Most people’s memory of the Cleveland child abuse scandal in 1987 would be of a nationionwide media storm involving ‘falsely accused’ parents whose children had been taken away by over-zealous social workers who had misdiagnosed child sexual abuse.
But the truth was much darker. The majority of the children had been sexually abused and many were subsequently made to return to the homes they were abused in. The Department of Health “actively withheld and concealed” evidence from an independent panel which showed that 93 of the 121 Cleveland children had been found by the courts to be at risk of abuse. In 1989, the Department of Health destroyed all records relating to the children. Within two years of the original controversy, many of the children had been re-referred to social services.
Frank Cook, Labour MP for Stockton on Tees, said: “I’m astonished and dumbfounded. Had we known what I have only just now learnt, then it would have made a major difference to the Children’s Act and to attitudes to abuse”.
The Butler-Sloss inquiry into the Cleveland case heard evidence from an American ‘child abuse expert’ called Ralph Underwager. He spoke out on behalf of the ‘falsely accused’ parents and many of his recommendations made their way into the Butler-Sloss report. The Butler-Sloss report, as Frank Cook pointed out, went on to influence both Children’s Act and also the subsequent handling of countless child abuse inquiries.
Examples of evidence submitted by Ralph Underwager that ended up in the Butler-Sloss inquiry report:
12.9 p 205 Dr Underwager warned us of the risks of children being fed with information provided by adults. he told us of the incidence of false allegations by children in the United states and suggested that 65 percent of all reports were unfounded. he also suggested that they were not the result of most children telling lies but the effect upon children of the information derived from adults, sometimes as a result of the method of imterviewing. research, particularly in the USA has shown that the incidence of false accusations appears to be sustantially higher in custody and access disputes than in other cases.
Here are some extracts from the interview, which can be found here:
Underwager: Paedophiles can boldly and courageously affirm what they choose. They can say that what they want is to find the best way to love….Paedophiles can make the assertion that the pursuit of intimacy and love is what they choose. With boldness they can say, “I believe this is in fact part of God’s will
Paidika: Is choosing paedophilia for you a responsible choice for the individuals?
Underwager: Certainly it is responsible. What I have been struck by as I have come to know more about and understand people who choose paedophilia is that they let themselves be too much defined by other people. That is usually an essentially negative definition. Paedophiles spend a lot of time and energy defending their choice. I don’t think that a paedophile needs to do that. Paedophiles can boldly and courageously affirm what they choose. They can say that what they want is to find the best way to love. I am also a theologian and as a theologian, I believe it is God’s will that there be closeness and intimacy, unity of the flesh, between people. A paedophile can say: “This closeness is possible for me within the choices that I’ve made.”
Paedophiles are too defensive. They go around saying, “You people out there are saying that what I choose is bad, that it’s no good. You’re putting me in prison, you’re doing all these terrible things to me. I have to define my love as being in some way or other illicit.” What I think is that paedophiles can make the assertion that the pursuit of intimacy and love is what they choose. With boldness, they can say, “I believe this is in fact part of God’s will.” They have the right to make these statements for themselves as personal choices. Now whether or not they can persuade other people they are right is another matter (laughs).
Ralph Underwager was a prolific defence expert for people accused of child sexual abuse, and helped countless abusers walk free. By the late 1980s, he had appeared in court on behalf of defendants in child sexual abuse cases more than 200 times in the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Britain (including the Cleveland case). In court and in the media, Underwager claimed that 60% of women sexually abused in childhood reported that the experience was good for them,he characterized child protection investigations as nothing less than an “assault on the family as an institution”and he alleged that 75% of mothers alleging sexual abuse in custody proceedings suffered from a “severe personality disorder” that prompted them to manufacture false allegations.
The Daily Mail, who led the way with the ‘falsely accused parents’ narrative and hounded the paediatricians who had disagnosed sexual abuse, published an interview with Underwager (who they called “a huge genial presence”) when he gave evidence to the Butler-Sloss inquiry.
Daily Mail, 14th December 1987
“The tragedy of Cleveland, whether mistakes were made or not, is that where social workers and doctors were attempting to tackle the problem, suddenly this great attack was unleashed upon them. The message to other doctors and social workers….is don’t get into this. The popular press will go for you and, sadly, a Labour MP will go for you and attack you in the House of Commons.” – Clare Short MP
Cleveland abuse children ‘were sexually assaulted’ (25.05.97)
Into the arms of the abusers (25.05.97)
Tim Tate’s documentary: Cleveland: Unspeakable truths
Child abuse expert says paedophilia part of ‘God’s will’ (19.12.93)
An Australian TV documentary ‘Witness for Mr Bubbles’ gives a good idea of the type of ‘falsely accused’ people that Underwager was paid to defend.
Tim Tate’s ‘Unspeakable Truths’ documentary on Cleveland. Read accompanying article here: