Home Secretary Theresa May has announced that Keith Bristow, head of the New Crime Agency (NCA), will investigate allegations of child abuse at children's homes in North Wales dating back to the 1970s and 1980s. His task will include a review of previous police investigations and the examination of any new allegations from those who claim to have been abused as children more than thirty years ago.
Senior police officers and other experts have expressed their concerns about the consequences of pulling child abuse specialists away from live investigations in order to examine historical cases that were already the subject of a public enquiry in 2000. They fear this may put vulnerable children at risk.
The NCA is still in its infancy and hasn’t yet been fully staffed and resourced. Specialist child abuse investigators from forces across the county have reportedly been redeployed by Bristow to take part in his investigation. The concern is: who will be protecting the children being abused today while the best child abuse officers in the country are busy investigating cases of abuse that happened decades ago?
Bristow’s review is due by April 2013. It is thought that a full criminal inquiry may follow and this could take several years.
Specialist police officers who have the requisite skills and experience needed to conduct an investigation on this scale are said to be “like gold dust”. According to the Guardian, a senior source confirmed: "Chief constables will help because they know what a task Keith Bristow has” but that to conduct an inquiry of this magnitude “properly” will take “two or three years." It is understood that 100 officers have so far been draughted in to the Bristow investigation and this number is expected to rise.
Theresa May acted after BBC Newsnight broadcasted an interview on 2 November 2012 featuring a victim of abuse in a North Wales children's home who claimed his abuse by a senior Tory figure had been the subject of a cover-up. It has subsequently been established that the politician at the centre of the allegations was in fact the victim of mistaken identity and was wrongly linked to the North Wales abuse scandal.
Victim Steve Messham withdrew his accusation a week later and the BBC apologised unreservedly. Nonetheless, BBC Director General George Entwistle was widely condemned for not knowing about the programme until after it had aired, being unaware of a newspaper article which revealed the mistaken identity, and for seemingly being oblivious to a comment on Twitter which revealed that Newsnight was about to broadcast the allegation. Mr Entwistle resigned amid the controversy after only 54 days in his new post.
This move was closely followed by the BBC's Director of News, Helen Boaden, and her deputy Stephen Mitchell, who both stepped down pending the outcome of an inquiry into Newsnight's report about the allegations of sexual abuse made against Jimmy Savile, which was subsequently dropped.
Welsh Secretary David Jones MP said that the BBC must tackle its "organisational issues" in order to safeguard the quality of its journalism and restore public confidence.
Further concerns have been raised about the number of separate enquiries that have been launched in the wake of the scandal – 9 in total – and MPs have called for one “over-arching” enquiry to replace them or at the very least unite them. There have been concerns about the sufficiency of the Waterhouse inquiry for over a decade – Mrs Justice Macur has now been appointed by the Prime Minister to evaluate it.
Welsh Secretary David Jones explained, "What we really need is one major overarching inquiry that has the full power to get to the bottom of what went on in this country because for far too long, in relation to child abuse, we have brushed things under the carpet.”
The BBC and several Twitter users now face legal action after Lord McAlpine issued a statement advising that he may sue for libel over what he described as "wholly false and seriously defamatory" reports which erroneously linked him to the North Wales child abuse allegations.
Clearly, feelings are running high in the wake of the Jimmy Savile revelations but the Children's Commissioner for Wales, Keith Towler, urged the media to tread carefully and be mindful of their duty to report responsibly: "we're all searching for the truth, we so need the Keith Bristow and Mrs Justice Macur investigations to be able to do their work.” He continued, “If we're going to get to the bottom of this fully, we don't need any actions that will undermine a witness' statement.”
Since the news of the atrocities carried out at Bryn Estyn hit the headlines, fresh allegations of sexual abuse in Wales have come to light. So far around thirty-six people have contacted Keith Towler’s office. Of these, 22 have reported abuse they say they suffered at Bryn Estyn – including beatings, sexual abuse and torture – and the many other children’s homes linked to it. The rest have spoken of historic abuse which they say took place at other locations.
According to Mr Towler, what happened in North Wales in the 1970s and 1980s was a direct consequence of adults failing to listen to children and young people. He is keen to reassure those victims who have not yet come forward that they will now be listened to and encourages them to do so.
If you were a victim of child abuse in Bryn Estyn or elsewhere and would like free, confidential advice about the legal avenues open to you, please contact Rachel Thain on freephone 0808 139 1597 or by e-mail at [email protected].