Children were hurt but never heard Britain investigates decades-old claims of abuse in 'care homes'

March 02, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WREXHAM, Wales -- For nearly two decades, Stephen Messham has fought to reveal the dark secret of north Wales, and perhaps Britain.

He says "care homes" in north Wales that kept orphaned, abandoned and wayward children often were houses of horror.

He says some staff workers meted out sadistic beatings, while others engaged in systematic sexual abuse.

He claims that some children were turned into "rent-boys" for adult male clients outside of the home.

Messham says he knows all of this from experience. He was one of the abused.

"If you were big and strong, you got away," says Messham, 33. "But if you were young, weak and vulnerable, you were trapped."

The dark secret of north Wales finally is being fully uncovered in the largest child abuse investigation in British history.

The three-member Tribunal of Inquiry into Child Abuse in North Wales is looking into hundreds of cases of abuse said to have occurred in 31 care homes in the former Clwyd and Gwynedd counties in the 1970s and 1980s.

Its charge is to find the truth in sweeping allegations of beatings and rapes.

There are allegations that boys were suspended from chandeliers, raped in showers and forced to have sex with male staff.

Others have claimed that a national pedophile ring infiltrated the care home system, not just in Wales, but throughout Britain, where some 40,000 youngsters are kept in care homes and smaller foster homes.

Similar investigations are under way in 15 other British jurisdictions. Links between Britain and child-sex rings in Belgium and the Netherlands are also alleged.

"The scandal in Wales is certainly characteristic and symbolic of other scandals in Britain," says Allan Levy, an attorney who specializes in child law and headed a 1990-1991 child abuse inquiry in the English county of Staffordshire.

"When it comes to children in care in this country, there is a sort of lack of political will and placing of resources."

In addition to testimony of the alleged victims, the yearlong tribunal in Ewloe is also expected to hear evidence from 85 alleged abusers, including teachers and former workers in the homes.

The inquiry is expected to detail ways to prevent abuse. Prosecutions could follow.

"The hope of the tribunal is to silence suggestions that anything is covered up," says the inquiry chief, Sir Ronald Waterhouse, a retired High Court judge. "I don't suppose, though, that everyone can be satisfied."

Previous investigations in north Wales yielded seven convictions of child abuse. But they left many questions unanswered.

How could such alleged abuse have taken place on so wide a scale for so long and gone unnoticed by authorities?

The wretched background of the youngsters themselves worked against them. "So-called 'bad boys' weren't readily believed," says Waterhouse.

At least 10 deaths

There have already been apparent casualties. At least 10 people who were allegedly abused have died, many by suicide.

In Britain, children who are abandoned, orphaned or charged with minor offenses are often placed by social workers in care homes, which provide educational opportunities.

While standards are set by the national government, local governments are charged with providing care. Some of the institutions are state-run. Others are privately run for the state.

There has recently been a move away from larger institutions to care in foster homes, keeping the children in their home areas.

Wrexham, built on coal and steel and now refashioned into a home for high-tech industries, just happened to be the place where two notorious children's homes were operated and where some of the alleged victims and alleged abusers still live.

Most people in this city of 50,000 have only the vaguest sense of the specific allegations.

With their well-manicured grounds and imposing facilities, Bryn Estyn and Bryn Alyn, two homes on the outskirts of Wrexham, were out of sight and out of mind, generally filled with 100 or so boys from across Britain.

Bryn Estyn's deputy headmaster, Peter Howarth, was sent to jail in July 1994 for 10 years for sexual assaults on eight boys.

One witness told the present inquiry that boys at Bryn Estyn would be hauled away before bedtime and returned sobbing 30 minutes later. "I never asked what happened because I was afraid to ask," he said.

Millionaire businessman

Bryn Alyn was privately run by businessman John Allen, who used generous gifts to earn the trust of his "boys," according to tribunal documents. Before he was jailed in 1995 for six years for indecent assault, Allen amassed a multimillion-dollar fortune.

He ran four residential institutions. He also had set up three video production companies.

"It's time now that everything come out in the open," says Bronwen Greenway, Wrexham's mayor. "We have a lot of lessons to learn. We still have homes in this area. We must be more conscious of them."

But according to Malcolm King, a local councilman, many here are still unwilling to confront the past abuses.

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