Denial and despair in North Wales

Published September 1997

The Guardian

September 1997

No one is listening. For years, the muffled sound of scandal has been leaking from the closed world of Britain’s children’s homes, sometimes through the trial of a care worker who has turned out to be a child rapist, sometimes in rumours about paedophile rings and cover-ups and connections in high places. Whispers of nightmares, never the whole story.

Now, finally, for the first time, the truth is pouring out. In a former council chamber in a small village near Chester, dozens of men and women are stepping forward to speak in public. Some are the grown-up survivors – nearly 300 of them – recalling childhoods of unmitigated violence and exploitation: “It was a completely different world… You could smell the fear… So cold, the place, so horrible”.  Others are the men and women who are accused of tormenting them – 148 of them, skewered to the truth by ranks of lawyers. It is a little Nuremberg.

This is the tribunal of inquiry into abuse in children’s homes in North Wales – a unique event. This kind of hearing is one of the most powerful investigative tools at the hands of a government. It has all the powers of the High Court, to compel witnesses and demand documents, it has a budget of more than £1 million and it sits in public. In 75 years it has been used only ten times – after Aberfan and Dunblane, for example – and never before for child abuse. For eight months now, it has been unravelling one of the darkest scandals in Britain, day after day. And no one is listening.

The 32 seats which were reserved for the press strictly “on a first-come-first-served basis” are all empty. The three long rows of chairs at the back of the chamber which were reserved for the public are the same: no academic specialists, no government observers, no local authority executives or social workers attempting to learn lessons, no one at all. Around the back of the building, in a drafty portakabin, two local reporters diligently follow proceedings on a televised link and file stories for the local press, but so far as the rest of the world is concerned, the inquiry does not exist. Perhaps it offers too many horrors or too few princesses. Maybe it is too far from London or simply too close to the truth.

Right now, for example, a 27-year-old woman in a cream suit is sitting at the microphone in the far corner of the room, gripping her elbows in her lap, rocking with emotion, struggling to describe how it felt, as a seven-year-old girl in a residential home, to be locked in a dark cupboard by the staff who were supposed to care for her; or what it was like when she was sent to a foster home, where she was hung out of a top-floor window by her ankles and, sometimes, thrashed by her foster parents and, sometimes, taken into the cupboard under the stairs so that they could put their fingers inside her. She cries as she tells how she was anally raped by her foster brother and how, back in a children’s home, she saw a boy being buggered by a teacher.

Lawyers start to cross-examine her – on behalf of the police or the foster parents or the local authority or other victims. Some say she is lying. She stands by her story, she cries, she walks out, she comes back, she gets angry and cries some more. “We never had a childhood,” she says. “We didn’t know what childhood was about.” Then she is finished.  The chairman of the tribunal, Sir Ronald Waterhouse, thanks her gently. The herd of lawyers fidget with their papers and their computers. The woman walks away with a handkerchief to her mouth, back to a world that is none the wiser for her ordeal.

By the standards of the inquiry, her story is nothing special. Since it was set up on the orders of the last Prime Minister,  the tribunal has uncovered the most vivid accounts of the two central allegations that it is studying – that children in 39 of the 82 homes in North Wales became playthings for paedophile staff, and that the authorities who should have been there to help them failed to do anything and, in some cases, allegedly even colluded.

Within the hearing, some of the abusers have taken on an almost legendary status: John Allen, the former caterer, who bought a farm near Wrexham where he housed delinquent boys, the prettiest of whom he raped with obsessive regularity; Peter Howarth, the former accounts clerk, who became deputy headmaster at the now notorious Bryn Estyn home where he teamed up with a housemaster named Stephen Norris for a paedophile orgy of huge self-indulgence; and Paul Wilson, who appears to have had no sexual interest in children and was content instead to kick and punch his way through the boys in Bryn Estyn like a drunk in a brawl.

All four have now been convicted of serious offences against children. Others who are still alive and have not been convicted have been granted anonymity by Sir Ronald. These unnamed men and women figure just as powerfully in the stories that are told in the chair by the microphone.

One witness after another describes how they grew up in a world of threats: “We were treated like animals, creatures, rubbish… There was a fear that one day perhaps someone was going to kill you and perhaps this was the time it would be done.” Some of the threats were petty cruelties – being made to cut the lawn with a pair of scissors or to scrub the loos with a toothbrush or to eat soap. Some struck at the children’s greatest fears – losing their home leave, or being transferred somewhere even worse. Most often, however, the threat was simply that they would be beaten black and blue.

