Evening Standard, 6th May 1993
By Stewart Payne & Eileen Fairweather
BRITAIN’S leading consultant on children’s homes is at the centre of a nationwide police and social work investigation into allegations of sexual abuse against boys.
Peter Righton, 67, quit his post at the National Children’s Bureau last year after he was arrested and later convicted of possessing child pornography. But the Evening Standard can reveal that he is now the central figure in a new investigation into the suspected abuse of scores of boys over four decades.
When this investigation began, Righton and his male lover fled to a country estate which is also an educational and recreational centre for children. Teachers, parents and welfare officials who send children to the estate are unaware of the two men and the police investigation into alleged paedophilia.
The pair live at the Suffolk ancestral home of the 8th Baron Henniker.
Following the discovery of child pornography addressed to Righton, a senior and respected childcare expert, he was fined £900 last September for importing and possessing indecent material. He has been under police investigation ever since.
Righton and his lover are familiar figures to staff working on the 2,500-acre estate at Thornham Magna which the philanthropic Lord Henniker and his family have turned into an educational and recreational centre for children.
The chance discovery by Customs officers at Dover of child pornography addressed to Righton led to police seizing letters and other documents in his home – a cottage near Evesham, Worcestershire. Scores of boys’ names were found in a diary, some underlined. These, investigators believe, were boys that had been sexually abused.
Many are now adults and have been traced by police and social workers. Some have alleged abuse dating back 30 years. But officers have also unearthed a recent allegation of abuse.
A former assistant bishop is among Righton’s long-standing friends. Correspondence between the two suggests a shared interest in children. His name was among those underlined in the diary.
As the extent of his alleged activities emerged, police discovered that Righton had moved to the Henniker estate. Suffolk social workers were alerted to establish the circumstances in which he was living.
Lord Henniker, 77, told the Standard he did not know Righton and was not responsible for him living on the estate. ‘The estate belongs to my son.’
His son’s wife, Mrs Lesley Henniker-Major, said: ‘Mr Righton is a tenant. He came to us through an estate agent with impeccable references.’
She said she was not aware of the current investigation but had been told of his previous conviction for possessing indecent material by police and social workers. ‘I was very upset. But I have discussed this with Mr Righton and he tells me this material was unsolicited. I am a mother of five and I am very careful. I am not at all worried. He is innocent until proven guilty.’
When the Standard visited the estate this week Righton and his companion were still living in the stable flat. Wellington boots with their names inscribed in the rims stood outside their door.
Righton was a leading consultant on children’s homes and a former director of both the National Children’s Bureau charity and the National Institute for Social Work, a think-tank for social work issues.
The Standard has established that the London Borough of Islington, whose children’s homes are the subject of an inquiry following our revelations that young people in council care were exposed to paedophiles, pimps and child pornographers, sends children to the Henniker estate under a scheme called The Islington Suffolk Project.
Hundreds of youngsters from Islington and other councils have holidayed at the Henniker estate, staying in log cabins, since the mid-1970s.
Investigators probing Righton’s background have been astonished by how he achieved such high office. He was known to Scotland Yard as a founder member of the notorious Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), which campaigned to legalise sex with children aged over four in the 1970s.
Righton has written widely on the subject of paedophilia and in 1981, in a publication called Perspectives on Paedophilia, he attacked the ‘moral panic’ over the issue and said that with ‘the child’s willing compliance . . . the sex is unlikely to do much harm’.
Righton went to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he obtained a BA second class honours in philosophy, politics and economics, becoming an MA in 1955. He had earlier served in the Royal Artillery as a lieutenant.
He first worked in the probation service but moved into educational welfare work. In 1964 he was investigated by police for sexually abusing a pupil at Red Hill boarding school for maladjusted boys. At the time Righton contemplated killing himself and wrote several suicide notes in which he admitted the harm he had caused the boy. The case was dropped but Righton kept the notes.
Righton went on to carve a successful career, making no secret of his homosexuality.
Police officers who raided his Evesham cottage found magazines with titles like Boy Love World and love notes in childish handwriting as well as explicit letters from adults who shared his sexual outlook. Among them was convicted child abuser and fellow PIE member, Charles Napier. Righton resigned his posts after the raid.
For months police have been working through the lists of names found in Righton’s diaries, dating back many years.
Righton was, by the time of his arrest, semi-retired, although as a freelance consultant he was still visiting children’s homes across the country.
Recent scandals in residential childcare have led experts to believe that paedophile staff may be ‘networking’ nationally to exchange children and pornography – even protection. But only now are moves afoot to address this problem with investigators planning to meet Mr Herbert Laming, chief inspector of the Social Services Inspectorate, to request a co-ordinated nationwide team.
In the meantime it was left for officers investigating Righton to contact their counterparts in Suffolk to establish why he had gone to live there.
The Henniker estate has been the family home since 1756, a rambling mansion house set in farmland and woods. Day-to-day running of the estate has passed to the Lord’s son and heir Mark, 45, and his wife.