Cleveland: Unspeakable Truths

The headline summed it up: “Is this the film that should never have been made ?”.

Just as telling was that the article under it – in the TV Times – was the only national press coverage of the film. Ten years after the Cleveland Child Abuse Crisis not a single newspaper reported on a documentary which told – for the first time – the truth about what had happened to the children at the heart of a “scandal” which had gripped and divided the entire country. Not for nothing was the film called “Cleveland: Unspeakable Truths”.

For those too young to recall it – and for those who still do – it’s worth recalling the events as they unfolded.

In the spring of 1987, 121 children from the (then) county of Cleveland – an area of some 583 square km and including the economically depressed towns of Hartlepool, Redcar and Middlesbrough – were taken into temporary local authority care on suspicion of having been sexually abused. Many – in fact the majority – of the children were very young: most were pre-pubescent and in some cases so young (or developmentally delayed) as to be pre-verbal.

This was not just the biggest sexual abuse case Britain had then encountered but the very first involving multiple victims and multiple perpetrators. Others – Rochdale, Orkney, Broxtowe – would follow on in quick succession, but Cleveland was the first and it set the template.

Newspaper coverage that spring led readers to believe that the children had been “snatched” from their parents as the result of a new and untested physical diagnosis – Reflex Anal Dilatation. The press – led by the Daily Mail – reported that two paediatricians, Dr Marietta Higgs and Dr Geoffrey Wyatt, who had recently arrived at Middlesbrough General Hospital had begun using RAD to diagnose sexual abuse on children who had been brought to the hospital for petty and unrelated problems – “a child with a sore finger” became the familiar trope of these stories.

Worse, or so the papers claimed, RAD involved looking up inside children’s bottoms and was a new and “experimental” technique. Cleveland’s senior police surgeon – a local GP called Alistair Irvine, made a series of statements to the media in which he damned both RAD and Drs Higgs and Wyatt. He was backed by local MP Stuart Bell who gave a succession of highly inflammatory interviews to local television stations.

The media response was swift and overwhelming. Reporters from national newspapers, radio and television descended on Middlesbrough. The Daily Mail alone sent seven. And what were these journalists looking for ? One thing and one thing only – “innocent parents” wrongly parted from their children. And these parents – aided by Stuart Bell who had become their self-appointed champion – quickly told (and frequently sold) their stories. In a matter of weeks Cleveland went from being a small local story to a national “scandal”. All the papers and broadcasters repeated the parents claims and Stuart Bell’s allegations, and viciously attacked the paediatricians. They, along with Cleveland Council’s most senior child abuse advisor Sue Richardson, were ordered by their employers not to give any interviews or make any comment to the media.

The Tory government set up a judicial enquiry under Lord Justice (Elizabeth) Butler Sloss. The enquiry sat for a year, heard evidence from parents, social services, police, doctors, nurses and – without any apparent unease – from a champion of paedophile rights, Ralph Underwager. It cost £5 million.

But there was one very odd aspect to the enquiry. Its remit from Whitehall prohibited it from asking – let alone answering – the most important question of all: how many of the 121 children at the centre of the crisis had been abused ?

By the time the enquiry report was close to publication I had made a high-profile documentary (and written a book) about child pornography. I approached Marietta Higgs to ask if she would, on the day of publication, be interviewed by me for ITN News. After a week of negotiation it was agreed that she would do one television interview (with me), one radio interview for Woman’s Hour and speak to one newspaper (The Guardian).

I was freelance and arranged to do the interview at the studios of Tyne Tees, ITV’s franchise in the north-east. It would be quicker to feed the piece down to ITN from Newcastle than to film it and bike the tape down to London.

I read the Butler Sloss report from cover to cover. I was – given the prevailing public story – surprised to see that it did not suggest anywhere that Drs Higgs and Wyatt had wrongly diagnosed the 121 children, nor that RAD had been the sole medical evidence in most cases. The report also made clear that no child was recorded as a suspected victim of sexual abuse on medical evidence alone: Butler-Sloss had heard a wealth of testimony from social services indicating that in the vast majority of cases, there were serious concerns about the children’s welfare long before they were seen at Middlesbrough General Hospital.