One man described how as a child he had been made to strip naked by a care worker who had then attacked him with a belt. “He was like a lunatic, he lost all sense of control.” Another described a woman worker who could be gentle and kind and then suddenly explode, slapping and beating and using her wooden shoe as a weapon. “One girl used to get totally hammered, dragged by the hair screaming through the dining room.”

The power of the adults was complete. One woman told how as a 12-year-old girl, she had been made to dress up like a maid to serve tea in her uniform and to kneel down to lick her master’s feet and to be sexually assaulted. She told the tribunal how she had been playing with one of the pet gerbils in the home and it had bit her finger. She had cried out and the man had gone and fetched a garden fork, with which he had then stabbed and killed all of the gerbils, telling her: “That’s what you get for complaining.”

Without power to resist, the children were utterly vulnerable to the paedophiles who had infiltrated the homes.  They became sex objects – in the dormitory and in the sick bay, in Peter Howarth’s flat and in Stephen Norris’ room, in the showers, in the staff room, in the bath, in cars, in sheds, in tents, on the tow path of a canal; with men, with women, with residential workers, social workers and with anyone else who wanted them because on the evidence of these survivors, in these childrens homes, no paedophile ever failed to get his or her way.

One man – now dead – made a statement in which he described how he had been sent to Bryn Estyn when he was 12 and had run away after Peter Howarth, with drink on his breath, had tried to tear off his clothes. He had slept rough around Wrexham railway station for several months before, inevitably, being taken back to the home where, one night, Howarth cornered him, pushed him face down on the floor, knelt on him, stripped off his pyjama trousers and raped him. “The pain was terrible,” he said, “but I could not struggle any more.”

Another described how he had arrived at Bryn Estyn to be greeted by Howarth who informed him immediately: “I’m going to fuck you tonight.” In his first statement, the man described how he had managed to evade Howarth’s frenzied lunging but later he agreed to make another statement in which he conceded that, in truth, Howarth had succeeded and, more than that, he had invited a friend to join in, both of them raping him at the same time, one orally, the other anally. He said he never knew who the second man was.

For the adults, this was a world without boundaries: a woman worker saw a good-looking 14-year-old boy so she screwed him; a man saw a 12-year-old girl who was pretty so he pulled her into a shed and raped her. One boy was allegedly being used for sex by both his housemaster and the female deputy housemaster. When a teacher complained about this, and took the boy home to protect him,  his superiors alleged that he, too, was abusing the child. The teacher protested his innocence, explaining that it was his wife and not he who had also started having sex with the boy.

The paedophiles became quite casual. Peter Howarth, witnesses said, would line boys up in the corridor outside his room and pick a weak one for his entertainment. One care worker is said to have wandered into the dormitory one or two nights a week, like someone in a supermarket. He would choose a boy, call out his name and take him away. “They were normally gone for half an hour to an hour,” the tribunal was told in one statement. “When they returned, they went back to bed and I often heard them sobbing.”

The infection of violence spread from the adults to the older children, who started to collude. “We were encouraged by staff to beat up the smaller lads,” one sombre man recalled. “We did the job for them and when we couldn’t do the job for them, they did it.”

The tribunal heard of one particularly frail boy who became a magnet for bullies who  half-drowned him, tried to hang him, made him suck a dog’s penis and sit on a chair leg with his pants down so that the leg went into his backside. One witness recalled this boy running away and being brought back to an irate Paul Wilson. A little later, this witness said, he looked out of the window to see Paul Wilson and three older boys standing over the boy. “They were making him pick up a paving slab and eat the worms that were underneath.”

Some of the children tried to fight. Once or twice there were riots, unseen by the outside world, when children smashed windows and set off fire hoses before they were subdued and punished. Some ran, always to be returned, usually to some extra torment. One said he had gone out deliberately to commit enough offences to be sent to a detention centre to escape. Another described how after being abused several times a week during his time in one home, he had taken a motorbike and driven it straight  into a brick wall. He had failed to kill himself, but he was dead inside. “I have lost my dignity,” he told the tribunal.

Many simply buckled and did everything they could to comply, searching for favour from their tormentors. One man described how he had been anally raped with such violence that his backside had bled for days. He was afraid that someone would be cross with him for having blood on his underpants and so, several times, he had secretly taken them and flushed them down the loo.

