The Sunday Herald (Glasgow), 9th October 2005
IF the Social Work Inspection Agency thought that its definitive report into the Lewis child sex abuse scandal would be the final word on the whole sordid matter, it was sadly mistaken.
By yesterday afternoon, just over 24 hours after the agency’s long-awaited report was published, it was clear that neither the children at the centre of the case nor the adults who were arrested then released without charge would regard the case as final until a conviction was secured.
The Sunday Herald has discovered that the children are exploring the possibility of lodging a private prosecution against their alleged abusers – a move that has the full support of Labour MSP for the Western Isles, Alasdair Morrison. The adults are meanwhile consulting their respective solicitors with a view to investigating what further action can be taken to clear their names, still sullied by the fact that nobody has yet been found guilty of the prolonged sexual abuse which the report concluded had clearly been committed.
The agency’s report, rather than bringing an end to the matter, looks set to open another chapter in the case as recriminations continue to swirl throughout the Western Isles and further afield.
The public was first alerted to the disturbing case in October 2003 when police and social services carried out dawn raids on a series of addresses on Lewis and in England. Operation Haven saw charges including rape and lewd and libidinous practices against three young girls brought against eight men, four of them living on the island, and a 75-year-old grandmother. Allegations soon emerged of ritual abuse – a Satanic paedophile ring with echoes of similar allegations uncovered in Orkney and Cleveland. Like Cleveland and Orkney, the Lewis case was to descend into acrimony after an inconclusive investigation.
Despite an operation involving more than 100 police officers across four forces amassing some 222,000 pages of documentation, in July last year the prosecution collapsed after the Crown Office said it believed the case would not stand up in court. It confirmed that all charges had, indeed, been dropped.
A Crown Office spokeswoman said last night there had been a problem with the “quality and the quantity” of the evidence. She added that for another criminal prosecution to take place “very strong new evidence” would have to emerge.
Colin Mackenzie, president of Association of Directors of Social Work, said “serious questions” had to be asked of the Crown Office as to why a prosecution was not taking place. He said he would write to Elish Angiolini, the solicitor-general, asking her to “clarify her position” on the matter.
“Whoever abused these kids is sitting somewhere in the UK and is a threat to children, ” Mackenzie said. “The Crown Office has to be called to account. We can’t have a situation in Scotland where experts are saying that children have been abused and nothing follows on from that.”
Morrison is also set to write to the Crown Office to ask “how this case cannot be taken to its ultimate conclusion as it should have been, given the body of evidence that exists”.
The nine who were charged, and who protested their innocence throughout, found themselves ostracised by many in the close-knit community. People shouted abuse in the street and the walls of their homes were daubed with graffiti. The trauma was such that one of the accused, Peter Nelson, attempted suicide.
They had hoped they would be vindicated in the agency report, but were to be bitterly disappointed.
In fact, the agency report is unambiguous in backing the children’s allegations that they were abused. It paints a horrific picture of abuse: between 1991 and 2000, inspectors found the girls had suffered more than 220 indicators of sexual, physical and emotional abuse as well as neglect.
The report claimed that almost 100 health professionals had contact with the family at the centre of the allegations over the years. It also alleged that the abuse at the hands of men and women continued despite this contact. On some occasions, money was said to exchange hands between adults after the alleged abuse had occurred.
The neglect also allegedly involved one child eating cat food because she was starving, and another sleeping in a cupboard, according to the report. It also claimed that one child had gone without shoes while money had been squandered on a computer.
Children were also said to have been burned by cigarettes, beaten and had often soiled themselves at school.
Perhaps most damning of all was the finding that the main suspect had been classified as “high risk” in England having been convicted of indecent assault of a nine-year-old girl in 1986. The mother of the girls was also said to have been a past victim of sexual abuse, an alleged abuser and having learning difficulties.
But when the family moved to the Outer Hebrides in 1995, a social worker reclassified the father as “low risk” because vital records were not passed on by social services in England.
A major shake-up over how allegations of child sex abuse are investigated in future is at the heart of the 162-page report. It also criticises social workers on Lewis for not acting sooner.
But it says the children should have been listened to more and that keeping the family together – as was the ethos following the Orkney child abuse inquiry – was flawed in this case.
