In 2014, a series of often seemingly intertwining child sex abuse stories have engulfed the UK in what has become the biggest scandal of modern times. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that the whole country feels duped, dirtied, and, worse, connected in some way. Culprits and alleged culprits have included celebrities, the social services and police (whose systemic failures resulted in an estimated 1,400 children being sexually exploited in the town of Rotherham between 1997 and 2013), politicians (the evidence of a pedophile ring operating within the corridors of Westminster during the 1980s is now incontrovertible after London´s Metropolitan Police described allegations from an anonymous survivor as "credible and true" this month), and even employees of the Royal Family (British tabloid the Sunday People recently revealed that the House of Windsor was also implicated in abuses centered around accusations from a 16-year-old boy).
The town of Rochdale lies at the center of two of these recent child sex scandals. In 2012, nine Pakistani men were convicted of running a "grooming" operation that targeted young girls there, and it was also home of the late Liberal Member of Parliament (MP) Cyril Smith, a 400-pound giant of a man who reportedly terrorized the local Knowl View Residential School.
Though Smith's penchant for the abuse and rape of young boys had been gossiped about for decades (at least two regional newspaper editors had D notices slapped on them, meaning that no story could be published about Smith's behavior), the politician wasn't publicly accused of child abuse until 2012, when the police admitted that they should have pursued charges against him. Simon Danczuk, the current Labour MP for Rochdale, is responsible for exposing Smith in Parliament, and has since co-written a book detailing his predecessor's alleged misdeeds.
"I do wonder whether the fact that people in the community in Rochdale were well aware of the rumor and gossip about Smith, the abuse that he meted out to his victims—did that provide some sort of acceptance that this type of abuse?" asks Danczuk today. "Did it normalize it, did it make it more acceptable, did it make it more likely to be ignored?"
The exposure of the town's pedophiliac Pakistani gang was perhaps an even bigger scandal, but for different reasons. In 2012, the nationalist English Defence League (EDL) rallied in Rochdale; for those right-wingers, the affair was more proof that the multiculturalist experiment had failed. Unfortunately it's an attractive theory in Britain at the moment: that immigration has brought with it misogynistic Muslim gangs who rape children with impunity.
This line of thought conveniently ignores the fact that child rapists have found niches in all levels of society: at the BBC's various broadcasting premises, in hospitals, in care homes, on government property, in Westminster, even within the Royal palaces. It seems to happen wherever there is an imbalance of power.
William Vahey, an American teacher employed at Southbank International School in central London, serves as a useful example. He decidedly took advantage of the power he had over his pupils—but as often seems to be the case, the real scandal is how the system seems to have accommodated an abuser, or at least ignored crimes that should have been made visible. After receiving complaints about Vahey, who has been since found to have drugged and abused 60 teenage boys at the school from 2009 to 2013, headmaster Terry Hedger did little more than reassure the teacher that he would protect his "fine reputation and standing" and that he believed Vahey was the victim of pressure "from vindictive parents." Vahey killed himself in March after his computer was found to contain hundreds of images of child rape.
Vahey's crimes seem to be mirrored on a society-wide scale. In 2012, allegations against the late TV host and bizarre British icon Jimmy Savile surfaced; the list of potential victims stretches into the hundreds, and other well-known BBC names have since been convicted of similar crimes. Last month John Allen, a care home proprietor who has been convicted of 33 sex offenses against children in his charge, was accused of providing boys to sex parties frequented by political figures, and the late former MI6 deputy Sir Peter Hayman has been accused of attending such parties. Just last week John Mann, a Labour MP, handed a dossier to Scotland Yard with 22 names of individuals, including former MPs from the country's two major parties, who he thinks should be questioned over alleged child abuse in the 1970s and 80s. Mann even suggested that two would-be whistleblowers may have been murdered.
The Westminster story became headline news the way a dam breaks—first through almost unnoticeable cracks in the façade, then with a sudden flood. One of the first cracks was when a whistleblower from the social work world passed a tip off to Labour MP Tom Watson, who in 2012 asked Prime Minister David Cameron if an evidence file linked to the conviction of pedophile Peter Righton—who advised the government on child care policy in the 1970s—could be looked at again. That file, which was initially sent to home secretary Leon Brittan by campaigning Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens in 1983, supposedly linked senior cabinet members in the Thatcher administration, as well as Smith, to a pedophile ring. In July it was revealed that the dossier was among 114 files relating to child sex abuse that had disappeared from 1979 to 1999. Brittan himself was questioned by police that same month over allegations of rape—the victim was over the age of 18, but the event just added to public suspicion, stoked by the suggestion of Lord Norman Tebbit that there "may well have been" an establishment cover-up under Brittan´s watch.
After that, both the press and the police began investigating these claims more carefully. The publications most involved in pushing the Westminster pedophile scandal out to the public have been the Sunday People and the investigative website Exaro.
"I think we have come across the biggest political scandal in Britain's postwar history." –Exaro editor Mark Watts
The further the media and the cops went down the rabbit hole, the more they found. "A key turning point was we ran a story on two abuse survivors who talked about being sexually abused as boys by MPs and other VIPs at Dolphin Square [a luxury apartment complex] and other locations," says Mark Watts, the editor of Exaro. "That led the police again to contact us and ask to speak to these two survivors and again we passed on the request."
