The sheer scale of child sexual abuse in Britain

Published April 1998 One comment... »

In November last year, every newspaper in Britain carried the story of how Scotland Yard had worked with police forces around the country to raid the rooms of teachers at private schools in search of evidence of their involvement in a paedophile ring. The more interesting story, however, was the raid which never happened.

In the weeks before the operation, specialist detectives from the Paedophile Unit at Scotland Yard had discussed with Thames Valley the possibility of raiding a teacher at the most prestigious private school in the country – Eton College, whose pupils include the off-spring of some of the most powerful families in Britain, including the heir to the throne, Prince William.

The move started after a teacher who had recently left Eton went to Thames Valley police and claimed that one of his colleagues had been indecently assaulting boys at the school. Detectives investigated and discovered that the suspect teacher had been the target of similar allegations in the past; and that police in Yorkshire had seized a collection of child pornography and found letters from the teacher in which he referred to “sending the happy items”.

Clearly, this did not amount to proof that the teacher was guilty. His former colleague may conceivably have had a grudge against him; the letters in Yorkshire may have had some innocent explanation; other witnesses who also suspected him, may simply have been mistaken. But the whole series of raids was being mounted on similar intelligence which Scotland Yard believed was strong enough to demand that suspects be interviewed and their property searched. Yet when the raids finally took place, Thames Valley held back, arguing that the evidence was too weak to justify action.

The result: the truth about the suspected abuser was never found.

Earlier last year, the Guardian revealed the international police hunt for two unidentified men who had made the “Bjorn tape”, a chilling video which recorded their relentless sexual assault on an adolescent Dutch boy who was carried in front of the camera, limp and hooded, before being strapped into a chair where he was defenceless against the indulgence of his two attackers.

Following the story in the Guardian, which was linked to an ITV documentary, Dutch police traced Bjorn’s accent to an area in the north of Holland, where they combed through files of reported child abuse – and found him. It turned out that he had contacted the authorities a year earlier to complain that a Dutch man, whom he named, had been drugging and raping him since he was only three years old, most recently with the assistance of an English man. The Dutch man had been tried and – in the absence of the video – he had been acquitted. He had then sued Bjorn for making a malicious complaint against him. Bjorn had collapsed into mental illness and been given refuge in an orphanage.

Now, the tape not only proved that the boy had been telling the truth in all its grim detail, but it also confirmed the identity of the English man who had taken part. He is John Peters, a former soldier who went AWOL in the early 1970s after being charged with having sex with a 14-year-old boy in public toilets near his base in Sutton Coldfield. Since then, Peters has been convicted in Denmark of a separate offence of child abuse.

Although Bjorn’s Dutch abuser is now due to be tried again in Holland, Peters remains at liberty. Just as he evaded the police in Sutton Coldfield in the 1970s, so now he has evaded them again in Holland, simply by crossing a border. He is believed to be in Asia, whose population of impoverished and vulnerable children has become a magnet for paedophiles and whose police have no active intelligence link with the British or Dutch. The result: the abuser has escaped.

That same story in the Guardian also disclosed the activities of Warwick Spinks, a British paedophile who was then serving a sentence of five years after Scotland Yard arrested him for abducting and raping two homeless boys from the streets of London. He had sold one of them into a brothel in Amsterdam.

Spinks is a paedophile of grandiose ambition, a man who has commercialised his obsession, first by running an agency in Britain which sold boys to like-minded punters, and then by moving to Amsterdam where, as the Guardian disclosed, he worked in brothels and joined a group of British men who produced videos in which five boys were alleged to have been raped and murdered for the pleasure of viewers.

As he approached the end of his five-year sentence, Spinks was transferred from prison to a probation hostel in south London where, last September, he was asked to fill in a form so that the police could enter his details on the new register of sex offenders. He is precisely the kind of compulsive offender for whom the register was designed so that police can keep an eye on their movements. Spinks, however, refused to fill in the form.

He simply walked away from the hostel and sent his probation officer a postcard with an invitation to come and see him in Amsterdam. Since then, he has travelled to Frankfurt, Johannesburg, Moscow and Prague pursuing his own special interests with never a care for the sex offenders’ register or any other limb of the child protection system. The result: another abuser has escaped.

The sexual abuse of children is a special crime, not simply because of the damage it does to its victims, nor even because of the anger and fear it provokes in communities, but more particularly because it is so easy – easy to commit, easy to get away with.

Recently, it has broken into the headlines, through the communal fear of a handful of child killers like Robert Oliver and Sidney Cooke; in the exhumation of the crimes of Mary Bell; with the reluctant resignation of Grampian’s Chief Constable following his force’s bungled inquiry into a paedophile murder. But the debate that has followed has been fragmentary and confused, discoloured by populist reactions from ministers.