The report did criticise the doctors for the problems their diagnoses caused at the hospital which had been overwhelmed. It placed restrictions on them working on child abuse cases. But it reserved its most serious and stinging criticism for Stuart Bell MP, who it found had made false ad inflammatory statements about the parents, the children and the doctors – and refused to correct them even when presented with the evidence. It also strongly criticised Alastair Irvine, the police surgeon who had been instrumental in sparking the crisis.

The headlines that afternoon (and the next morning) were extraordinary: they bore no resemblance to the findings of the report. “Sack Her” [Marietta Higgs] was one of the more moderate. I interviewed Dr Higgs – calmly and politely for half an hour. I put to her all the criticism in the report and the complaints made by the parents. She answered honestly and frankly.

While the tape was being fed to London, I was approached by Tyne Tees news journalists and by the news anchor. The former screamed at me that I had “let Higgs off the hook”; the anchor threatened to beat me up. ITN ran the interview that evening.

Eight years later I was working at Yorkshire Television’s documentaries department – the best place in the world to make serious and important films. I had produced one such film two years earlier about a major child sexual abuse network in the United States [Conspiracy of Silence – there are references on this site to this] which had been pulled by its funder, The Discovery Channel. Perhaps that should have warned me.

I happened to meet Sue Richardson at a child abuse conference during the summer of 1996. In passing she mentioned that she was very concerned about what had happened to the Cleveland children. For the next six months I quietly spoke to as many people involved in the crisis as I could. A picture quickly emerged: many – probably most – of the 121 children had been returned to their parents, even where there was clear evidence of sexual abuse. In an alarming number of cases there was a convicted sex offender living in the house – one of the trigger factors for Sue Richardson’s initial concerns. The court system had broken down under the weight of hostile news reporting: one judge refused to allow evidence “relating to children’s bottoms” in his court room. Children had been sent back to parents about whom there was a lengthy history of concern. And then there was RAD itself.

It turned out that this was not some new and experimental technique, as alleged by the police surgeon and Stuart Bell, but was more than 100 years old and was formally included in the Association of Police Surgeons’ own manual as a diagnostic tool raising suspicions of sexual abuse and requiring further enquiries if it was observed.

Late in 1997, with the wholehearted agreement of Yorkshire Television’s Head of Documentaries, I pitched the idea for a documentary about Cleveland to Channel 4. It agreed to commission the film and we went into production: Channel 4 was to pay to Yorkshire TV the sum of £150,00 to produce it and a first instalment was transferred to the company’s coffers.

My colleagues and I spent nearly three months researching and investigating. We met and informally interviewed everyone who would speak to us. Stuart Bell MP and Alastair Irvine refused point blank.

We also advertised for parents who had been caught up in the crisis. Only two came forward: a mother whose children had been sexually abused by their father (he was convicted of the abuse) and ho had tried – in vain – to get her story heard by reporters back in 1987, and a couple whose children had been among the first to be taken into care. We were also contacted by a young woman from the area who had been sexually abused by her father at the time but who was not part of the 121 taken into care.

At some point a large brown parcel arrived for us at Yorkshire TV’s studios. Anonymously-sent, it contained all the social service evidence relating to the 121 children which had been presented in camera to Butler-Sloss. This posed a dilemma: although the children’s identities had been hidden by code letters in these documents, simply by receiving them – let alone broadcasting their contents -we were committing a serious offence. Yet the evidence in the documents clearly answered the question Butler-Sloss had been forced to duck: had these children been abused ? The papers showed that the children had long histories of involvement with social services and painstakingly documented injuries. In many cases a convicted paedophile was living in their houses, and many had made very convincing disclosures of sexual activity with adults. In the end, and with Yorkshire TV’s backing, we decided they were too important to throw away.

We drove to Northallerton on a Wednesday evening, ready to begin filming the following day. At 6pm I was phoned by Yorkshire Television’s Head of Documentaries: the company’s Director of Programmes – essentially his direct boss – had issued an instruction that we were to abandon all filming and that I was to tell Channel 4 that Yorkshire TV would not make the documentary. It turned out that Stuart Bell MP had leaned on the Director of Programmes. It was a surreal – and deeply disturbing – moment. When I spoke to Channel 4 its commissioning editor couldn’t believe his ears.

Happily, Chanel 4 was then a far more serious broadcaster than it is now. Within days it had brokered a deal whereby my own production company would make the film; I would take leave of absence from Yorkshire TV to do so, and – under pain of having its lucrative daytime Countdown quiz-programme terminated by Channel 4 – Yorkshire TV would then take me back on a longer contract. The row even made the front page of the industry’s trade magazine.

