Witch hunting in North Wales
In lush mountainous Wales, an English literary scribe, Richard Webster, wandered, with his tape recorder, formulating a hypothesis that witch hunters were stalking its green hills and valleys. Webster didn’t believe in witches, of course, but he believed that other people behaved as if they did, hunting out an imaginary enemy within: a child sex abuser. Webster became an influential sceptic whose attention had been caught by the Cleveland child abuse controversy in 1987 and who, in the decades that followed, elaborated a quasi-conspiracy theory about the ‘creation’ of child sexual abuse. In the 1990s he was outraged by the convictions of men running cruel regimes in children’s homes in Staffordshire and Leicestershire – the Pindown regime and the Frank Beck convictions for sexual abuse: moral panic and witch hunting was afoot, he charged in his 1998 book, The Great Children’s Home Panic.
He became the stand-out champion of men convicted of rape and buggery of vulnerable children over whom they exercised almost absolute power, whose authority was guaranteed by their control over institutions in which children were effectively incarcerated. Their victims, by contrast, he maligned as scoundrels and ingrates.
He made the extravagant claim to a Home Affairs parliamentary committee on 14 May 2002 that investigations into children’s homes in Wales were witch hunts ‘without parallel’, that 80-90 per cent of around 580 suspects were ‘completely innocent.’ His grandiose exposition was that zealots and moral crusaders were spreading moral panic and that pro-active policing into suspected sexual abuse was creating miscarriages of justice. He wrote a book about the investigation into Bryn Estyn children’s home in North Wales, which he averred was ‘one of the most extraordinary stories in recent British history’. That made him, too, extraordinary – by association.
Something about men being accused of sexually abusing children and young people roused his indignation. At a time when most constabularies in Britain were investigating sadism and sexual abuse in children’s homes he rose to the defence of the accused in his 736-page book Bryn Estyn: the Making of a Modern Witch Hunt, self-published in 2005.
Webster became the influential vector of a hypothesis floated during the 1990s and 2000s, that was all the more alluring for being airless, excessive and derived from the denials of convicted sex offenders. He became an exemplar of bookish scepticism that was less about scrutiny of the sequence of events than mere disbelief. Webster also came to be regarded as saintly. After he died, his collaborator Bob Woffinden, a campaigner against miscarriages of justice, wrote an obituary in The Guardian on 31 July 2011: Webster’s ‘generosity and big-heartedness were extraordinary,’ he wrote
But Webster’s vaunted kindness did not extend to the victims, particularly the dozen young men who died or killed themselves as a result of their experiences in the North Wales children’s homes gulag.
Webster’s theory and practice
His intellectual mooring lay in his critique of Sigmund Freud and in Norman Cohn’s history of medieval movements of mass delusion.
Webster’s 1995 book Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis claimed that not only was Freud’s ‘seduction theory’ of childhood abuse (later repudiated by the great man) wrong, but Freud was also wrong to retract: it was all wrong. Freud had ‘cajoled’ his patients into creating memories of events that never happened. So, Freud, his apostles and – above all – his feminist critics were all implicated in an epochal con.
Webster found inspiration in Norman Cohn’s book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, a study of ‘millenarian fantasies,’ collective delusions, cults and ‘dreadful irrational fantasies’ in Europe during the Middle Ages. However, he misrepresented Cohn’s thesis: Cohn had compared the great peasant revolts with the millenarians: the peasant revolts were mass movements, highly organised, coherent and focused; the millenarians, he argued, were by contrast isolated, alienated and marginal.
The modern discovery and re-discovery of sexual abuse has no equivalent in millenarian or witch hunt histories: unlike them it is anchored in real events, not outsiders, cults or quacks; mass experience that has found articulation in the health and welfare professions, feminism, criminal justice, and the laws of modern states.
Webster promotes a theory of contagion among social workers, police, therapists and feminists who ‘retreat from practically all forms of scepticism,’ and who share an ‘ideological taboo against disbelieving any allegations of child sexual abuse.’ He offers no empirical research to substantiate this grand hypothesis.
