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Historical abuse in care

The big child and youth care story in the UK this month is, once again, the issue of historical abuse in residential child care. It is an issue that has a particular significance for me personally; earlier in the month I sat in Court and watched a former colleague, a 74-year-old religious Brother whose entire life had been spent helping others, jailed. His crime was to have used an electricity-generating device as an instrument of torture to punish boys. Now there will be those for whom the conviction of a member of a religious order will come as no surprise — after all it is easy, given lurid headlines about psychopathic nuns and pervy priests, to conclude that they were all involved or complicit in abuse. It is a conclusion that some people seem almost to take pleasure in reaching.

Of course had the Brother involved actually electrocuted kids then a jail sentence would seem only appropriate. But he hadn’t. The instrument in question was a hand-cranked device that he had found and restored and used to demonstrate how electricity was generated. Boys would hold on to a couple of rods while the handle was turned to generate a small charge. Brother Ben’s machine was one of those things that passes into the mythology of a school and which indeed makes life there all the richer. It became an initiation rite for new boys who were regaled by other boys with tales of this machine that would make your hair stand on end. Only it didn’t really. When some of the boys took me to have my first shot of Brother Ben’s machine I remember feeling slightly disappointed at how mild the electronic charge was. I got the kind of innocuous shock that generations of kids have had in science classes across the country from Van Der Graaf generators, or from the kind of gadgets that are increasingly available in trick shops. There was no turbo mode that could be employed to torture or punish; I got its full force. When practices such as this are construed and indeed prosecuted as torture or punishment there is something very odd going on.

Indeed there is something very odd going on in the collective psyche so far as historical abuse is concerned. This is all too evident in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands that lie between England and France. Events there have hit the headlines across the world. When the early news of archaeological digs in the former children’s home building hit the press a couple of months ago my heart sunk. On the surface there seemed to be something tangible in the stories emerging. They had found a child’s skull in the cellars we were told. The skull, in the hands of the press, soon became half a dozen bodies buried in makeshift graves. The mention of buried bodies set the alarm bells ringing for me. This wasn’t the first time I had heard this. In Ireland, the Christian Brothers were alleged to have buried boys in the grounds of one of their schools in County Galway. Only they didn’t. An extensive police search and investigation found no trace of bodies and the school’s own records showed that all the boys resident at the school over the period in question could be accounted for.

My initial scepticism was quickly justified. The Jersey graves, it turned out may have been the remnants of a set from a detective series filmed on the island. And it has now emerged that the child’s ‘skull’ fragment was a piece of wood or coconut shell. You couldn’t make it up.

As Richard Webster, who I will return to, says, stories like this sound like fiction because they often are. What renders them dangerous is that they are all too readily taken to be fact. People are only too prepared, indeed positively willing to believe the macabre, especially it seems when children’s homes are concerned. It feeds what Webster calls ‘torture pornography’, a peeping from behind the lace curtains of self-righteous indignation; isn’t this awful, now tell me a bit more, this time with feeling ...  How else can we make sense of a society where accounts of unremitting, indeed incredible misery, works of fiction dressed up as ‘memoirs’ can top the best sellers list, when even the most cursory of investigations would expose them as fantasies. But journalists rather than do what journalists ought to do and ask awkward questions, lap up such fantasies, adding a few bells and whistles to accounts that one might conclude are already over-elaborate.

In Jersey the various accounts intertwine to create an elaborate web of belief. It becomes difficult and even dangerous to introduce any element of doubt or even questioning to the dominant narrative. The police officer leading the investigation threatens sceptics with legal action or with jeopardising the investigation, co-opting the views of alleged victims to drive forward his inquiry. The whole business becomes driven by what the philosopher Alasdair Macintyre calls emotivism, a gut moralism which squeezes out any more rational or contrary perspectives. The claim to be acting in a child protection capacity, to be giving voice to those whose cries for help had been ignored in the past is a sure way to silence critics. Implicit in the claim to be acting in a child capacity is the question, what might he/she/you have to hide to even be asking such questions?

But this is an area that desperately needs questioning voices. One of the first questions that springs to mind for me is why on earth are the police bothering with the archaeological dig? Anyone with any knowledge of how cases of historical abuse are prosecuted knows that forensic evidence isn’t required. All that is required is the similar accounts of two or more alleged victims - and that’s what makes this whole business a scary one for those who have worked in residential child care. In answer to my own question I can only surmise that the archaeological dig and the publicity that goes along with it is intended to generate the kind of accounts of abuse that the police hope might provide sufficient similarity of fact to merit prosecutions and hence justify their inquiry. And of course it is likely that they will — law firms from the English mainland have already descended holding out the prospect of financial compensation to those who claim to have been abused in care.

But it is not just the prospect of compensation that brings forward victim stories.
Frank Furedi claims that

'contemporary culture provides a powerful incentive to individuals to manipulate their memory and present themselves as traumatised victims. The assertion of trauma as a result of past suffering has become a way of winning public recognition and attention, and of making a claim on resources’.

And contemporary culture is manipulated by a series of claims makers, from the police to children’s charities to the media, all of whom have an interest in maintaining a culture of victimhood sustained by the psychobabble of ‘closure’ in order that victims might move on in their lives. These claims makers can appear to be on the side of the angels. They aren’t; they are using former residents of care homes to pursue their own ideological agendas. This is not about allowing ‘victims’ to summon up the strength to confront past abuse; arguably it supports the construction of abusive memories, which themselves can become freeze dried and prevent ‘victims’ from moving on in their lives. According to Furedi ‘the sociologically naive idea that those who hitherto lacked a voice have now discovered a new and brave willingness to ‘confront the past’ is a form of collective self-flattery’. It is a self-flattery that the social work establishment in the UK colludes with and indeed one that many residential workers can internalize, assuming that the tales emanating from Jersey did not and could not happen in their own back-yards. I used to think that myself until I saw a colleague jailed for ‘electrocuting’ kids. Anyone who wants to look behind the press accounts of what is going on in Jersey (and indeed in other cases of historical abuse in care) would do well to have a look at Richard Webster’s work on this subject,


Furedi, F (2008) History-as-Therapy