleged cover-ups that went all the way to the top; that involved not only the elite but the security services.
And the problem was her way of doing business: Her Cleveland report, published in 1988, was a defining moment: it framed the terms of engagement thereafter between the state, professionals and children suffering sexual oppression. It set the template for how those who are not victims or abusers may come to some understanding: it isn’t possible unless you open your eyes and ears to survivors, or those who work with them.
Her report was compromised by Establishment guile and bad faith. This doesn’t mean she was a bad woman, or a corrupt woman, it merely means she was unavailable to challenge the status quo, to learn or to listen to people with less power — always very hard for an Establishment person.
Ultimately what was more important than anything else, it appeared, was to have and to hold a myth.
In the millions of words published in her Cleveland report, two stand out: she accused doctors seeing signs of abuse of refusing to ‘suspend belief’.
Ever since then, health, welfare and criminal justice professionals — together with society in general — have been obliged to suspend belief.
A new e-edition of my book, Unofficial Secrets – Child Sexual Abuse: the Cleveland Case, is forthcoming.
Meanwhile, here is an extract from the 1997 edition:
ONE MORNING early in the summer of 1987 a story appeared on the front page of a national newspaper, which didn’t make sense. The story ran and ran and ran, measuring more column inches than any other single saga that year – and yet the story went on not making sense. Nevertheless, it became a defining moment in the British state’s response to childhood adversity.
This was the Cleveland case, the story of 121 ‘innocent’ children being snatched from their ‘innocent’ parents by practitioners perceived as witchdoctors so suspicious of sexual abuse that they saw signs of it everywhere – including in children’s bottoms. ‘Innocence’ itself became an actor in this drama, an impersonator, disturbing the safe categories of victim and culprit, which had shaped the statutory services in the image of Freudian fantasy: after all, sex doesn’t happen to children – unless they incite it. And sex doesn’t happen in bottoms. Unless you’re queer.
These fundamental principles of sexual ideology were confounded in the Cleveland case: the ghost of budding Lolitas inciting incontinent men was undermined by the average age of the Cleveland cohort: six. And the orthodoxy of the orifice was shaken by the evidence that a baby in a buggy, with a very sore bottom, was being buggered by her father.
The Cleveland case challenged our world view about sex. It also became a crisis of knowing, of what is known and how it may become knowable. As the months and then the years went by, we were not allowed to know what had happened in Cleveland.
Just as there was a determined not-knowing in 1987, there was equal resistance to any attempt to follow up those 121 children, and reluctance to co-ordinate referrals. Some children did return to the attention of the statutory services. Some children did go on enduring abuse by adults who – having been acquitted by the public debate – had permission to carry on…
The government, suddenly that summer, announced a judicial inquiry, not into the phenomenon but into the response to it…
The inquiry conspicuously evaded the questions on everyone’s lips: ‘what has happened to these children? What brought them to the attention of the statutory services? What do the signs scripted across their bodies mean?
The government guaranteed that these questions would not be asked or answered.
In cases of alleged sexual abuse there has always been something more important than knowing – and that is not knowing.
I am abashed at what we thought was controversial.
For example, the first edition of this book contains an interview with a man and a woman whose children all showed worrying symptoms. The father was already a convicted sex offender. He was candid: yes, he had ‘previous’; yes, he’d confessed and then retracted. His explanation for anal and vaginal medical signs? He didn’t have one. I didn’t believe his protestations, but I faithfully reported his story. And I didn’t ask why his career as a sex offender and his absurd alibis weren’t relevant.
If this case was deemed controversial, it was not because a convicted sex offender was given custody of his children. It was because Dr. Marietta Higgs’ diagnosis had ignited an investigation. If this case was controversial, it was not because the convicted sex offender made a confession — like his previous record, that didn’t matter.
It was as if Dr Higgs, not the man with convictions and a confession, had to be found guilty. Revisiting his case was a revelation: what would now be interpreted as a significant — convictions and a confession — were then irrelevant; they were put to one side and made to not matter. Since then, he has been the subject of a new investigation – based, this time, not on signs but on a story of sexual abuse.
During 1987 the civil courts were pre-empting the outcome of the judicial inquiry by throwing out many of the local authority’s applications. The Butler Sloss inquiry’s report did not criticise the dismissal of these applications.
So, although the government acted as though nothing had happened, it read her report knowing that something had indeed happened to many, if not most, of the children.
What did they know? That the signs scrolled on the bodies of children suggested serious sexual abuse. They also knew that, if the children had indeed been abused, then the signs were telling us something more – that the children were so marooned in their abusers’ needs and pressure and point of view that silence was itself a survival strategy. A tactic of accommodation was revealed by the signs: the architecture of the body suggested the anatomy of adaptation, of small bodies adapting to overwhelming intrusion, orifices scarred and altered by incoming objects, orifices speaking into the silence of their young subjects.