Somewhere in the background – on the other side of the high brick wall – there were social workers and councillors and policemen whose job it was to protect these children. Few of the children dared to approach them. One man described how he had been overheard once saying he was going to make a complaint: he had been marched into the dining room and thrashed in front of 15 other children.

Those who did have the courage to speak out were almost always frustrated. One boy who described a particularly long and vivid catalogue of abuse said he had grabbed hold of the jacket of an executive from social services, Geoff Wyatt, who was visiting the home. He had pleaded with Wyatt to do something. “He just wouldn’t listen. He wasn’t having any of it.”

Two girls ran away and were picked up by police who told them they were lying about conditions in the home. Once the police had left them, one of the women recalled, a care worker punched her in the stomach while her friend was taken into a side room, from which she emerged later with a bruised eye and a split lip. On at least 12 occasions, over the years, police were asked to investigate allegations of violence or paedophilia in the homes but, almost always, their inquiries came to nothing.

Adults who complained did little better. A local taxi driver, Ian Griffiths, told the tribunal how nine years ago he used to drive a young girl from a foster home to her school each day and he had been horrified to hear her say that her foster father was doing rude things to her. When she repeated the claim, he made up his mind to take action and called social services. Within an hour, he said, the foster father was on the phone to him, denying everything and threatening to sue him. The taxi driver said that no one from social services ever contacted him. No action was ever taken. The foster father was Roger Saint: in May of this year, he was jailed for six and a half years after being convicted of a catalogue of indecency with his foster children.

The tribunal has heard from a parade of people who went into the homes and saw nothing: the Pentecostal minister who admitted he had heard rumours but thought that the boys were liars; the doctor who examined their bodies and never noticed a thing; the colleague of Peter Howarth who had heard there were “fun and games” in Howarth’s flat but decided it was not his place to criticise a senior member of staff; the councillors who visited, reported that all was well and went home with their expenses. “That’s reassuring,” said Sir Ronald drily, “that they got their expenses.”

A woman worker from Bryn Estyn described how one day Paul Wilson had started rubbing his body against hers. She was struggling and a boy intervened to help her. Wilson swung round and thumped the boy in the face, breaking his nose. She had not told anyone about this, she said, because she was off duty the next day and thought that someone else would have done something about it.

“That’s not a very good answer, is it?” said Sir Ronald.

“No,” she said.

Those who are accused of abuse – including those who have been convicted – complain that the evidence is all a plot by people in search of compensation, though Paul Wilson found it hard to explain how it was that he faced 66 different allegations of physical assault by 66 different boys. Even Peter Howarth is being defended by former colleagues who claim he was wrongly convicted.

Sir Ronald wondered out loud to one of Howarth’s defenders how it could be that so many children from so many different parts of the country all told the same stories about him. “What do you say? Some deep-laid plot?” The former care worker replied by asserting the innocence not of Howarth but of the man he was really trying to defend:  “When I was there, I never heard any rumours. I never heard anything. I never saw anything.”

Behind Sir Ronald’s screen of anonymity, scores of men and women have been accused by the survivors. Sir Ronald says that he wants none of them named for fear that it will discourage witnesses from giving evidence, though he may name some of them in his final report. He says he will tackle head-on the persistent allegation that children from the homes were fed to paedophiles who belonged to a wider, national ring.

Among the few who have already been convicted and who are being named, John Allen is still in jail, serving six years, having picked up half a million pounds for his shares in the home he created; Stephen Norris is due to be released next year from his seven-year sentence; Paul Wilson never went to prison, escaping with a suspended sentence. In his cell in Wakefield Prison, a few months ago, Peter Howarth died of a heart attack having served less than two years of his ten-year sentence.

Many of those who have spoken of their experiences in the children’s homes have not escaped so easily. Witness after witness has said they cannot make good relationships. Some 15 former residents of the homes are believed to have died, many of them by suicide. One man who, as a 12-year-old boy had been knocked around by Howarth and Wilson, is now serving ten years in prison for taking his revenge on authority by slashing a policeman with a knife. Another survivor is Graham Seddon who made national news earlier this year when he was released from prison for the attempted rape of a ten-year-old girl declaring to anyone who would listen that he was bound to commit the same offence again.

This morning, once again, the lawyers will gather behind their rows of desks with their computer screens and their bundles of paperwork, and yet another witness will sit down at the microphone to uncover a little more of this dark scandal. Once again, the chances are, there will be no one there to listen.

The children who lived in these homes would say that no one ever did.

Back to top