Over the last six months, the Guardian has conducted the most detailed and exhaustive investigation of paedophilia that has ever been undertaken by a British newspaper. We have tracked down abusers and their victims, we have spoken to the social workers and detectives and Customs officers who deal with them, to private agencies and to the most senior officials who lead the defence against child abuse.

We have seen the results of courageous work by thousands of dedicated men and women but also we have seen the results of cover-up and concealment, occasionally of corruption, of whistleblowers who are punished for trying to expose the truth, of local authorities, churches and other organisations who have closed ranks to deny or conceal allegations against their staff.

In an investigation of this, the most secret of crimes, we have found evidence of what is an open secret among many of those who fight it – that after twenty years of scandal and alarm, after numerous inquiries and reports, and despite the best efforts of those who work in it, we have created an elaborate and sophisticated failure, a child protection system which does not protect the children.

The origin of the problem is the easiness of the crime, the violent equivalent of taking candy from babies. It is physically easier for a rapist to overpower a child than an adult, to subdue a victim who has less than half his body-weight. In February of this year, for example, police reported that a paedophile had boarded a train outside Brighton one evening and abducted not one, but three young boys, aged between eight and eleven. Police said that the man forced the three boys to get off in the village of Glynde, where he marched them into the public toilets and indecently assaulted all three of them before threatening to kill them, raping one of them and putting them all back on the train.

Equally, it is easier to confuse a child than an adult. A woman who spent four years from the age of seven being raped regularly by her stepfather, told the Guardian she had never thought to complain: “I thought it was normal, I thought everyone was going home from school and being hurt by their dad.” Children have emerged from abuse to report variously that they were told that there was a bomb inside them which would explode if they disclosed what was happening; that there was no point in telling because no one would believe them and they would be put into care; or, commonly, that the abusive parent would be sent to prison, thus destroying the family and bringing hardship and misery to the other parent.

Children are conned by their abusers in a way that no adult would be. Bruce McLean, for example, who is serving nine years for indecent assaults in Cheshire, was using Manchester United tickets to entrap boys. A man who is now awaiting trial for producing a small orgy of child pornography videos in the north of England bought adolescent girls with Kentucky Fried Chicken and toffees, according to one who has spoken to the Guardian.

The ease of the crime is reflected in its scale. No one knows the exact numbers, but to construct a picture is to watch an arithmetical explosion. Start with a hard fact. At the last count, there were 2,100 child sex abusers behind the bars of British jails. Now think of all those who have previously been convicted but who have been released back into the community. You have to multiply by 50: according to the Home Office Research Department, there are 108,000 convicted paedophiles in the community.

Now, think of all the child victims who are conned and confused and never report their abuse in the first place; and all those cases which are reported but which fall short of the demands of the courts; and all those cases of rape and indecent assault which are convicted but which are not statistically recorded as crimes against children. At the most conservative estimate, the NSPCC and specialist police agree with studies here and in the United States, that the official figures for convictions record no more than ten per cent of the paedophile population. Which means that today in Britain, there are probably 1.1 million paedophiles at large. Other studies suggest that the figure is very much higher.

This vast scale appears to be confirmed by “prevalance studies” which take samples of the population and establish how many were childhood victims of sexual abuse. In the UK, the United States, Germany, Switzerland and Australia, studies consistently find that around 20% of women and around 8% of men suffered sexual abuse as children. In the current population of UK children, that would cover 1.5 million girls and 520,000 boys, a figure that is consistent with the projection of 1.1 million offenders.

Child sex abuse is not only easy to commit, it is also easy to get away with. It is the least reported crime on the planet. Numerous victims say that they were silenced by their own emotions – the same emotions which gag the adult victims of rape, but which are magnified in a child’s mind. Some children simply cannot report it: social workers in East Sussex four years ago found paedophiles deliberately targetting children who were too disabled to give evidence. Others had picked children who were terminally ill and who died before the system could catch up with them.

Those children who do report what has happened to them are uniquely likely to find their stories rejected. Often, like the adult victims of indecent assault, they will have nothing but their own word as evidence. And the word of a child is viewed with suspicion from one end of the criminal justice system to the other. It is for that reason that the tribunal of inquiry into abuse in children’s homes in North Wales is only now attempting to get to the truth of hundreds of complaints which were first made by children up to 20 years ago – to council officials, doctors, social workers and parents who, almost without exception, believed not a word of it.

North Wales is only the beginning. It is now clear that during the last 30 years, children’s homes in Britain suffered an epidemic of rape and violent assault. It was an epidemic that went unnoticed, like a plague that struck dumb its victims or else blinded those around it.