In 2005 the Orwell Press – founded in 1988 by Webster himself – published his magnum opus, The Secret of Bryn Estyn. It is commended on the cover by a cadre of eminent sceptics. Prof Jean La Fontaine comments that he ‘admirably succeeded’ in doing what the ‘police and public inquiries failed to do: discover what really happened.’ What really happened, apparently, was mass delusion.
That’s not what two expert inquiries discovered: one led by a social services director John Jillings, was long-suppressed, the other, a judicial inquiry by Sir Ronald Waterhouse, had no doubt that what really happened was all too real: widespread sexual abuse. The 2000 Waterhouse report, Lost in Care, described boys’ experience of Bryn Estyn as, ‘a form of purgatory or worse’ from which children emerged more damaged than when they entered and for whom the future had become even more bleak.’
The star in Webster’s book, The Secret of Bryn Estyn is himself: Webster places himself and his method at the centre of the story. He describes his tools, his battery-powered tape recorder, his journey to a strange country where he offers guidance in the phonetics of Welsh – a language which very few people speak in Wrexham where Bryn Estyn is located – and which, I am assured by a Welsh-speaker he doesn’t get quite right. He provides maps for seekers-after-truth whose sense of North Wales is likely to be mountains, lakes, choirs, second homes, rather than institutions incarcerating naughty boys. His promiscuous details hold out the reassuring promise of really knowing things, of being there.
He establishes himself as a passionate champion of convicted sex offenders, and the scourge of social workers, journalists and police officers and, not least, the wounded survivors of Bryn Estyn’s purgatory.
The North Wales narrative began in the mid-‘80s with an indefatigable social worker, Alison Taylor: boys had been telling her about violence and sexual abuse in children’s homes; she discovered that other carers and social workers had reported allegations, to no avail. Taylor reported the allegations to managers and then to police. In 1987 she was suspended after passing on the allegations to the police. She didn’t give up and in the early ‘90s delivered a dossier to the authorities. It emerged that 10 reports had been made to the local authority before her own. In 1994, former social services director John Jillings began an inquiry, together with Jane Tunstall and Gerrilyn Smith. Lack of co-operation by the authorities almost forced the Jillings team to quit. In the event, the panel produced a report which the local authority insurers demanded be destroyed. In fact, some copies were shared under elaborately secret circumstances with some journalists. It was not until 2013 – with the renewal of public interest in child sexual abuse – that the Jillings Report was made public.
Alison Taylor also took the story to the press – it was covered in Wales and the reporter Dean Nelson got the story into the Independent on Sunday and thus the London media.
Nelson’s previous experience had taught him that the victims could be vulnerable and sharing their story could feel like a journey back to hell. ‘I went first to the NSPCC to make sure there would be some counselling for people,’ Nelson told me. Contrary to the myth that disclosure is easy, encouraged by 15 minutes of fame, or compensation, some of the men he met just could not endure the telling of it. Nelson’s reports also referred to allegations about police involvement – notably a recently-retired police officer. He was unnamed superintendent Gordon Anglesea. Anglesea sued Nelson, the Independent on Sunday and several other press and television organisations, and in 1994 he was awarded a massive £375,000 in damages.
Webster would not accept that Peter Howarth was a sex offender who terrorised his pupils at Bryn Estyn: no, he was a martyr who had a gift for ‘reading difficult adolescents’ and who was ‘keen on bringing out any hidden potential he might divine.’ Their exposure of Peter Howarth’s notorious regime, he protested, ‘constitutes one of the most terrible instances of collective ingratitude which is to be found in recent history.’
Anglesea got his comeuppance, however, when a fresh investigation, Operation Pallial, was launched in 2012 in the wake of a new wave of historic abuse allegations. Anglesea was prosecuted and jailed in 2016.
John Allen, the owner of several children homes in North Wales, that earned him an estimated £30 million paid by local authorities to ‘care’ for vulnerable children from all over the country, was also re-investigated, prosecuted and jailed for life.
