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Conspiracies and cover-ups

The satanic abuse claims rested on the idea that there were hidden rings and networks of Satanists ritually abusing and sacrificing children. Subsequent research demonstrated that these were old superstitions lent fresh life through suggestive beliefs and techniques of social workers.

But strands of the beliefs survived and became hypothesised as networks of ‘organised abuse’. It was suggested that there were people in high places abusing children fed through linked chains of paedophiles. This idea became lodged in historic police investigations into abuse in children’s homes. Preceded by media publicity, large scale police operations ‘trawled’ former residents seeking complaints. Names of the suspects were put to people with compensation an incentive. There was also the injection of trauma theory; that victims may have forgotten abuse and that all manner of difficulties in life from alcohol and substance abuse to broken relationships could be attributed to a sexual abuse cause.

The cases often turned on ‘similar fact’ evidence. Cases in the higher courts had allowed for broad similarities in the evidence of one complainant to support another’s. While this might appear to be convincing, there was no guarantee the complaints were independent. Because of the assumed ‘memory gaps’ it was all too easy for investigators and others to inadvertently prompt and suggest evidence based on what they had heard from others.

While genuine offences were uncovered, many more people were falsely accused and some convicted. The operations further laid the base for the growth of compensation litigation, with mass civil claims resulting in large settlements without trial.

But despite the mass trawls and the North Wales Waterhouse Tribunal of Inquiry, there were no networks or conspiracies uncovered. Alleged perpetrators were thought to be offending in isolation and there was no evidence of passing victims on to people in high places.

But the conspiracy theories did not die, they merely became dormant. In the meantime with trauma theory and compensation incentives gaining the ascendancy, historical prosecutions continued to mount, often to do with domestic disputes, throughout the nineties and beginning of the new century.

During this time the mandatory warning to juries as to the danger of convicting on uncorroborated evidence was abolished, the similar fact rules were replaced with statutory ‘bad character’ rules allowing for all allegations in a trial, and those not tried, to become mutually supportive. Video recorded evidence replaced the need for complainants to give their evidence in court, meaning that they did not need to demonstrate they remembered their evidence consistently. Trauma and memory directions by judges allowed for contradiction and inconsistency in evidence and the scope for expert evidence where there was a question of reliability and authenticity of claims became tightly restricted.