Dangerous trawl for truth

Police trawling investigations, including a massive operation by South Wales Police, continue to cause concern.
The inquiries deal with that most loathed of crimes, child abuse, and require difficult and sensitive police work.
But because the ‘trawls’ gather evidence on claims of so-called ‘historic abuse’ – alleged to have happened 20, 30, even 40 years ago – campaigners say they result in convictions built on shaky ground.
Many claim the trawls amount to modern-day witch-hunts.
This weekend the issue has been raised on the Stephen Nolan Show on BBC Five Live (Saturday and Sunday, 10pm -1am).
I have written about these inquiries many times over the last four or five years. In that time there has been a growing sense of unease about the trawls.
There are concerns about the way detectives go to former residents of children’s homes to ask if they were ever abused.
There are also fears that witnesses have been persuaded to give false evidence by a combination of police pressure and attractive compensation payments of up to £100,000.
Convictions are often almost entirely based on the fact that more than one witness has come forward.
Defendants then have the impossible task of proving a crime did not happen, despite a lack of any corroborating evidence.
When these huge multi-million pound police investigations got under way in the 1990s, it appeared we were being forced to face a frightening reality: that thousands of vulnerable and difficult youngsters had been abused during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s while in the care of approved schools and care homes. Almost 1,300 people in Wales alone made allegations of abuse to the four Welsh police forces, and the inquiries celebrated a series of high profile convictions, including that of former headmaster Derek Brushett, of Dinas Powys, who was jailed for abusing 17 boys between 1974 and 1980. It appeared to be a turn-around in the fortunes of these kinds of investigation. Until that time, it had been difficult to secure convictions when looking at allegations of abuse so many years earlier. There is no medical evidence after so much time and there are no witnesses. So the police, under huge pressure to secure convictions, developed the simple principle that if they could have enough allegations against one individual they would have a case. It was the birth of the ‘trawl’ – the process of contacting former care home and approved school residents to ask if they were ever abused. It is a detecting method which turned traditional policing methods on their head. Instead of starting with a crime and finding a suspect, the trawls begin with a suspect and look for a crime. When the cases come to court, the jury’s dilemma is to discover the unknowable – what actually happened. What is meant to persuade them is the ‘volume’ of corroboration: the numbers of people making allegations. That leaves the defendant in an unenviable position. Like the prosecution he has no medical evidence to present. Allegations that abuse took place over months or years, on vague dates, are impossible to disprove. Documentation, like staff rotas and school registers, may have been destroyed; other members of staff may have died. Child abuse is abhorrent. So too must be the irreversible action of mistakenly labelling a person a child abuser and locking them away to face the unpleasant existence of the paedophile in jail. Investigating officers in these cases, of course, have a dreadful task. Their reaction to allegations of abuse is likely to be disgust, horror, revulsion, like ours. But is the danger in the procedure itself? Does the trawl assume guilt, without addressing the central question: was a crime actually committed?

For example of some previous articles on the Welsh cases go here:



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