An example of organised child abuse – news and feature

Published August 1998


CHILD protection agencies yesterday appealed for a new body to be set up to investigate organised child abuse after nine adults were jailed for a total of 100 years for a series of horrific sex offences against children as young as three.

In three linked trials, which could not previously be reported, a court heard that the abusers spent more than 35 years raping and torturing two generations of boys and girls from the same West Country family.

The elderly couple at the centre of the case forced their children to have sex with family, friends and neighbours.

Judge William Taylor told the couple they were guilty of ‘wickedness beyond belief’. He said: ‘You have been convicted of the worst abuse of children contemplated by the criminal law.’

When police and social workers finally started to investigate the abuse two years ago they found that the children had twice tried to raise the alarm more than 30 years ago. They were ignored.

One of the daughters complained she had been raped by a stranger. But a local GP rejected her complaint. A school nurse decided the couple’s eldest daughter was simply looking for attention after she complained.

Mike Taylor, the director of children’s services for the NSPCC, said the case was one of the most horrific the society had ever seen.

‘What we need is a national infrastructure of investigation services so that in any part of the country in which complex or organised abuse is being investigated there is a skilled social work service available to undertake that investigation alongside the police,’ he said.

‘For local authorities to meet that need on their own is impossible. We think that in due course there should be a national government-funded service.’

The West Country court heard that the elderly couple at the centre of the case forced their seven children to abuse each other.

Later, as adults, some of the victims became abusers. Four of the couple’s granddaughters were subjected to sex attacks by their own parents and by the grandparents, who cannot be identified for legal reasons.

Passing sentence, Judge Taylor said: ‘Degradation and humiliation were used as tools to subjugate these children and to ensure their submission and co-operation.

‘If they resisted or complained they were hurt more. They were forced to abuse each other and were then told that they would end up in prison if these matters came to light. They were abused and tortured for your pleasure.’

Sentencing the grandfather, whom he described as the prime mover, to 25 years on 26 counts of rape, buggery and indecent assault against his children and grandchildren, the judge said two of his victims were still receiving counselling and another had resorted to self-mutilation to ‘cleanse’ herself.

Judge Taylor told the grandmother she had totally abrogated her responsibility as a parent. He said she had selected the children for abuse , held them down while they were raped, and laughed while her husband abused his grandchildren. She was jailed for 14 years.

Jailing the couple’s second son for 14 years for the rape and buggery of his nieces and the indecent assault of his own daughters, the judge said he took into account that the man had been abused and encouraged to abuse as a boy. But while that might explain what he did, it could never excuse it.


WHEN Emlyn Williams wrote his classic account of the abduction and sexual murder of children by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, he called it Beyond Belief. He was right. All the detail of the suffering of those children defies our imagination. And so it is with Edward and Betty X.

For seven months, a crown court in the West Country has conducted three linked trials, at the heart of which has stood this elderly couple. The court was told they inflicted a regime of relentless sexual torture on their children and grandchildren, working together like partners in some fiendish cottage industry in which they turned the children into objects of torment and rape, and then supplied them to relatives, neighbours or even the village window cleaner, all of them enjoying an orgy of cruelty, which they continued for years and years without ever a fear of being caught.

It is hard to convey the horror of what that court was told about life in the humble home of Edward and Betty X. All four of their daughters, one of their sons, Betty’s much younger sister, two of their granddaughters and one of their grandsons came one by one to the witness box to relive their childhoods up to four decades earlier.

They told of the barn where Edward and his friends were said to have hidden children in the hay and then speared them with pitchforks; to have strung them up from iron rings on the wall where they could whip them; and then to have cut them down to take it in turns to rape them and bugger them.

The second daughter, Mary, described being roused from her bed by her father in the night to be driven into the woods, where her mother was waiting with other men to tie her over a smouldering fire and then take her down so she could be raped. She and her siblings described how afterward they would be put in the bath and scrubbed with Vim or salt, with particular harshness between their legs.