The police in turn created Operation Midland, which investigated an alleged pedophile ring that operated at Dolphin Square between 1974 and 1984. It is in one of the apartments there that an anonymous source known in the media as "Nick" alleges he saw a boy get strangled to death by a Conservative MP during a dark sex game.
In July, before the Westminster story gained momentum, Home Secretary Theresa May announced an inquiry into organized child sex abuse dating back to the 1970s. But the two people she appointed to chair the inquiry were both found to have conflicts of interest, and panel members have reportedly sent abusive emails to alleged survivors. The (still chair-less) inquiry is now on the verge of collapse, though many see even that flawed effort as a step in the right direction.
"I think the home secretary is very much in favor of getting to the bottom of what's gone wrong—that's why she's helped initiate the overarching enquiry," says Danczuck. "But I do also think there is a division in cabinet in terms of people wanting to get to the bottom of this. Theresa May is on the side that does. My interpretation is that the Prime Minister is less enthusiastic." The Labour MP suspects there are many in the Conservative Party keen on keeping a lid on any possible revelations. In any case, this story has gone far, far beyond "a few bad apples" territory.
"I think we have come across the biggest political scandal in Britain's postwar history," says Watts. "It goes way beyond Jimmy Savile. We're talking about people in positions of real power in Britain and the ensuing cover-up. Because of the sheer gravity of what went on, it does rather explain why so much effort has gone into covering it up."
There's no one explanation for why so many cases of sex abuse have been ignored for so long. Blame can be laid on a lack of funding for welfare programs which might have helped victims; you can also point to an odd form of liberal guilt—the media may have resisted running with the Rochdale story, for example, because they didn't want to get lumped in with the racists in the EDL. More simply, it was easier to be ignorant. But following the Met Police's confirmation of its investigation into the murder of three boys in conjunction with activities at Dolphin Square and other locations, it is now impossible for anyone paying attention to describe pedophilia as exclusively the domain of immigrant gangs and perverted celebrities.
All this publicity surrounding pedophilia has had mixed effects, says the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's Jon Brown. "There is a huge amount of anger out there," he says, but adds that the high-profile cases shouldn't obscure the fact that around 80 percent of child abuse happens in the care of loved ones. For example, it is often the abusive father who introduces his child to a sex ring that will put them at risk of abuses from others.
"While people are talking about abuse that happened many years ago that doesn't mean its not happening now," says Brown. "Day in day out there is an awful grind of inter-family abuse, and so much of that never gets disclosed as it's difficult for children to talk about."
It's difficult for anyone to talk about, and that's why so many of the people involved in this scandal were able to hide in plain sight. A few years ago I visited Keith Harding's World of Mechanical Music with my wife and her family. The Gloucestershire museum was filled with automata, a charming collection obsessively amassed by Harding, who greeted us at the desk and seemed a sweet, if eccentric, bloke. In November Harding, now dead, was connected to Jimmy Savile—he appeared on his popular show Jim'll Fix It—and exposed as a vocal member of the Paedophile Information Exchange, a fringe group that existed between 1974 and '84. "A child is able to recognize a pleasurable experience," PIE claimed in its campaign for the recognition of the "responsible, caring pedophile."
Connections that have long been deemed the ludicrous preserve of conspiracy theorists are now ordained as possibilities, some even plausibilities.
It's an all-too-common phenomenon that has long been a cliché: the odd, flamboyant outsider who, on closer examination, contains a monstrous amount of skeletons in his closet. Looking at much of the detail of the Savile case it seems like looking back on some kind of strange group hallucination. How could he have been given the keys to Broadmoor Hospital? How could he have worked as a porter at Leeds hospital without the proper checks? If Savile embodies the whole recent series of scandals in the UK it is because he shimmied between classes so effectively, because he infiltrated the upper echelons without anyone wondering at his "eccentricities."
The self image of the United Kingdom is one of tolerance and discretion—it is a trait that its citizens are often commended for, but it also makes it easy for the powerful to hide behind the veil of sensibility and deference. The curiously claustrophobic nature of British society—neatly represented by the seemingly impenetrable gray 1930s apartment block of Dolphin Square—does lead one to wonder exactly how entwined these separate cases of depravity were. Savile did spend 11 consecutive New Years Eves celebrating with Margaret Thatcher, after all. Connections that have long been deemed the ludicrous preserve of conspiracy theorists are now ordained as possibilities, some even plausibilities. The unthinkable is now eminently thinkable.
The secrets and cover-ups don't make for pretty reading, but now that there have been efforts to get them out in the open, the healing process is happening in earnest, not least in Rochdale. "I helped reveal what Cyril Smith did because I thought it would benefit the community," says Danczuk. "They've carried this burden, this knowledge, for decades. I think it is better to get it out in the open than to keep it a dirty secret."
This culmination of child abuse revelations might not be what people in the UK want to hear as they look forward to toasting the end of another year. But its shocking prevalence in headlines and conversations offers an opportunity for hope for justice in 2015, not least for the survivors.
"I think in many respects this subject's time had come," adds Danczuk. "Finally people can talk about it. Thousands of individuals have been carrying this burden—and still do, and still don't reveal it. But the more who do, I think it is better for them. I've had people who were abused by Smith, who hadn't told a soul before they came to me. A man who hadn't told his wife who he'd been married to for 30-odd, 40 years, explaining to me that I was the first person he had told that he had been abused by someone. You see a 60-odd-year-old man breaking down and crying because of what happened to him, I think it is positive that he can finally come to terms with it."
Follow Tim Burrows on Twitter.