There are now literally thousands of men and women, in North Wales, South Wales, Manchester, Liverpool, Sunderland, Northumbria, Edinburgh – in seventeen different police areas in all – who have come forward to make detailed, credible allegations about their childhoods of abuse in care. The combined force of these different inquiries amounts to the biggest contemporary police operation in the country. And yet, at the time that these people were children, at the time that they were being used as human aids to masturbation, just about all of them were overlooked by just about every agency that was supposed to protect them – the police, social workers, the Social Services Inspectorate, health visitors, doctors.

The passage of time, itself, often allows abusers to escape. In Cardiff, Paul Conibeer, who is now aged 28, is trying to persuade the police to prosecute Alan Williams, Lee Tucker and John Gay for buggering him and passing him around their friends when he was a 13-year-old in care. The three men have since been convicted of paedophile offences and become involved in the abuse of children in Portugal and Amsterdam, where they shared their pleasures with Warwick Spinks. Police in Cardiff, however, say Conibeer’s story is too old to be proved. Conibeer has a grim alternative: “I’m giving it a year. If nothing is done in a year, I’m doing it my own way. If I can take three scum off the street that would be my debt paid back to society, because I have been a bad bastard in my time.”

The fact that the sexual abuse of children is so hidden is not entirely the result of the age its victims. This is also a crime of conspiracy, of the abuse of power and, from time to time, of incidents which suggest that a paedophile with prestige may be more likely to escape justice than a more humble offender.

For example, police now invest relatively little time in the surveillance of public toilets where gay men go cottaging. The one thing that is likely still to trigger such an operation is a complaint that under-aged boys are involved – unless, that is, the toilets in question happen to be those behind the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, in which case, under the terms of a long-standing Metropolitan Police policy, the operation will take place only if it has the approval of an officer of the rank of commander or above. According to experienced London officers, the reason is that those toilets are used by High Court judges and barristers, and the Metropolitan Police have always said they do not want to encounter such a powerful offender without special authority.

Fleet Street routinely nurtures a crop of untold stories about powerful abusers who have evaded justice. One such is Peter Morrison, formerly the MP for Chester and the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party. Ten years ago, Chris House, the veteran crime reporter for the Sunday Mirror, twice received tip-offs from police officers who said that Morrison had been caught cottaging in public toilets with underaged boys and had been released with a caution. A less powerful man, the officers complained, would have been charged with gross indecency or an offence against children.

At the time, Chris House confronted Morrison, who used libel laws to block publication of the story. Now, Morrison is dead and cannot sue. Police last week confirmed that he had been picked up twice and never brought to trial. They added that there appeared to be no trace of either incident in any of the official records.

A lot of paedophiles are loners. The NSPCC found that 70% of them were closely related to their victim – and, contrary to popular belief, they were not always men. Dr Michelle Elliott from Kidscape says she has dealt with more than 700 cases of women sexually abusing children and that she takes on one or two new such cases each week. Academics who have analysed the history of sexually abused children on the At Risk register have found that one in three were assaulted by adolescent or pre-adolescent children. The Young Abusers Project in London, has dealt with one abuser who was only seven years old.

Even though most abusers – whatever their age or sex – work alone, there is clear evidence of some conspiracy, of the existence of paedophile rings, sometimes deliberately infiltrating parts of the child protection system, often taking advantage of each other’s political or social power to conceal their activities.

Researchers at Manchester University trawled the records of eight police areas in search of cases of organised abuse and they concluded that nationally they would expect to find 242 cases every year where children were the victims of adults who had colluded together to use them for sex. They noted, in line with other specialist researchers, that these official records probably captured only one tenth of the truth. It is these cases of organised abuse which present some of the most frightening incidents.

Some are never brought to trial – like the group of men who were believed by police to be abducting homeless girls from the streets of London in the early 1990s and holding them in a converted garage with padded walls, where they were being abused and finally killed. The closest they came to being caught was when the man who was said to be disposing of the girls’ bodies, for £2,000 a time, was identified by Number Eight Regional Crime Squad, in Wales, as an ex-convict, a man with a history of spectacular violence who was living in Cardiff. Police investiged him but were unable to identify those who had hired him or to find evidence to charge him.

Others come to trial only partially – like Robert Oliver and Sidney Cooke and their friends who together abducted, drugged, raped and killed Jason Swift, Barry Lewes and Mark Tildesley. They were convicted of manslaughter. Officers from Operation Orchid were frustrated, first because there was insufficient evidence to convict them of murder, and, second, because they were never able to bring any charges at all in relation to six other boys who, they believed, had also died at the hands of the same ring.

