Analysing Aaronovitch: a sceptical narrative

Prosecution and conviction rates for sexual crime are lamentably low in the UK. If David Aaronovitch cares about 'genuine abuse', why isn't this what worries him more? Part Two.

Beatrix Campbell
17 June 2015

Newspaper front pages on Jimmy Savile's crimes. Credit: Raver Mikey/Flickr

This is the second part of a two-part article. Read part one

The first tests of the new era were in the northern county of Cleveland, (my book on this case, Unofficial Secrets, is being updated for electronic publication this year), and in Nottingham.  They combusted over medical signs in Cleveland, and children’s stories of abuse in Nottingham. Actually, these crises were triggered by police resistance to the medical signs and stories, and their reluctance to investigate them. Unofficial secrets Credit: Beatrix Campbell

In the BBC Radio 4 programme Analysis, Ritual Sexual Abuse: The Anatomy of a Panic, Aaronovitch anchors his sceptical narrative in Nottingham, 'it became crucial,' he said. It was only after the conviction of 10 adults in February 1989 that ritual abuse was aired. Until then there had been no mention of any satanic element, he said, 'those allegations came later.'  His witness, another journalist, Rosie Waterhouse, claimed that 'satanic indicators' were used by staff and the children's foster carers; and 'leading questions' by social workers 'put words into the mouths of babes'.

The ideas were 'unbelievable' and 'also untrue' added Aaronovitch, and they converged with another phenomenon among adults: therapists encouraging recovered or false memories of abuse. Ideas were being put into the heads of troubled children and women. Here is journalist Tim Tate’s alternative account. Tate and the child abuse scholar Sarah Nelson had an unhappy time contributing to this programme.

I made a documentary about the Nottingham case in 1990. This is the Nottingham timeline: in 1987 children were received into care from an extended family with a long history of inter-generational sexual abuse, including criminal convictions. Once safe, these children began talking to their new foster carers about their lives, their parents’ sexual abuse, witch parties and their worries about other children. Their evidence, and the testimony of foster parents and social workers was heard in wardship court proceedings in 1988. 

Mrs Justice Booth, in her judgement, described the culture of the abuse as 'satanic' - her word. In July 1988 three Appeal Court judges endorsed that conclusion and Sir Stephen Brown, in an unusual public judgement, reported in the press on 19 July 1988, said that children 'had been subjected to gross sexual abuse at the hands of adults, sometimes at parties, where full intercourse had taken place in the presence of a number of adults and other children'

He said that there were instances which Mrs Justice Booth had accepted as having happened, which could only be described as ‘satanic’. Why was this important? Because the judges were signalling the culture of abuse and thus the risk to other children. The social workers regarded this as endorsement of their statutory duty to  ensure that the risk to other children was investigated and - unusually in those days - that the judgement should be handed to the police for further investigation. The accused adults, who had now lost their children, had tried to block that story. 

In 1989 ten adults were convicted on the basis of evidence that children were being ‘sadistically abused and tortured and being forced to watch other children suffering in a similar way.’ They were forced to eat excrement and drink urine, watch other children forced into sexual intercourse ‘over a prolonged period and in an organised manner’. These words are taken from the Director of Social Services report on the case - and the controversy - to Nottinghamshire County Council  on 7 November 1990.

It wasn’t social workers or foster carers who decided that there was ‘satanic’ abuse, it was the judges in 1988. 

Implanted memories and accusations

Aaronovitch also relies on the American journalist Debbie Nathan, whose 1995 book Satan’s Silence, reports that ‘an investigation of the Nottingham charges concluded that they were unfounded,’ and ‘a report’ revealed that the children’s talk of animals, witches and blood was ‘probably triggered by toys’. That report was by a Joint Enquiry Team commissioned following the criminal trial (after Mrs Justice Booth and the Appeal Court judges allowed the evidence to be shared with the police) in response to conflict between social workers and police over the children’s evidence.  

So, what about that JET report: it was internally published in 1990 and leaked to Central TV before the workers involved had read it or had a chance to respond. It proposed that the foster carers and social workers had ‘created’ the evidence and encouraged the children to believe it. But these notions were rejected by every judge in the Nottingham case. According to the Director’s report on 7 November, Judge Morrison, in a satellite case, found it ‘ludicrous’ to suggest that a foster carer had ‘led the children or put ideas into their heads’. Indeed the foster carer’s record of the children, said Judge Morrison, was ‘the most eloquent testimony I have ever heard or seen in a case of this sort.'   