Not all the children were silent. Some spoke loudly and clearly. Some spoke obliquely and hesitantly. But the adult community chose to interpret the silence — rather than the signs — as the relief of suspicion, rather than as a clue to the difficulty of disclosure. Instead of interpreting the matrix of signs and silence as a dynamic, as a drama of physical suffering and survival shrouded by secrecy, it chose an interpretation of this eerie scenario that reinstated the ideologies and institutions that were so stiffly challenged by these children.
Thereafter, a determination to act as if it did not know what had happened to the Cleveland children defined the disposition of the government. The ‘top men’, the medical and legal establishment gossiped over cocktails and confided to each other that well, yes, those doctors probably got it right…
When the judicial panel inquired into the response by professionals it never investigated perpetrators — the absent presence in the whole debate. Experts who worked with perpetrators were shunned. The only evidence the inquiry heard about alleged abusers came from an American advocate for the accused, Ralph Underwager, an itinerant ‘expert witness’ who specialised in giving evidence on behalf of defendants, whose confidence in the campaign to discredit children’s evidence of abuse prompted him to pronounce only five years later that paedophiles should proudly proclaim their sexual desire for children as the will of God.
The government and the inquiry report never asked or answered the question: What do we do to protect endangered children when the children themselves do not, or cannot, protest? Just as silence as a strategy, as a source of agency amid calamities that did not originate with the child, was not assimilated, neither was the weight of children’s fear, nor their dissociation as another survival strategy to protect themselves from chronic, extreme pain. Far from learning from the children’s difficulties, the government’s procedures actually relied upon them, regulating even more intensely the limits upon the space and time available to children to begin to speak. That is the scandal.
In 1987 the Department of Health was already well aware of all this and more. When it set up the judicial inquiry, the Department, social services staff and the police were themselves already addressing a different difficulty: how to help children who had a complaint to make. All over the country statutory services were struggling with the same things; how to help children who were speaking, protesting, to get justice; how to listen, gather evidence, consolidate a case, and protect children in danger; how to help doctors become definite instead of defensive; how to help the child psychiatric services embrace the possibility of an external event.
The typical difficulty for child protection workers was the absence of medical signs to corroborate strong stories that rarely survived the rough journey to the criminal courts. Here were physical signs that had been regarded as forensic gold. If the revelation of Cleveland was the closed circuit of strong signs and silence (although we must never forget that some of the Cleveland children did speak), then the inquiry’s shift from the signs to the silence was an intimation of collusive cynicism – once the argument about the signs was settled, the inquiry turned its mind not to the question of silence, but to how to patrol the possibility that children might speak.
Procedures, according to one child protection specialist, were designed to police the professionals and to control the conditions in which children might speak.
Those with an investment in silence, accused adults — sometimes parents — appeared as the victims of a new contagion: system abuse. And the arrangements created in the aftermath gave even convicted sex offenders the right to participate in planning the futures of the very children they had oppressed. ‘The fact that they were parents was more important than anything,’ said the specialist. ‘When I saw the list of participants at a case conference and read that minutes were to be sent to the father in prison, and that the Governor was to be approached to invite him to the next meeting, I knew it was all finished, particularly for his children who were terrified every night they went to bed that he’d come and get them again. Of course, they were right. The procedures ensured that he would.’ That is the codicil to Cleveland’s bequest to British children.
The first edition of this book was written during the controversy, when anger was directed not at alleged abusers but at children’s advocates.
Now, I wonder why. And I wonder why, like most other people, I reserved my restless discomfort for the people who had decided to do something about the evidence before their eyes. That disposition did not mute a critique of the outrageous mutiny by the police, the most masculinised public serve, who seemed to abandon their duty to investigate and to co-operate with their colleagues. They were the detonators, but their behaviour never aroused anger. Was that because Britain was already pessimistic about the police, the one agency that cannot be called to account? The report’s criticism of the police didn’t matter: no one noticed; no one was disciplined. But, nevertheless, that discomfort still lies like permafrost across the enduring controversies about child abuse. We still think nothing happened. We’re still angry with the wrong people.
I talked to child protection professionals and members of survivors’ movements elsewhere in Britain and in Ireland. They weren’t surprised by the signs that were so contested in this case – they’d already encountered them. They weren’t surprised by the combustion, either, because professional conflicts and political panic were endemic to sexual crime.
Now I understand the meaning of the meeting in 1987 initiated by child protection workers in Nottingham, West Yorkshire and the West Midlands, who were trying to tell politicians that the scale and seriousness of the problem were straining their resources, too. They were also asking: ‘What are we supposed to do about this?’ Why weren’t people like this invited to the inquiry?
When Elizabeth Butler-Sloss reported that she had no reason to doubt the medical signs, professionals and the public could reasonably infer that the doctors might have been right. But that would have been wrong, because the message inferred by some from that report was that it didn’t matter. Those doctors had – with the arrogance of innocence – blown the whistle. They thought their suspicions of abuse that imperiled the well being of their patients might have mattered.
They were wrong. What mattered more was that the sovereignty of services built on an acceptable level of abuse was retrieved. I did not understand that then.
Confidential documents (never acknowledged by the Department of Health) confirm what was only coded at the time: that the government and the health authorities had reason to believe that the doctors were probably right, but that no one would be allowed to know. That is the scandal.