The Haut de la Garenne children's home on the island of Jersey.
Jersey is an island of around 100,000 people nestled into a cozy nook between Guernsey and the coast of Normandy. It's mostly been recognized in recent public memory for its potatoes and the fact that it's basically in France but everyone there speaks English. In 2008, however, small human remains were found at Haut de la Garenne, a former orphanage on the island. A subsequent investigation exposed a history of sexual abuse at the orphanage, tainting the good name of the people of Jersey in the world's media.
The list of suspects in the case included British government officials and—according to the detective who led the three-year child-abuse probe—media personality Jimmy Savile was also investigated by police, four years before the full extent of his crimes would eventually be exposed. The problem is, because Jersey is self-governing and has its own, slightly unorthodox court system, decades of possible crime against children in the orphanage may remain almost entirely hidden, unexamined, and untried. Since the initial media Mardi Gras, international interest has faded and locals who have continued searching for justice—including bloggers, senators, and police—have been shouted down.
When American journalist Leah McGrath Goodman heard about the story, she made plans to write a book about the orphanage but was met with resistance. In July 2011, she went to Jersey's immigration office to check that the apartment and office space she was leasing to help with her research was in order. The officer assured her that everything was fine and they were happy to help, until she told him about her specific interest in the orphanage. The officer left the room and returned with his boss, who repeatedly told her to get a “writer's visa.” These are hard to obtain in Jersey, primarily because they do not exist.
That September, after stopping in London on the way to Austria, Leah was held under arrest in Heathrow airport for 12 hours, searched, and never given the opportunity to contact her consulate or family. The UK Border Agency said it was all being done at the request of Jersey. Leah was then sent back to New York and banned from the UK. A year and five months later, with the help of a petition and Parliament Member John Hemming, Leah has permission to reenter, so I thought it would be a good time to call her for a chat.
Jimmy Savile at the Haut de la Garenne orphanage.
VICE: Hi, Leah. So, when did sexual assault start taking place at Haut de la Garenne, approximately?
Leah McGrath Goodman: We're not sure how far back it goes, and we're not sure exactly when it stopped—that's all still being researched. According to people on the island, there were incidents against children at the home before World War II, but they largely stopped during the Nazi occupation there. So the alleged crimes of physical and sexual violence against children there had been going on for decades. It closed in the late 80s, but my understanding is that a pedophile ring continued to meet there to commit acts of abuse against minors.
Do you think it's possible that abuse has been going on until recently?
Well, it seems that people are protecting accused sex offenders to this day. The word "historic" is often used in reference to child abuse in the UK media, and I find that inconsistent to how we discuss other crimes. It seems a way to spin the news, and I question the fact that every prominent person who's been identified as an abuser in the UK is dead. Jimmy Savile abused children across the British Isles, including Jersey, for six decades. Yet, even after the crimes became known, no one stopped him, and the revelations only emerged after he died. Can no one prominent be found guilty while they're alive?
Yeah, it seems a little shady.
What we do know from the law-enforcement officials who conducted interviews in Jersey is that nearly 200 people came forward and that nearly all of them had credible testimonies relating to abuse. We also know there were 151 suspects, 30 of them now dead, 121 still alive, which doesn’t sound that historic to me.
Were any of the suspects convicted?
Seven were brought to justice in Jersey, and four were convicted of physical and/or sexual crimes against children at Haut de la Garenne. During a trial I attended, I saw a victim beg Jersey’s government to bring charges against one of the “priority suspects”, who, as I understand it, still works in a government position in Jersey that exposes him to children every day. Yet nothing has been done.
What are some of the methods the Jersey government are using to cover up the situation?
I've seen what I would call a “standard playbook” that comes out whenever they detect a threat: The island's press and judiciary push to marginalize whoever speaks out—be it police, victims, or the health minister who was in charge at the time—by attacking their credibility and soundness of mind; more or less calling them liars.
The passport stamp banning Leah from the UK.
What did the health minister do?
