LONDON -- They took Frank Beck away Nov. 29 to spend the rest of his natural life in prison.
And as they did, it was at least evident that things are not all that much better for children in institutions and orphanages throughout Britain today than in the days of Charles Dickens, who tried to make the world aware of what went on in those places by creating characters such as the poor, abused Oliver Twist.
Beck ran public homes for troubled and orphaned children in Leicester. He was charged with and convicted of abusing the children in his care for more than 13 years. In most cases it was homosexual abuse, involving 200 youngsters, according to one estimate.
No sooner was Beck packed off after a trial full of prurient testimony and rending accounts from the abused boys, grown now into maladjusted men, than another scandal loomed, in north Wales.
This time the focus fell on a man named Peter Howarth, who ran children's homes there until he retired in 1984. He, too, is being investigated for allegedly sexually exploiting boys in his care, though as yet he has not been charged.
The first of December, the Independent newspaper front-paged an expose on Mr. Howarth and another man, Nefyn Dodd. It charged that a previous probe into abuse and cruelty in Welsh children's homes was inadequate. A new investigation is under way of homes in Wrexham in Clwyd and Bangor in Gwynedd.
The Crown Prosecution Office here says it is awaiting the findings of the North Wales Police.
"It's happening all over the country," said Anne Crowley, a note of helplessness in her voice. "What bothers me is that we have all this hue and cry, then things go back to normal."
Ms. Crowley is a social worker for the Children's Society, a national child care charity. "Residential care almost attracts people who will abuse children," she said. "At least that's what I'm beginning to think."
Another to come reluctantly to this conclusion is Malcolm King. Mr. King directs the social services operations of the Clwyd County Council in Wales.
"I've been thinking about this for some time. If you're a pedophile, where better to work than in a closed institution full of damaged kids, kids who can't complain. All you've got to say is that he's just a bad kid and you can't believe anything he says."
Mr. King also defends the people who work in children's homes, at salaries of about $14,000 a year, which is below the national average in Britain.
"The vast majority of these people care for children," he said. "They are untrained, but they are good people. But they are feeling some guilt by association these days."
Both Ms. Crowley and Mr. King say there is no foolproof way to avoid child abuse in institutions, though tighter screening of people doing what they call "residential work" would help.
The best defense, they believe, is to keep as many children as possible out of these places by offering services to help keep families together. In the early 1980s, Ms. Crowley said, children "would be put into care more readily than they are now." Thus, the children's home is seen as the last resort. "It cannot meet the needs of children put into them," she said.
Though the Beck case is the most recent to run through the courts in Britain, and the allegations in Wales have yet to be fully probed, many other cases of child abuse, in and out of institutions, have emerged. The subject is very much on people's minds these days. Some of these cases combine satanic rites with sexual abuse.
The most spectacular broke earlier this year in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland. In February, at the request of local social service authorities, police removed nine children from their own homes. The parents were accused of using them in
satanic rites in the dead of night, during which young girls were violated by older men.
There have been no prosecutions in that case, and all nine children are now back in their homes. Instead, a non-criminal judicial inquiry is under way into the actions of the Orkney Council, its social work department and the police
Another case occurred in Epping Forest, near London. Children in court said they were sexually abused by adult members of their families and spoke of the ritual murder of infants. That case was thrown out for want of evidence.
However, Mr. King, the Welsh social services director, says he believes that when children make what appear to be wild charges of abuse, those charges ought to be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly.
"Disasters have happened when people refused to believe children," he said. "All our evidence shows that children don't lie as much as adults. Children die when adults put the testimony of adults above that of children."