June 12 2024
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To catch a sex offender: Institutional amnesia

To catch a sex offender: Institutional amnesia

Sketch by Isobel Williams from Proof magazine

To catch a sex offender: Institutional amnesia


Sketches by Isobel Williams commissioned for Proof, issue 1 (Justice in a time of moral panic)

david-roseThis is the second part of a three-part article by the investigative journalist David Rose to be run on the Justice Gap. It is from a new book Wrongful Allegations of Sexual and Child Abuse (edited by Ros Burnett; published by the Oxford University Press). Read the first part here.

Despite the government’s rejection of the most of the House of Commons’ Select Committee on Home Affairs 2012 report, I fondly imagined that awareness of the risks of false convictions had become widespread, and that the worst of the great children’s home panic was over. My confidence was misplaced.

Groundhog day
The extent of my complacency became apparent in November 2012, when I watched the BBC Newsnight report on abuse in North Wales that was, only a week after its broadcast, to force the resignation of the corporation’s Director-General, George Entwistle. The programme claimed that abusers at institutions such as Bryn Estyn had shared their victims with outside paedophiles, including a leading member of the Conservative Party.

Although it did not name him, the programme contained enough clues for viewers to point the finger at the former party treasurer, the late Lord McAlpine, who duly sued for libel. Less than two weeks after the broadcast, the BBC agreed to pay him damages of £185,000. Later, Sally Bercow, the wife of the Commons Speaker John Bercow, was forced to pay a further undisclosed sum in respect of an ill-considered Tweet.

However, the really remarkable aspect of the Newsnight film was that it was based on a single, uncorroborated source – a former Bryn Estyn resident named Stephen Messham. To those of us who had followed these matters over time, Messham was no stranger.

To my lasting regret, my own name had been one of three on a story published by The Observer in 1993, which made unsupported claims derived mainly from Messham’s testimony about Gordon Anglesea, a former North Wales police officer. He sued for libel, and eventually won damages of £375,000 and costs of £1 million against The Observer, The Independent, and Private Eye.

‘Demonstrably untrue’
Messham’s behaviour at the trial was bizarre. Before he agreed to give evidence, he had insisted that Private Eye pay him £60,000, on the grounds it had previously published an article which had damaged him. Surprisingly, the magazine did pay him £4,500. Moreover, Messham had changed his story about the abuse he said Anglesea inflicted on him, his allegations becoming more serious over time. When all this was put to him, he took an overdose of tranquilisers in court and collapsed in the witness box. He was taken to hospital, but the judge insisted he resume his evidence next day.

In 1997, he gave evidence again, this time to the judicial inquiry into historic abuse in North Wales chaired by Sir Ronald Waterhouse. In all, he said, he had been sexually abused as a child in care by 49 different men and women. He explicitly named a ‘McAlpine’ as one of them – although in such a manner that it was apparent to Sir Ronald and his colleagues that his claims could not possibly be true. (After the Newsnight film in 2012, Messham stated for the record that Lord McAlpine had never abused him at all.)

Meanwhile he was cross-examined at the inquiry by Anthony Jennings QC. Jennings started to press him about a damaging admission: that parts of an interview he had given to The Independent on Sunday were untrue. First Messham refused to answer his questions. Then, according to the inquiry transcript, he got out of the witness box and ‘moved towards’ Mr Jennings.

He yelled: ‘Excuse me, I will not have it from you ever, Jennings, right? Because one thing I don’t like is a little bastard, right?  You don’t push it, right? You are sick just like your client. Don’t push me, don’t fucking push me you little… I’ll tell you now, you bastard.’

Then Messham leapt at Jennings and started throwing punches at him. A security officer finally intervened. When the inquiry reconvened the following Monday, Messham was warned that any repetition of this behaviour would be treated as a serious contempt of court, and he would be sent to prison.

Messham certainly exhibited the distress which lawyers such as Peter Garsden insisted should be taken as evidence that a ‘victim’ was telling the truth. On the other hand, to take anything he said at face value was clearly extremely dangerous. Indeed, in 1993 the Crown Prosecution Service had concluded: ‘Reliance ought not to be placed on [his] evidence for the purpose of prosecuting any alleged abuser.’ To this, Gerard Elias QC, counsel to the Waterhouse inquiry, added in his closing speech: ‘In certain respects Messham’s evidence was demonstrably untrue and some of his allegations are wholly inconsistent with earlier statements made by him to the police. In these circumstances we submit it is plain that his evidence must be approached with care.’