Jersey's then health minister, Stuart Syvret, pushed for a full investigation into Haut de la Garenne in 2008, also known as Operation Rectangle. Before speaking out, he was one of the most popular senators on the island. After speaking out, he found himself under fire, eventually losing his job and being sent to prison—twice—on grounds that I'd consider flimsy. All the while, he was smeared by the island’s only newspaper, the Jersey Evening Post, which is subsidized by the local government and doesn't hesitate to act as its mouthpiece. Blogs have sprung up accusing the paper of the same thing.
To this day, if the former health minister speaks out, the paper strikes up, saying stuff like, “Here he goes again with his conspiracy theories and his children being murdered and raped.” That shows the island’s populace that anyone who stands up for victims’ rights will risk the same kind of treatment.
In terms of evidence and court records, why is it becoming so difficult for anything to be proved?
The remains of multiple children were found at Haut de la Garenne, but key evidence was compromised during the investigation, particularly when it was sent off to labs in the UK. That happened too many times to believe it was just a mistake. There also doesn't seem to be a decent audit trail for much of it, which is an equally big problem. When one of the island’s legislators asked for an audit trail of human remains found at the home, he was effectively dismissed by the home affairs minister, who said, on the record, “I do not understand what is meant by audit trails.”
Journalist Leah McGrath Goodman.
Why do you think they're so committed to covering all of this up?
If you look at the number of suspects—151—and the number of victims—just shy of 200—identified in the Jersey investigation, you’ll notice two things. First, most of the people involved are still alive. Second, there are a lot of suspects per victim. Some of the “priority suspects” remain in high-level positions in Jersey’s leadership. Some of them have been identified by name by the victims as some of the worst of the abusers. Some of them are in positions in Jersey’s education and health departments, where they have access to vulnerable people and children every day.
If that's known, why do you think more hasn't been done by other people fighting for the victims?
Jersey has unusual legal standards when it comes to how it decides whether to bring charges against a person. One: There must be sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, which sounds reasonable. Two: Bringing charges must be in the best interests of the island. What does that even mean? It seems it’s rather open to interpretation. It also means sufficient evidence against a person is not enough to ensure they will be brought to justice, particularly if the island’s leadership doesn't deem it to be in the public interest to do so.
How are people—like bloggers writing about the case, for example—responding to the restrictions being placed on them?
The island’s judiciary has been getting bolder at leveraging esoteric laws to attack those it sees as too dissident. For instance, the Data Protection Act has been used to gag people on the island. In the past year, it was used to gag Stuart Syvret, who was writing about his experiences on his blog. He was told that to reveal the existence of the gag order against him could land him in jail a third time.
Wow. That's so far beyond ridiculous.
Jersey is unique among Western democracies in that it doesn't see anything wrong with gagging people, so long as the existence of that gag order remains a secret. A UK member of Parliament revealed the existence of the gag, which is the only reason we can now discuss it here. For the bloggers, Jersey is their home and they want to defend it, but they also know they’re walking a very fine line and fear exotic legal tactics might be used against them. The island’s media remain invested in the status quo and don't write about things like miscarriages of justice, gag orders, and deficits in the democracy.
Now that your visa has been returned, what are some of your goals for helping the island and bringing what happened to light?
The first goal right now is to make it clear to Jersey that my investigative work doesn't seek to find fault with the island or its people. My interest in tackling this issue comes from my fondness for Jersey. This isn't an island whose populace would ever want to see the victims of child abuse railroaded or ignored. Secondly, and most importantly, my goal is to research, finish interviews, and make sure that everyone who needs to talk, gets to talk. I don't think I've ever seen such unapologetic attacks on police officers, legislators, and journalists as I've seen investigating the issue of child abuse in Jersey.
Yeah, it's quite something to so brazenly and openly intimidate people like that.
Yeah, I've never seen grown men in law enforcement and high-level government positions literally fear for themselves, their lives, and their families while trying to do their jobs and protect innocent people. I've had a taste of that myself and all I can say is, "Wow" and "Why?"
Something is definitely wrong when investigating child abuse means being bullied, threatened, and smeared. As someone who cares about the island and cares about these people and these issues, I don't know if I can watch something like that and just not do anything as a journalist. I do realize it's a huge subject to tackle, but at the same time I don't really know if I have a choice.
Two legislators in Jersey issued a press release today about the breakdown of their law system as an SOS for help from the UK. You can read it here.
Follow Camille on Twitter: @CamStanden
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