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Thursday, 7 September, 2000, 13:57 GMT 14:57 UK
Abuse: Crusade or witch-hunt?

Are some jailed for abuse innocent?
Society's outrage at sex crimes against children may be leading to a witch-hunt in which innocent people are caught up, says the BBC's Paul Vickers.

Rebecca Williams Rigby remembers the moment she knew her father was going to prison very clearly.

"He said 'how can I prove my innocence?' and I just hugged him and said 'you can't, Dad'. Then I knew for certain that he wasn't coming home."

Basil Williams Rigby will not be coming home for some time.

He is currently in HMP Wakefield, doing a 10-year stretch for abusing children in his care over 20 years ago, leaving his family to protest his innocence.

While they search for some small scrap of fresh evidence that might get him out - a hopeless task after all this time - Basil reflects on the poor quality of the evidence against him and the fatal weakness of his efforts to challenge it.

If he would attend the prison workshop designed to help him confront and resist his paedophilia he would be out a lot sooner.

Juries... will convict on the flimsiest of evidence.

Chris Saltrese
But since he is protesting his innocence, enrolment in these sessions would amount to a false admission of guilt.

He prefers to do the full stretch.

If he had been charged with murder, fraud or GBH the evidence against him would almost certainly have failed to convince a jury beyond the 'reasonable doubt' that is supposed to protect us from miscarriages of justice.

But an allegation of child abuse is different, especially one that is 20 years old.

After 20 years there is no forensic evidence to strengthen a case.

And since abuse is a furtive, behind-closed-doors crime, there is precious little corroboration in witness statements collected by the police.

But that does not seem to bother juries in today's hysterical climate.

According to support group False Allegations Against Carers and Teachers (Fact), there is a 90% conviction rate for alleged sex abusers.

Quantity not quality

That compares with a conviction rate for rape of just 9%.

Chris Saltrese, a solicitor based in Southport who has worked on a number of sex abuse cases, says: "Juries think that there is no smoke without fire and they will convict on the flimsiest of evidence.

"Who wants to be responsible for letting a paedophile back onto the streets?"

As a result of this, he says, "there are at least 20 innocent men in prison in the north west alone".

The police reinforce poor quality evidence by collecting a large quantity of it.

Some former care workers face dozens, if not hundreds of statements, collected by the police in a series of 'trawling' operations going back decades.

A single investigation begun in 1997 resulted in 66 arrests and 20 convictions.

Officers collected 759 complaints involving 358 suspects in the first three years alone.

Compensation is being mentioned - sometimes up to 100,000

Former police officer
And there are 80 other investigations involving 31 other police forces around the country.

A former police officer involved in one such operation told us that this reliance on quantity can be dangerous - especially since witness statements are not taped so there is no evidence that they have been collected appropriately.

"I do believe now that people are going and knocking on people's doors and asking them ' were you abused?' by the way so-and-so's abused - did Mr so-and-so abuse you and these are the sort of things that are being put to them," he said.

He believes that the possibility of compensation actually generates some complaints.

"I do know that a certain amount of compensation is being mentioned - sometimes up to 100,000.

Guidelines breached

"And a lot of the people who are in jail now, they were at these homes - they were never abused - are looking at this and thinking 'hang on - there's a lot of compensation for me to earn here.'"

There are guidelines to prevent officers from introducing the identity of a suspect to a witness or mentioning compensation if a witness helps them - but there is evidence that these guidelines are sometimes breached.

No one doubts that there has been sex abuse in our children's homes.

Of the 21 cases first brought to court in Merseyside, 19 resulted in guilty pleas.

But can we be sure there are enough safeguards in the system to prevent miscarriages of justice as well as protect damaged and vunerable children?

Now we are steeped in the hysterical atmosphere of tabloid newspaper 'outing' and mob 'justice' we may no longer be able to consider such cases safely.

You can hear Paul Vickers' full report Crusade or Witch-hunt ? on BBC Radio 5 Live on Sunday, 10 September at 1200 BST.

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See also:

05 Nov 99 | Education
Formery nursery workers sue council
26 Feb 99 | UK Politics
Union attacks child abuse Bill
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