Front page of the director's report Credit: Beatrix CampbellThe Director’s report followed my Channel 4 Dispatches documentary on the Nottingham case in October 1990; it scrutinised the JET report and interviewed the academic John Newson who gave JET its line on fantasy, confabulation, and staff brainwashing children. However, when I asked whether he had actually talked to the foster carers or social workers, he admitted that he had not. Unlike Aaronovitch, Waterhouse or Nathan, my documentary interviewed social workers, and foster carers. I also interviewed adults in the family who had been convicted and who corroborated the children’s evidence.

The 7 November 1990  report by the Director of Social Services was the last official word: it rejected the JET report and explained the social workers view of the abuse the children had endured: ’we cannot say’ whether ritual events were ‘true’ or whether children ‘were deliberately misled into believing they had happened’. The Director agreed with the workers directly involved  that ‘the significance of ritual overtones is not necessarily linked to a belief system but that it provided a mechanism for manipulating vulnerable children.’ His report accepted the social workers’ definition of ritual abuse as activities and symbols ‘used to frighten, intimidate and confuse the children.'

Aaronovitch, Waterhouse and Nathan suppress this history. None of it matters - something is more important to them than the sequence of events. They are wrong and irrelevant. 

Repressed memory, false memory and false accusations

This, said Aaronovitch was his worry now. Good intentions could lead to ‘bad theory,’ he said. ‘One such theory is repressed memory… an event so traumatic  that it can be buried.’  There is no suggestion, as far as I am aware, that the  VIP or historic abuse cases involve any forgetting or remembering. 

Undaunted, Aaronovitch enlists Harvard psychologist, Prof Richard McNally as if they were an issue in the current historic cases: he introduces Prof McNally as the authority, not as a participant in what are known as the ‘memory wars’. 

Victims of terror and sexual abuse, ’tend to recall these very well,’ said McNally, ‘people in the holocaust did not forget,’ and victims of sexual abuse wish they could forget. Of course many survivors would be reassured by this affirmation. But what about survivors who did not remember? World War I yielded evidence of ‘shell shock’, trauma and amnesia. Similar symptoms have been reported among war veterans ever since, from Vietnam to Iraq. There have been huge debates, then and now, not least because of the weighty political and compensation consequences.

There are corroborated cases. More recently clinicians, most famously Bessel van der Kolk in the US, have studied the neurology of trauma and amnesia among survivors of sexual abuse. The eminent Harvard therapist Judith Lewis Herman writes, ‘On the one hand, traumatised people remember too much; on the other hand, they remember too little.’  For Herman, ‘The conflict between knowing and not knowing, speech and silence, remembering and forgetting, is the central dialectic of psychological trauma’. 

This is also a gendered conflict: rape and combat can be considered ‘complementary social rites of initiation’, argues Herman in her classic book Trauma and Recovery, ‘they are the paradigmatic forms of trauma for women and men.’ 

Lawyers have noted, too, the ferocity and the gendering of these conflicts in the courtroom:  Brooks Cooper, a legal specialist in the US, reports that in the ‘long lineage’ of research on veterans’ amnesia, ‘little if any argues that vets did not suffer traumatic amnesia’; but it is when ‘the underlying trauma is sexual abuse that some theoreticians become uneasy.’ 

Suggestibility and false memory

McNally fires another another bullet for Aaronovitch: ’untrue recollections can be implanted,’ and, Aaronovitch adds, if adults are suggestible, that’s ‘doubly so for children.’  Are they? That, too, is a question that has roused much research and debate.

Aaronovitch’s other witness from the ‘memory wars’, Debbie Nathan, is a protagonist in the suggestibility controversy, the memory wars, debates about ritual abuse, therapy, and ‘cross-generational sex’ . Her book Satan’s Silence thanks a Lutheran psychologist, Ralph Underwager, a prolific witness for defendants in sexual abuse cases in the 1980s, and hails the organisation he founded, the False Memory  Syndrome Foundation, as ‘the main organised resistance’ to the idea of recovered or repressed memories. It was also the main anti-feminist resistance in the US and later in the UK to women’s evidence of childhood abuse. 

In February 1995 I wrote ‘Mind Games’, a feature for The Guardian about the false memory movement, its leaders, and the first cases to appear on the UK horizon. I think it was the first and only piece in the British press that actually interviewed both accusers and accused. In none of these very public cases had any of these women had ever forgotten - including the first case in which false memory was mobilised successfully in court by the defence. 

Nathan published her book in 1994. By then Underwager had already been discredited, caught out on two fronts: by his own words, and by forensic scrutiny. 

In 1993 the Dutch paedophile journal Paidika published an interview with Underwager and his partner Holida Wakefield in which he said, ‘Paedophiles can boldly and courageously affirm what they choose.’ They were ‘too defensive’, they should argue ‘boldly and courageously'  that sex with children ‘could be seen as God’s will.