They did their best to explain Betty’s grim collusion with her husband’s sexual despotism. She would keep a rota of each girl’s periods, they said, so that she could always choose one who would please Edward, who disliked menstruation. When the third daughter, Harriet, became pregnant, they held her down on a plastic sheet while Edward aborted the foetus with a knitting needle. Often (and they meant ‘often’), Betty and Edward would take two of the girls and tie them, gagged and naked, head to head across the dining table so he could rape them.

The evidence went on for weeks, indescribable, inexplicable, unbearable. For anyone present in court, the consistent theme – the single feeling that united anyone listening to any prosecution witness at any of those linked trials – was that this was all so unbelievable.

In that most important respect, this story is not unique. Indeed, for anyone who has worked in child protection over the past 30 years, it is a classic account of ‘inter-generational family abuse ‘: classic in its nastiness, classic in its secrecy, classic, too, in its ability to beggar belief.

The story has echoes of the discredited cases of alleged ritual abuse in the 1980s. Those cases collapsed in procedural chaos and cries of incredulity. The accused were cleared. The accusers and their allegations were all rejected.

To this day, the official line within which police and social workers are expected to work is that there is no such thing as ritual abuse. They say they are discouraged from pursuing cases of inter-generational family sadism because it is presumed that juries will instinctively reject them. There is, however, one stunning difference with this account: it could be proved.

Two juries, each without knowledge of the other’s verdicts, listened to long weeks of evidence and agreed that it was true. In the first trial, Edward and Betty were convicted – along with their eldest son, a cousin and the village window cleaner – of abusing five of their children. In the second trial, Edward and Betty were convicted – along with their second son, one of their sons-in-law, one of their daughters-in-law, and the same window cleaner – of abusing three of their grandchildren. Finally, their second daughter, Mary, admitted helping her father to rape her own daughter.

These cases ended in conviction for two reasons – the diligence of one detective sergeant, Steve Carey, and the sheer scale of the abuse which inevitably left its traces. There was the evidence of the police surgeon who examined two of the younger girls and found signs of a lifetime of sexual activity. There was the screwdriver identified by two grandchildren as an instrument of torture – forensic scientists found tiny traces of semen on it.

There was the statement from Betty – rapidly retracted – in which she admitted she had seen Edward abusing her daughters.

Most of all, there was the clear, cogent evidence of Edward and Betty’s victims. Crucially, Betty’s much younger sister – an outsider who had stayed briefly in the house and who had had no subsequent contact with the other children – came and told her own story, hauntingly similar to those the jury had already heard.

Harriet, the third daughter, sat breathless with fear, asking the court to allow her to describe each incident without interruption. It was so painful, she said, that if she was stopped she might not be able to start again. And, on those terms, she told about the Saturday tea ceremony.

Every Saturday morning Edward would go to the pub. Ten or 11 pints later, he would lumber back to the house, eat his meal, stumble upstairs and fall asleep until tea time. Then Betty would choose one of the girls to take up his cup of tea and the girl would stand quietly at the end of his bed and wag his foot, still in its sock, until he woke up and subjected her to a prolonged rape, interrupted sometimes by his muttering she was his special girl, sometimes by his swearing she was a whore and a slut.

The other three daughters described the same ghastly routine. It had started, they said, when they were five or six. The youngest recalled her excitement when first selected to take her dad his Saturday cup of tea. She had been puzzled by her elder sister, who refused to look her in the eye. She had guessed she must be jealous because she had got the special job. Soon she discovered the truth.

Harriet also recalled the infernal scenes in the barn. Her distress was at its worst when she tried to describe the treatment of her brother, Martin, who had been singled out by Edward and his friends. ‘I watched him curled up in a ball with the pain,’ she said. ‘I thought they had killed him.’ Her older sister, Mary, recalled, too, the horror of the barn. Martin also came to court. He described the same scenes, and explained he was the only one of three sons who had been abused , perhaps because his father simply did not like him, or perhaps because, one day, when he was six, he made a mistake which changed his life.

