Rosie Waterhouse

The historic sex abuse investigation needs a dose of common sense

The historic sex abuse investigation needs a dose of common sense
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Amid the tidal wave of allegations of ‘historic’ sexual abuse by so-called VIP paedophiles, yet another high-profile police investigation has stalled. Wiltshire Police, who are looking into claims made against the late Sir Edward Heath, revealed two weeks ago that they had released the only other two people arrested, saying they face no further action. Despite this, officers told Radio 4’s Today programme that Operation Conifer ‘remains… an ongoing investigation’ and that ‘there are a significant number of allegations made by a separate number of individuals’. But it’s unclear where else the investigation can go.

Following the abandonment of another probe – that of Operation Midland – by the Metropolitan Police, the former Conservative MP Harvey Proctor is reported to be suing the anonymous witness known only as ‘Nick’, who has accused him and others of decades-old sex crimes. Following an independent review by a retired high court judge, Sir Richard Henriques, Nick has been described as a fantasist. Northumbria Police are also considering whether to charge him for attempting to pervert the course of justice. 

Mr Proctor is now suing the Metropolitan Police for damages; so too are former army chief Lord Bramall and the celebrity DJ Paul Gambaccini, who have also been falsely accused of abuse and face no further action. The claims could collectively cost the Met an estimated £3 million – but the damage and financial cost to these men’s reputations is incalculable. The question is, just how many others are facing historic accusations which are false? 

Police across the UK have been so overwhelmed by the onslaught of child abuse allegations – including current, ‘non-recent’, online and peer-to-peer abuse – that many forces have reached ‘saturation point’, according to Britain’s most senior child protection police officer. Simon Bailey, Chief Constable of the Norfolk Constabulary, is so concerned by the ‘unprecedented volume’ that he has proposed the decriminalisation of offenders who do not pose a physical threat to children, such as those viewing ‘low level’ online child pornography. Instead, they should be dealt with through counselling and rehabilitation, he said in February.

Mr Bailey’s radical suggestion comes in the wake of statistics that are truly staggering. The number of child abuse reports has leapt by 80 per cent in just three years, with police receiving an average of 112 complaints a day. There are now more than 70,000 complaints a year, with forces preparing an estimated 40,000 reports of abuse from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. That inquiry – set up in the wake of revelations that Jimmy Savile was a predatory paedophile – is projected to cost £100 million over the next five years.

Why are so many people coming forward now? Sociologists might call this a moral panic, an 'explosive amplification' of genuine public concern – victims are told they should ‘know they will be believed’. This has been coupled with a burgeoning – and increasingly powerful – survivor movement, a growth in the number of psychotherapists helping the vulnerable recover repressed memories, and compensation specialists at the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers actively soliciting allegations – all fuelled by social media and the anonymous ether of Twitterland.

So how to deal with the sheer volume of accusations, especially when some go back decades? One filter the police could use is plausibility; instead of simply believing victims outright, officers need to consider that some claims might be false, elicited in dubious recovered memory psychotherapy, or motivated by the prospect of compensation. One area in which this should apply is in claims of so-called ‘Satanic ritual abuse’, where accusers claim there is an international network of devil-worshipping paedophiles who breed babies for sacrifice, murder, rape, drink blood and even eat body parts in occult ceremonies. It sounds ridiculous and it is – a government-funded inquiry as far back as 1994 concluded that ritual abuse was a myth. But, incredibly, some recent allegations made to police involve such claims.

Operation Hydrant – set up to oversee investigations of ‘non-recent’ child sex abuse within institutions or by people of public prominence – has looked at some of the most controversial cases. These include the high-profile Operation Midland – which was abandoned after costing a staggering £2.5 million – and the farcical Operation Conifer, which cost more than £1 million.

Last November, the Mail on Sunday reported that four of Sir Edward’s accusers, all women, had shared lurid stories of sexual abuse, child sacrifice and murder in occult ceremonies. A confidential report by Dr Rachel Hoskins, an expert on religion-based ritual crime, who was called in to examine witness statements and other evidence gathered by police, concluded that the Satanic claims were ‘preposterous’ and that the women knew each other well and had ‘swapped tales’.  In February, the Daily Mail reported that the women had talked about possible compensation payouts and that one may even have already submitted a claim.

Despite this, the outlandish allegations against Sir Edward are now common currency in the blogosphere and on Twitter. They include those made by David Icke, the former sports presenter and Green Party spokesman, who alleges that Savile was a Satanist who procured children for the former prime minister and others at the Haut de la Garenne children’s home in Jersey, the subject of an earlier high-profile police investigation.

One common denominator in the VIP Satanic paedophile ring motif is a belief shared by some psychotherapists involved in ‘counselling’ victims. As Dr Hoskins made clear, the main woman accuser who sparked Operation Conifer – known as  Lucy X – recovered her abuse memories while in therapy under hypnosis in the 1980s at the height of the ‘recovered memory’ movement. She also noted that Nick 'had been helped to remember by separate psychotherapists using similar (recovered memory) techniques’.

Clearly Nick and Lucy X have suffered severe issues and possibly need sensitive professional help. But when ‘memories’ turn to Satanic ritual abuse, shouldn’t police exercise some common sense and judgment, especially when investigating a dead former prime minister who cannot defend himself? And, amid the growing mass of historic allegations nationally, shouldn’t police be more sceptical and ask: where’s the evidence?