Malcolm Smith, director of social work at Western Isles Council, said that the whole case was “incredibly complex”.
“The report makes uncomfortable reading, but we knew it would. We accept all the recommendations that were made in it.”
It is understood that the three children asked for the report to be published in full so that their horrific story of abuse could at last be told – and believed.
Those who were originally accused had been hoping for some crumb of evidence that would remove them from suspicion, but it was not forthcoming.
“There’s things in there that are so totally wrong, there’s things omitted. It’s what is not in the report that hurts me most, ” David Disney, one of those arrested in October 2003, said yesterday.
Disney refused to accept many of the agency’s conclusions, saying it was “absolutely not” the last word on the case.
“What most of us are asking for is a public inquiry because there’s so many question marks. In fact, the report’s raised more questions than it’s solved.”
Disney, who has since moved to England, said at one point the report says the children were taken into care by relatives, when the foster carers were he and his wife, a fact that required extensive police checks but omitted from the report.
Similarly, he claims to have had “fantastic” school reports and reports from the children’s charity NCH detailing the children’s progress under their foster care – documents which would testify to his character, he believes.
He variously described aspects of the report as “farcical”, “suspect” and said that it contained conflicting elements. He is investigating legal avenues “because I can’t just sit back and take it”.
“A lot of the recommendations that they make I can’t disagree with. But I should have a chance to put things right, and if I could afford it the first thing I would do would be to have social services into court.
“We are victims, and it’s not right. Our lives have been ruined. I’m not saying that the girls’ lives haven’t, of course they have. But we’re human beings too.”
Another of those originally accused, Peter Nelson, was less defiant but equally dismayed by the report. “We have been up all night expecting more attacks on our house, ” he said yesterday. “The way they’ve done [the report] hasn’t laid this to rest. There’s a big error here and it needs putting right.”
Nelson and his 38-year-old daughter Mary-Anne moved to the Lochs area of Lewis in 1998. The following year he bought some chickens from Mr and Mrs A, as the report refers to the main accused – “the worst thing I ever did”, Nelson said.
Later, Mrs A came to Nelson a number of times for help, saying that her husband was abusing the children and asking if she could come and live with him. He contacted social services with his concerns about the children’s welfare and even had a meeting with them – a key point, he asserts, which is not mentioned in the report.
Nelson’s contention is that in June 1999, he and Mary-Anne spent two hours in a meeting with social services detailing their concerns about Mr and Mrs A, after Mrs A told them “such a story we were gob-smacked”.
“We went there and told them there was a problem. The father was very abrupt with the children. The children looked neglected and the house was terrible.”
He added: “We voiced our concerns about them children; I don’t understand why social services haven’t said we went there. The lies that are there, you wouldn’t believe it.”
Nelson too said he would contact his solicitor to investigate what action, if any, he can take over the report’s conclusions. He also wants to see a public inquiry get to the root of what happened.
“I feel sorry for the children. My heart was broken when I read about the kids – but that’s why we went to social services in the first place, ” he said. “If they had listened to me on the day I went there, probably none of this would have happened.”
If there is one positive aspect to take from the case, it is that the children, who are with new foster parents on the island, are said to be “thriving”. The same cannot be said of everyone who has been touched by this case. No-one, it is safe to say, can move on until someone is found guilty.
1990: Mr and Mrs A got married.
1990: Their eldest girl who was 14 months old and living in England at the time was put on the child protection register.
1990-1995: English social services convened 12 child protection case conferences.
1995: The parents of Family A moved their three children from England to Lewis in the Western Isles where five social workers were assigned to their case.
1995-2001: Western Isles social services department convened 17 child protection case conferences.
1998: The eldest child of Family A was taken into foster care.
2001: The other two children of Family A were placed in foster care.
2002: Allegations of abuse were made.
2003: Operation Haven saw dawn raids being carried out at homes in England and the Western Isles where 13 men and women were arrested and nine were eventually charged with offences that included rape and lewd and libidinous behaviour.
2004: The Crown Office said there was insufficient evidence against them and all charges were dropped.
2004: Western Isles Council invited social work inspectors to carry out a review of the case.