Wales child abuse scandal

Questions and answers that surround a catalogue of abuse against children

 Wednesday 16 February 2000 22.00 GMT

What was the Waterhouse inquiry all about?

It was ordered in 1996 by William Hague, when he was Welsh secretary in the then Conservative government, into abuse of children in care after 1974 in the former county council areas of Clwyd and Gwynedd. This followed an outcry over a decision by Clwyd councillors, acting on legal advice, not to publish the report of a smaller inquiry lest it prompt court actions and a rash of compensation claims. The Waterhouse report calls for a review of such problems by the Law Commission.

How did it compare to other child abuse inquires?

It was by far the biggest. It sat for 203 days and took evidence from 575 witnesses, including 259 complainants alleging abuse when they were in care. Some 9,500 social services files were made available and the inquiry team scrutinised 3,500 statements made to police. In all, there were 43,000 pages of evidence of complaints about some 40 homes, as well as foster placements.

How did the scandal come to light?

Care workers in Clwyd were being convicted of sex abuse as long ago as 1976 and there were allegations and investigations in Gwynedd in the 1980s. But the scandal was only exposed after Alison Taylor, a children's home head in Gwynedd, pressed her concerns at the highest levels. The inquiry report finds that her complaints have been "substantially vindicated". But for her, there would have been no inquiry into Gwynedd and possibly not into Clwyd either.

Why did it take so long to emerge?

What the report calls a "cult of silence" at the most notorious home, Bryn Estyn, was all too typical. Few children made complaints. When the police first investigated Ms Taylor's concerns in 1986-87, the authorities constructed a "wall of disbelief" at the outset. The subsquent decision not to bring prosecutions was greeted with "inappropriate enthusiasm" by social services.

What kind of abuse did the inquiry hear about?

Almost everything imaginable, and much that was not. Most attention has focused on sex abuse of boys by staff and paedophiles outside the care system, but there was also sex abuse of girls and boys by women staff. The bulk of allegations concerned physical and emotional abuse, including hitting and throttling children, bullying and belittling them. Punishments included being forced to scrub floors with toothbrushes, or to perform garden tasks using cutlery. The inquiry team says the quality of care, and standard of education, were below acceptable levels in all the homes it investigated.

Was there a paedophile ring?

Rumours of a ring of abusers, including prominent public figures, have been rife. But the report says there is no credible evidence of any such network. It also dismisses suggestions that freemasonry was implicated in what went on. The report does, however, find there were paedophiles in Wrexham and Chester, many of whom were known to each other, who abused boys and shared information about victims.

Will the victims get compensation?

Some already have, as a result of court convictions of their abusers. Payments have typically been in the tens of thousands of pounds, though one or two have reached six figures. More claims are expected, particularly from people who were in the care of staff named in the inquiry report.

Have people lied to the inquiry to try to get compensation?

The report says not. While acknowledging a lack of direct corroboration of most allegations, the inquiry team says it was "impressed generally by the sincerity of the overwhelming majority" of witnesses claiming they were abused.

Could it happen again?

It is extremely unlikely, according to the Association of Directors of Social Services. Measures in place, and more to come, should make it impossible for the care system to escape scrutiny as it did in north Wales. But there remains the threat posed by individual abusers and the fear is that determined paedophiles have moved into other sectors, such as boarding schools and youth groups.

Any more inquiries in the pipeline?

Potentially plenty. According to the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, there are 80 police investigations into institutional abuse. It says each one should prompt a public inquiry of its own, which for most victims would be "the closest they will get to real justice". But with the cost of the north Wales inquiry put at 13.5m, and rising, it is almost certain to be the first and last of its kind.