But our troubles were nothing compared to those of Drs Higgs and Wyatt or Sue Richardson. The health authorities for whom the paediatricians worked refused them permission to be interviewed, and Sue Richardson was informed by her then employer – a child welfare charity – that if she appeared in it she would be dismissed. She resigned instead – and her interview was vital in conveying the truth about Cleveland.

Two telling sections of the film summed up the entire crisis. The first was a section which showed file footage of one of the Cleveland parents making an emotional appeal on a breakfast television programme: in it – and egged on by host Anne Diamond – he said he had never abused his children and demanded they be allowed home. Yet the truth was that he had been convicted of buggering his children – sometimes in front of his wife: apparently that truth was ignored by Ms Diamond and her team.

The second was the discovery that in the wake of the Butler-Sloss enquiry, the Department of Health ordered all records of all the children as a group to be destroyed. When we asked for an explanation, the Department refused to comment.

Just what was Cleveland really about ? For me it was clear: it was about the plight of children – some just toddlers – who were abused and – briefly – rescued; then re-abused by a child protection system which could not bear the pressure from politicians and press. The truth of what happened to those children was too difficult to hear. Which is why we called the film Cleveland: Unspeakable Truths.

by Tim Tate – Producer/Director of Cleveland: Unspeakable Truths

  1. @Tim extraordinary and shocking and the scale yet again even more shocking….

  2. @Tim Tate @murun i watched this video. There is a glitch in It where a section repears But no matter. An extraodinary document imust say. Straight After watching i googled marietta higgs to see anything written about then and Now eg wikipedia and the. Daily hate. as its known as. I came across a blogsite called spiked or something and It had ‘cleveland -dont let them rewrite this case. However for some reason three mobile have blocked this. I am using my handset as my laptop not workinh. I am.aware some blosites are being blocked by some providers. Ok so murun and Tim what is response here?

  3. murunbuch said:

    Aware of glitch – thanks. Trying to fix it

  4. gojam said:

    Very informative article. Thank you.

  5. Len said:

    This is a shocking watch, the children became invisible. Be interested to read the book Stuart Bell MP wrote about this saga, will be a good guide on obfuscation and mis-information.

    • Bell’s book was called “When Salem Came to The Borough”. It is a shockingly inaccurate and misleading book.

  6. Tim, what happened to the files you were given. Were they passed to the police?

    • The police already had these files. Unfortunately, and largely because of the hostility of the police surgeon, the police essentially withdrew from joint investigations involving Cleveland Social Services.

  7. Once again a horrific catalogue of the way, ‘the authorities’ end up completely subjugating the original intent of what should have been a straightforward Child Social Services issue. I have read a reasonable amount on the Cleveland Case (not Bell’s book though) and if I remember rightly it was one of the first major cases where SRA was also a key component in some of the testimonies, and this served to further ‘muddy the waters’ of the whole affair. On May 21, 2007 Higgs said in an interview with BBC Look North that she would do the same again based on the facts and also said that she suspected the numbers being abused were even greater than the 121 named. What is a major fact now is that the children who were at the heart of the case, are now adults and well able to talk candidly and truthfully about the actual facts of the individual cases, should they so wish. I think that there is a definite case to hold another Inquiry into Cleveland, based on these adult’s views. But ONLY if the majority so wish. Their lives were destroyed enough at the time, they may just want to put the whole business behind them.

    • The suggestion that SRA was involved in Cleveland came largely from those who denied the existence of it (including Prof. Jean LaFontaine). I never came across any evidence that children caught up in the Cleveland Crisis had made any disclosures of any ritual element.

      TIM TATE

  8. 33hertz said:

    Once again murun and Tim, thanks for telling this side of the story about the Cleveland abuse. I too come from a family in this area, having had an abusive father (although we lived in the USA when it occurred).
    Also huge respect for producing Conspiracy of Silence, bravo sir!

    • That’s very kind of you. But honestly, the respect and credit is entirely due to those who lived through all these events and had the bravery to stand up and tell someone.

  9. Len said:

    Hmmmm, I am behind the curve here but this is the same Stuart Bell that appeared on the MM list isn’t it.