Wakefield is more cautious and critical and warns that, in any case, any attempt to affirm sex between adults and children would lose them their licenses in the US. However, asked by Paidika editor Joseph Geraci whether they believe sex between adults and children would be abusive, she replies, ‘no,’ it could range from ‘neutral to harmful.’ 

That interview caused a crisis for the false memory advocates. But not apparently for Debbie Nathan. She writes that elsewhere they expressed a conservative view of the family which holds that ‘cross-generational sex’  for the ‘ younger party’ cannot be positive. Nathan comments, ‘the scientific data indicate otherwise.’ Again, this school of thought is contested.  

According to a US appellate court, in their books Underwager and Wakefield ‘conclude that most accusations of child sexual abuse stem from memories implanted by faulty clinical techniques rather than from sexual contact between children and adults.’ 

So alarmed were lawyers professionals by Underwager’s behaviour  behaviour, that psychologist Anna Salter was funded to research his sources and references: did they say what he said they said? After she studied them and reported that they didn’t, Underwager sued her - and several other experts, as well as the National Centre for the Prosecution of Child Abuse and the American Prosecutors’ Institute.

In 1994 the US Court of Appeals 7th Circuit found against Underwager.

A year later Nathan’s book - notwithstanding this outcome -  said that Underwager was proved ‘correct’ about the issues ‘testified to in ritual abuse cases during the 1980s.’

The new McCarthyism

Aaronovitch cautions that people allowed stories ‘to outstrip the facts’ and that once again a ‘credulous’ media is falling for it. But what stories, and where is the nefariat nesting? He doesn’t say. 

Historic abuse cases that are shaking the institutions tell a different story.

The secrets and sovereignty of great institutions shudder, from the BBC to the church (though not, uniquely occult or satanic sects - we’re told) because, since the 1960s and certainly the 1970s, allegations swirled around prominent individuals, public figures and priests and were suppressed. 

There is no rush to speak out: women’s and children’s experience of sexual assault has been largely kept to themselves; we know that 90 per cent of sexual abuse is never disclosed to the authorities. But, clearly, not always.

What have any of Aaronovitch’s themes got to do with anything about now? Why does Aaronovitch’s worry not lead him to the contemporary dramatise personae?  He might be right, of course, we don’t know.

What we do know is this: The detonators of the current VIP and historic abuse cases were already in place half a century ago: politicians and agents of the security state are implicated  in the Kincora children’s home inquiry. Kincora children have protested about abuse since the 1960s and allegations about state collusion have been aired since the 1970s, most forensically by the intrepid journalists Paul Foot  and Chris Moore.

Reports of abuse by Jimmy Savile were sent to three police forces in the 1960s, and intermittently thereafter; allegations against Cyril Smith were reported in 1979, investigated - and blocked - in the early 1980s and thereafter. The Crown Prosecution Service says that he should have been investigated and prosecuted. Smith was protected at the highest level, by the Liberal Party leadership and MI5. 

The Crown Prosecution Service concludes that the Labour politician Lord Greville Janner should have been prosecuted but was not. Celebrity abuse cases have been investigated, resulting in convictions and acquittals. Is Aaronovitch suggesting that they should not have been investigated?

Aaronovitch doesn’t mention perhaps the most significant context of institutional abuse: the church. Is he interested? Do his objections have any relevance to the history of sexual abuse and cruelty that has effected a radical catharsis in Ireland and felled the Catholic church there? 

These historic cases have been joined in the past decade by evidence of long-standing organised sexual exploitation of children, mainly girls, whose lives, distress, testimony and trouble were traduced. 

In Rotherham, Alexis Jay’s inquiry said that young people were misunderstood and maligned, and she calculated 1400 children were at risk of sexual exploitation.

The perpetrators were protected by indifference. 

In the Oxford case ‘clear evidence’ existed ten years ago. So shaming, that Oxfordshire’s retiring Chief Constable Sarah Thornton personally apologised to the victims. Scores of investigations have been mounted in many cities. 

Police chiefs report that Operation Hydrant is investigating abuse in institutions or by ‘prominent people’: 1433 suspects, 633 of them related to institutions.  These are the historic cases. The Metropolitan Police senior research and policy specialist, Prof. Betsy Stanko has been studying Met sexual offences files for the last decade and concludes that despite years of legal reform, the prosecution and conviction rate is so lamentable that sexual crime has been virtually ‘de-criminalised'.

If he cares about ‘genuine abuse’ why isn’t this what worries Aaronovitch? 



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