A Modern Witch Hunt

Richard Webster. The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt. The Orwell Press, 2005.

Long time readers of Magonia will recall the articles by Roger Sandell and others, which were among the first to expose the myth of organised Satanic abuse of children. Since the discrediting of these Satanic abuse legends, the focus of moral panics about child abuse moved on children’s homes. These stories appeared at first sight to be much more credible. After all some child abusers did work in children’s homes, and have pleaded guilty, and these homes in general were total institutions rather cut off from the outside world. Through the 1990s allegations of such abuse multiplied.

Like many people I rather took it for granted that those convicted were indeed guilty and that a real scandal existed. Richard Webster however has argued that these cases like the Satanic abuse scares were almost literal witch hunts. By focusing on one of the founding cases, that of the Bryn Estyn home and its satellites in Wales, Webster seeks to show how this panic was generated.

For Webster the panic begins with just one central character, a female care worker who was having problems with her superiors and co-workers, and who began to make a series of damaging allegations. Webster seeks to show that these allegations changed over time, and grew in the repeated telling. This ‘whistleblower’s’ story became the centre of an investigation by the Independent on Sunday, which Webster holds to be particularly flawed.

he panic really starts when police begin what are known as trawling operations. In a complete reversal to normal police procedure, which starts with a crime and seeks to find out who committed it, the police started with someone accused or suspected of being an abuser and began to appeal for witnesses to come forward, using highly suggestive questions, of the “we know Mr X was a child abuser, were you one of his victims” kind.

The accusers were not themselves children, as all these events were said to have happened years before, they were adults often with multiple problems, addictions and criminal convictions. Even so, in many cases they seem to have only provided such testimony after some considerable pressure, and being bribed with offers of substantial compensation. The result was that in most cases although there was no actual evidence, as opposed to assertion, that any crime had been committed at all, men were found guilty.

Others - and here the parallels with the original witchcraft accusations are very close - accused colleagues to keep the heat off themselves. In some cases accusations were made by people who in actual fact had never even met the alleged perpetrator, their stay at the home at the home being different from his.

Of course a book reviewer cannot know whether Webster’s version of events is the most correct one, and without much confirmatory evidence the maxim of “believe nothing and trust no-one” should apply with especial force here. That being said, I doubt if any of these people really have been proven guilty beyond “reasonable doubt” whatever that might mean, and it must surely be the case that Webster is right in saying that the normal legal assumption of innocent until proven guilty has been reversed here, and those accused were assumed to be guilty unless they can actual prove they were innocent.

Again whatever the specifics of any one case, there is much in here of general interest on the role of whistle-blowers, the presence of specific charismatic individuals at the centre of extraordinary allegations, the danger of invoking the ‘bundle of sticks’ argument or assuming that multiple stories provide proof of anything, and the ease by which people can make quite sincere sounding claims about things which turn out could not actually have happened.

Webster locates the particular fantasies discussed here as being rooted deep within western Christian culture, the idea of secret conspiracy committing the worst imaginable crime, in where those supposed to be protectors are secret destroyers (note the similarity with those women wrongly accused of smothering or shaking their babies to death). Child abuse has become the worst imaginable crime, because to a society with few shared values, children have become the last refuge of the sacred.

In the case of the “children in care” there are deep conflicts, for these are same youngsters usually demonised as young thugs, tearaways, junkies and hoodies. There are conflicts in how to raise young people, particularly across the generations, and beyond that there is the core witchcraft belief which constantly resurfaces in one terrible form after another, the belief that all the pain, heartache and suffering in the world is caused by the terrible others, and if only we could wipe these terrible others from the face of the earth, all would be well. | PR |

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