Webster’s book had repeated the slur that the accusers did it for the money and blamed Nelson for the deaths of three witnesses who killed themselves after Anglesea’s successful libel trial. He implied that Nelson set them up, ‘witness manipulation’ the saintly Webster called it.
‘Webster couldn’t understand that all this was so painful to these men,’ Nelson told me. Webster never met Nelson, but confidently accused him of being ‘credulous’ for taking the North Wales victims seriously.
Webster’s critique of the Bryn Estyn investigation rests on his attempts to discredit both the accusers and the messengers. While the Waterhouse report commends whistle-blower Alison Taylor, the social worker who first called attention to the assaults on boys, Webster condemns her.
In her attempts to expose violence and abuse, he wrote, she ‘almost inevitably bestowed upon herself a quite extraordinary degree of power.’ Power? Taylor’s efforts were rewarded by dismissal in 1987 and disrespect by people who really did have power – police and public service managers. All she had was knowledge but that didn’t give her power.
Webster’s review of the Waterhouse report in the New Statesman on 13 March 2000, headlined Can a Whistleblower be Wrong? re-iterated his rather obsessive grievances about her. It provoked a successful libel action by Taylor against Webster and the New Statesman. She won and secured a settlement that required Webster and the New Statesman to read out in court an apology and a retraction. Webster wouldn’t have it, and went back to court, where Britain’s senior libel judge, Mr Justice David Eady, ruled that the requirement to read out the retraction would be ‘unjust and unfair both the general readership of the New Statesman and the public more widely and to Mr Webster.’
Pro-active police investigations of children’s homes were known to their critics as ‘police trawls.’ In the early 2000s, complaints about these investigations prompted the the parliamentary Home affairs Select Committee to launch an inquiry. Webster, Woffinden and journalist David Rose presented the case against them to the Committee in 2002, Webster argued they were ‘intrinsically dangerous.’ Rose proposed that perhaps 50 innocent men out of 100 suspects had been wrongly convicted. Woffinden argued for a strict, three-year time limit on investigations and prosecutions. All three claimed that compensation was an incitement to falsely accuse.
The troika had a sympathetic ear in the committee chair, Labour MP, Chris Mullin. But the committee’s report in 2002 did not agree that the allure of compensation attracted false allegations and convictions; it did not agree to statutory time limit, it did not call a halt to the police inquiries. It reminded the police that they had a legal duty to investigate if they suspected criminal activity.
Yet the hearings had a chill effect. A decade later the Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer commented, ‘the concern was that the police might have been over-eager in some cases, with the risk that false allegations might be made. Ten years later, post-Savile, the concern is that the police failed to give complainants more information, in particular to tell them that there were other complainants who might also be prepared to support a prosecution.’ A new consensus was needed, he said.
The deaths of Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith released many muted voices. In 2012 allegations of historic abuse in North Wales were revisited and in 2013 Gordon Anglesea was arrested. Webster didn’t live to see Anglesea back in court. Some his victims didn’t live to see it either. But there were others, and they did.
In 2016 Anglesea was convicted and jailed for 12 years for sexual offences against boys between 1982-87. He died in prison.
Webster didn’t live to witness the demise of Anglesea and fresh investigations in North Wales. His reputation lived on, however: he had become a doyen of British scepticism about sexual abuse, consulted and cited by scholars and journalists, wrapping what the Australian criminologist Michael Salter describes as the excitable ‘pleasures of disbelief’, in a seemingly erudite account of the TRUTH. Not as he saw it, not as you might see it, but simply the truth.
Webster exemplifies scepticism as a form of negative faith. He mounted one conspiracy theory to vanquish another: professionals talking to each other, researching, going to conferences! A kind of cruel piety gripped his life, he spent years being a champion of convicted serial sex offenders, shunning the suffering of their victims, and learning nothing about what people do with their troubles, or wherein trouble resides.