Nevertheless, when it came to the Newsnight broadcast, all this was ignored. What had produced this institutional amnesia? Part of the answer was the recent broadcast by ITV of a documentary claiming that Sir Jimmy Savile, the late celebrity disc jockey, had been a prodigious, serial paedophile, and, worse, the disclosure that Newsnight had cancelled a film which would have made these allegations the previous year.

In 2012, Messham’s allegations unraveled speedily enough. But by the time they did, Prime Minister David Cameron, had already ordered a ‘review’ of the Waterhouse inquiry, and asked the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (now the National Crime Agency) to begin again digging well-tilled soil, allegations of historic abuse in schools and care homes in North Wales. At the time of this writing in January 2015, pending prosecutions make it impossible to add further comment.

The resurfacing of Stephen Messham and his stories about ‘paedophile rings’ involving senior politicians reminded me of the Hollywood movie Groundhog Day, in which a TV weatherman played by the actor Bill Murray is doomed to repeat the same day of his life in a seemingly endless loop. Messham and North Wales were not, however, the only example of this process.

Noel Hartnett, take in 1999, Ross Parry agency

Noel Hartnett, take in 1999, Ross Parry agency

Operation Reno
Back in 2005, I had written in The Observer about an inquiry by Humberside police into St Williams, an Approved School for convicted juvenile offenders at Market Weighton, near Hull. As with Operation Granite and Greystone Heath, this had started with genuine allegations, made spontaneously to police, not as a result of a trawl: against James Carragher, the former principal. He had already been charged with and pleaded guilty to sexual offences in 1993. He pleaded guilty a second time in 2004 and was jailed for 14 years. By this time, Operation Aldgate, a classic trawl, was in full swing.

It ended in fiasco. Although five men who had worked at St Williams were charged, juries found two of them not guilty, while the charges against the other three were dropped by the CPS. Some of their accusers were suffering from serious mental illness, and all had numerous convictions. One of those acquitted, of physical, not sexual abuse, was the school’s former deputy head, Noel Hartnett – the very man who had first notified the police about the abusive behaviour of Carragher back in the 1990s (see David Rose’s article for Proof magazine here). The judge at his trial was highly critical of aspects of the police inquiry, saying officers had ‘not investigated professionally’ and had ‘not investigated to discover the truth’.

Hartnett and some of the others acquitted after Operation Aldgate complained to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which was concerned enough to order a major investigation by an outside police force, West Yorkshire. Three years later, this investigation, known as Operation Gullane, delivered its report. It contained more than 400 separate criticisms of Operation Aldgate’s conduct. Aldgate, the report said, had not been ‘robust’. Officers had believed accusers’ stories without checking them and had adopted an over-credulous ‘mindset’ that had led them to hound innocent people. There had been a ‘failure to pursue reasonable lines of inquiry which could have helped prove/disprove witness and suspect accounts’, and a ‘failure to seek corroboration in respect of allegations made’.

The IPCC made 126 recommendations for future abuse inquiries nationally to ensure such mistakes were not repeated. It was particularly scathing about the role played by some solicitors, highlighting the examples of six alleged victims who had all been in Holme House prison near York at the same time, and shared a personal injury lawyer. They had, the report concluded, ‘colluded’ in making their statements, and so produced allegations on which no court could rely.

However, in December 2004, after the last of the Aldgate acquittals, when Operation Gullane was only just starting, an advertisement appeared in Inside Time, a newspaper published by a charitable trust which is distributed free to all prison inmates. Placed by David Greenwood of Jordans solicitors of Dewsbury, it asked: ‘Were you at St William’s care home 1970–88?’. The firm, it went on, was coordinating civil damages claims by former residents, and it was ‘important that potential claimants enforce their legal rights as soon as possible. Especially those who have been contacted by Operation Aldgate at Hull Central police station.’. This advert was the first of many published 2004–9.