    • murunbuch said:

      You’re right – there is a Stuart Bell on the list but I’m not sure if it’s the same person

  10. Stephen Brown said:

    Tim, can you tell me when the film was made and shown. I remember the title but can’t remember the year.

    • It was made and shown in 1998 on Channel 4.

  11. Sembin said:

    Maybe you should have asked some of the children involved about what happened, before writing this article. Some of us were old enough to be able to tell you exactly what happened!

  12. Thank you for your unstinting documentation of the child abuse network that runs the UK. The bad news is that it is closely attached to the Royal family and protected by MI5 and Mi6 internationally as child abuse is the best blackmail game in town. Sometimes they blackmail each other and the israelis are the champs.

  13. JM said:

    impossible to know what to believe. i certainly don’t have any ;evel of ‘trust’ in anything anymore, ‘cept for the obvious that those with power will conue abusing that power…from the lowly SS and the standard level pigyobs to the two faced shits that steal our money whilst lounging about in parliament.

    but FFS…..RAD is sexually abusing a child….i remember reading dat she bitch used to practice it on her own children before inflciting it on others, and the husband just sat and watched. neither never prosecuted obviously. the pair of them deserve to burn in hell for eternity.

    • Angela said:

      It never ceases to amaze me how people who know so little about somthing nevertheless express the most extreme views on it. RAD does not constitute sexual abuse. It is an observation made by a doctor of a physiical finding during visual examination. There was, therfore, nothing for Dr Higgs to “practice” on anyone, her own children or otherwise.
      You seem to have missed the point of this whole article – that the press reports at the time were sensationalised nonsense, and amounted to character assasination of the doctors and social workers involved for raising the suspicion of sexual abuse, and removing these children to a place of safety (the hospital) while police inquiries were supposed to be carried out (but weren’t, as a result of Dr Irvine’s views).
      I am a solicitor who represented Dr Higgs at the Cleveland Inquiry, and dealt with the subsequent damages claims made by the children’s parents agaisnt the Health Authority which employed Dr Higgs and Wyatt. The doctors had to watch that Authority pay damages to those parents, just because the press response to the “scandal” had brought about a situation where the courts decided they should all be returned home, and the Authority felt the claims could not be successfully defended.
      Thank you Tim for an excellent article, and for having the courage and perseverance to pursue the untold truths behind this issue.
      I would hope that, with the benefit of knowledge of the events which followed (Rochdale,Orkney, Saville etc), and the greater public awareness of child sexual abuse that exists now, the public (and possibly even the press) response to the Cleveland “crisis” would be very different today. But there is always a difficulty when MPs, Clergy and the great and the good mobilise to take a stand on one side or the other, before the inquiry into the facts has even begun.
      I challenged several of the reporters who sat throught the Cleveland inquiry as to why they never reported any of the evidence that pointed to the fact that the doctors were right (even though such evidence was overwhelming) and why they only reported things which suggested the contrary. I never got a satisfactory answer. This entirely biased slant persisted even after the Butler Sloss report was published. I don’t remember reading a single report which said that the doctors were not criticised for the diagnoses they reached, only for being insufficiently sympathetic in dealing with the parents when they communicated thier concerns about the children having been abused. But that would have involved the press accepting that they had villified the doctors inappropriately.

      • Sembin said:

        Know this! I was one of those children, i was never abused in anyway by my family! That women destroyed my childhood and ripped my family apart. The doctors and social workers involved should feel grateful they got of so lightly!

      • JM said:

        it never ceases to amaze me either how people like you can persist with such nonsense either! highly educated morons who get a thing stuck in their heads and even when shown the truth they just keep pouring flammable liquids on to the flames….
        looking at a child’s anus/ sticking a finger up doesn’t constitute sexual abuse? what the f*** is wrong with you?

        there really is no point trying to reason with people of this mentality Sembin.

        and i was actually abused as a child and still am far more as an adult. the child stuff was relatively minor, nevertheless it really does screw you up for rest of life

      • Lindsey said:

        You should listen to the children not the doctors ! Being one of the innocent children that was caught up in this massive disgusting scandal we now as adults should be able to confront why the doctors repeatedly examined us if there evidence was so strong !

  14. Lindsey said:

    People will always make there own decisions and assumptions of what happened but the truth is that innocent parents and children still got caught up in doctors studying and the doctors themselves were the ones abusing children ! They shouldn’t of been able to be around children again !!!

  15. Lindsey said:


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