He had peeped through curtains that were drawn during the day and seen two of his sisters tied to the dining table with Edward and Betty and some of Edward’s friends at work on them. Edward saw him, chased him, threatened him with a knife, and made him the new object of his abuse . As Martin grew older, he was often kept back from school for the day with one of his sisters so that his father and his friends could bugger them – leaving them weeping in each other’s arms. The jury were told that 20 years later, his body and penis were still scarred. The abuse seemed to spread like a psychic infection through almost every adult in the family. Several of Edward’s brothers, now dead, are believed to have joined in, together with their wives, also now dead.

This obsessive sexuality was part of a wider cruelty and negligence. The children were sometimes without food and were seen by neighbours scrounging crusts thrown out for the birds. Those who wet their beds were made to stand with the soiled sheet over their head. Harriet had only one toy, a doll, but one day Edward was drunk and snapped off its head. He once raged at his eldest daughter’s make-up and scrubbed it off with white spirit.

The children rarely received presents, though Edward would sometimes mark one of his infant daughter’s birthdays by giving her provocative underwear or stockings and suspenders.

The girls told how their brothers were taught to abuse from an early age. Edward would tell them: ‘This is how you treat women. This is what they deserve.’ Soon, the two older sons took the initiative. The eldest, for example, came home from work as a young man, grabbed Harriet, pulled her into a dark coal shed and raped her. She was eight at the time.

A cousin was recruited into the circle as a photographer to record the abuse .

When she was 19, Harriet married. She said she saw her husband primarily as a means of escape. Edward and his eldest son did not see it like that and, to make the point, on the night before the wedding they raped her together. Harriet’s husband was trustworthy and kind, but when Mary also married, she found no escape. Her husband turned out to be an abuser who raped their four daughters. In a world where abuse had become normal, Mary, too, joined in the rape. Worse, she took her daughters to visit Edward and Betty and helped her father to inflict his sexual violence on them. Mary pleaded guilty to one specimen offence. Her husband was convicted in the second trial.

Trapped in this world in which the bizarre had become commonplace, the children lost the power to resist. They said they never discussed it. There was no point. The eldest daughter admitted in court that if she heard her father at the bed of another in the night, she would turn over in relief that it was not her turn. Even more poignant, two grandchildren explained that, despite all that was happening to them, they had still loved their family and hoped that next time they visited their grandparents it would be all right. Their hope made them silent.

On the very few occasions when they did cry for help, they were ignored. Harriet and Martin ran away together, but the police brought them back to Edward and Betty. The eldest daughter tried to tell the school nurse what was happening, but she was ticked off for attention-seeking. Harriet was taken to the local doctor saying she had been raped.

A GP told the court that 30 years ago, it was thought to be impossible to have sex with such young children (one reality at least which is no longer dismissed as beyond belief).

The story finally began to emerge in 1992 when, after 12 years of counselling, Harriet went to the police to warn them about Martin’s nine-year-old son who, it was being suggested, might be placed in the care of Edward and Betty. She told only a small part of the story but she was supported, after some delay, by two of her sisters. However, the police made a muted response, apparently because the three were by now living in different parts of the country and made their statements to different forces, none of whom ‘took ownership’ of the case. Although they questioned Edward and ensured that Martin’s son was not consigned to his care, they took no action to investigate Harriet’s story.

Four years later, in 1996, by sheer chance, a team of officers from South Wales which was investigating another case of inter-generational abuse spoke to some of the officers who had dealt with Edward in 1992. Det Sgt Steve Carey was given six weeks to check.

The more he uncovered, the more alarmed he became eventually he succeeded in setting up a major operation. He now pays tribute to his force for having the courage to continue, but he recognises the risk. ‘If we had failed to get convictions,’ he said, ‘there would have been an awful lot of fingers pointing, saying ‘I told you so’ and wanting me to justify my belief in pursuing the case.’

Now that the juries have returned their verdicts, the most important message of this miserable story is that when it comes to child abuse , the mere fact that an allegation is beyond belief does not necessarily mean it is untrue.

* The names of Edward and Betty X and of their children are false in order to conceal the identity of victims.

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