Often the links between abusers lie beneath the surface of less horrific conspiracies. Take, for example, the case of Greystone Heath, an approved school for boys in Warrington, which for years enjoyed an unsullied reputation until police finally discovered that it had become a hot spot for paedophiles. This one institution – whose history of abuse is echoed now in scores of others – is a model of everyday paedophile collusion.

It appears to have started in 1965 when a 21-year-old student teacher named Keith Laverack went to work there and embarked on a campaign of buggery and indecent assault. Over the ensuing four years, he raped at least 16 boys, three of whom he shared with his colleague, Brian Percival, the clerk and storeman at the home. Once these two men had established sexual rights over the boys at Greystone, other abusers joined the staff: Alan Langshaw, who raped at least 24 boys; Dennis Grain who raped at least 18; Roy Shuttleworth who raped at least ten; Jack Bennett who indecently assaulted two; and Steve Norris who assaulted an unknown number.

The Greystone abusers then fanned out. Keith Laverack went to childrens’ homes in Cambridgeshire; Alan Langshaw became Principal of St Vincent’s Catholic boys’ home in Formby; Grain and Shuttleworth were both promoted to other homes in the Warrington area; Steve Norris went to North Wales. At their new homes, all of them continued to rape boys who were in their care and wherever they went, they crossed the paths of other paedophiles.

In Cambridgeshire, Keith Laverack worked with numerous colleagues, four of whom are now also suspected of abusing children. Dennis Grain worked in Doncaster for the same group of private schools as Terence Hoskins who went on to become headteacher of St Aiden’s Community Home in Widnes, where he liked to thrash naked boys with a cane, which he then pushed into their backsides, while his housemaster, Colin Dick, indecently assaulted those who caught his eye. Dennis Grain had previously attacked boys in Danesford childrens’ home in Congleton, opening the door to three others, John Clarke, Joseph Smith and Brian Hudson, who set about the boys with relish. Dennis Grain, in the meantime, went off to work at Eton, where he became a housemaster. The web is almost endless.

While he was Principal of St Vincent’s, Alan Langshaw recruited a care worker named Edward Stanton, who joined in Langshaw’s orgy. Stanton appears to have got the job through the good offices of Roy Shuttleworth, who was continuing to abuse the boys at Greystone and who is believed to have known Stanton from their time in Birmingham when they took the same course in residential child care.

That course in Birmingham, in turn, is believed to have been lectured by Peter Righton, a notorious paedophile who attempted to legitimise his obsession in a series of academic studies. Righton, for his part, belonged to the Paedophile Information Exchange, along with Jack Bennett who joined in the abuse at Greystone. Righton had earlier worked in the same childrens’ home in Maidstone, Kent as Peter Howarth, who went on to become a legendary abuser in the homes of North Wales where he shared his indulgence with Steve Norris, formerly of Greystone.

Each of these men claims to have abused alone. Even though their paths connected so frequently, even though the Greystone abusers were assaulting boys in buildings within yards of each other, even though several of them were raping the same boys, they claim never to have colluded with each other. No one who has been involved with investigating Greystone believes them.

The evidence suggests that such abusers not only collude to give each other work and access to children, but also to infiltrate the child protection system. Peter Righton lectured not only in Birmingham but in numerous other colleges. Before he was finally taken to court and convicted, he became a highly regarded consultant in child care and, eventually, the Director of Education at the prestigious National Institute of Social Work in London, a position from which he was able to have some influence on Government policy.

With similar cynicism, Keith Laverack, who opened the catalogue of abuse at Greystone Heath, went on to run the Guardian Ad Litem panel for Cambridgeshire County Council, with the job of representing the interests of children in court cases. This job not only introduced him to the most vulnerable children in the area but also gave him access to files on abused children all over the country. Terence Hoskins, who worked with some of the Greystone abusers, used connections with South Yorkshire police to get access to his own file, from the supposedly secret National Criminal Intelligence Service, NCIS.

Roger Saint who spent years assaulting his foster children in Clwyd secured himself a job on the local adoption panel, from which he could referee complaints about people like himself.

But this is only the beginning. Beyond the inherent difficulty of detecting and preventing this most secret crime, beyond the obstacle course of concealment erected by the collusion of clever paedophiles, the child victims of sexual abuse are betrayed by organisations who repeatedly prefer to avoid embarrassment by concealing awkward allegations and by a system of protection which simply does not work.

One comment.

  1. [...] Out "Time's Up!": Predator Coaches – Sex Abuse in Girls’ Sports is Growing. Nick Davies — The sheer scale of child sexual abuse in Britain Caldicott: Forty years on, the schoolboys confront abuse – Times Online [...]

Back to top

>>> Archive of Nick Davies work >>> Flat Earth News is now out in paperback Flat Earth News >>> Reporting Masterclass