At the same time, Greenwood wrote to Humberside Police, requesting their cooperation. He said he hoped soon to be able to announce he had been given a ‘block’ legal aid grant to act as coordinating solicitor in a class action for victims of abuse at St Williams. He said he needed details of all the suspects the police had investigated, and what charges had been laid. ‘This will greatly assist our claimants,’ Greenwood wrote.

Greenwood – who left Jordans in 2013, and is now a partner at the Yorkshire firm Switalskis – was already experienced in this field. By 2012, the historic abuse section of Jordans’ website stated the firm represented clients from 80 different schools and care homes. Few of these claimants would ever be required to face cross-examination in civil trials, because the institutions themselves, or the insurance companies which usually defend such actions, normally settled out of court. The Jordans’ website advised potential clients: ‘Over 98 per cent of abuse cases handled by Jordans are settled out of court, making it very unlikely that it will be necessary for you to go to court.’

The Inside Time advertisements worked. By 2010, Greenwood had more than 100 clients, all claiming they had been horrifically abused, most of them sexually, at St William’s. The class action had received extensive and entirely uncritical publicity in local media. That September, Greenwood again contacted Humberside Police – but this time, he was asking to supply information rather than receive it. His class action had, he said, generated fresh evidence of offences at St William’s, which they must investigate. He held meetings with Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Andrews, one of the force’s most experienced detectives. The result was Operation Reno – a new investigation covering the same ground as Operation Aldgate. As with Operation Pallial in North Wales, groundhog day had arrived – and a personal injury solicitor had been instrumental in getting the new inquiry started.

As Operation Reno got underway, four of the men who had already been acquitted in trials arising from Operation Aldgate again found themselves suspects. But the allegations against them were now much more serious. For example, Noel Hartnett had been accused in 2004 of physical abuse, but now it was claimed he had committed multiple acts of the most extreme sexual assaults.

Hartnett was suffering from the terminal lung condition pulmonary fibrosis, but he was determined to fight back. Lawyers acting for the De La Salle Brotherhood, the Catholic order which had run St Williams, had given him statements served by Greenwood in respect of his civil compensation action, and asked him to analyse them. He already had much of the documentation generated as a result of his earlier trial, including the school’s attendance and employment records, as well as the full text of the 3,000 page IPCC report on Operation Aldgate.

The consequences were devastating. In a total of 54 four cases, he was able to provide persuasive evidence that those now making allegations were lying. Some had not been at the school at the same time as their supposed abusers worked there. Others accused people who did not exist – most worryingly, there were multiple allegations against a handful of the same fictitious individuals, suggesting they must have colluded in making false claims, or adopted bogus allegations supplied by some third party. Still others made claims which could easily be refuted from other, verifiable sources, such as medical records and plans of the school buildings. Some of those making new allegations had already been described as deeply unreliable by Operation Gullane.

Thanks to the detailed, forensic memos that Hartnett composed about most of those accused during Operation Reno, he and the others who had already been found not guilty in 2004 were told there would be ‘no further action’ against them. However, by this time, they had lived for a further two years or eighteen months under the cloud of being paedophilia suspects. The police later confirmed that several alleged St Williams victims were being investigated for possible fraud, and eventually, files on at least three were sent to the CPS. Moreover, Hartnett had been able to analyse several versions of the same complainants’ statements. That meant he was able to show that the claims of some had grown steadily more lurid – apparently, because they believed that the more serious their allegations, the more compensation they would eventually be paid.

Finally, in the autumn of 2012, Greenwood advised his clients to stop cooperating with Operation Reno, the criminal inquiry which he had himself triggered. The immediate result was that 53 separate police case files, which had been close to completion, had to be withdrawn from consideration by the CPS. More than 20 full-time CID officers had been working for years on inquiries that had now proven futile. The cost, needless to say, was immense.

Yet this was not the end of Operation Reno. Indeed, in the wake of the documentary that claimed to expose Jimmy Savile as a serial paedophile, as the issue of historic abuse began to occupy ever more news airtime and space in newspapers, both the St Williams civil action and the criminal inquiry continued to grow in scope. Noel Hartnett told me that by the summer of 2014, the action had attracted well over 200 claimants.

This is an extract from a chapter in the OUP book edited by Ros Burnett: Wrongful Allegations of Sexual and Child Abuse, available at 20% discount if ordered direct from Oxford University Press (here).



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