A decade on, reports Nick Anning, the real lessons of Nottingham's satanic abuse panic continue to be ignored
Concerns about satanic abuse became big news in the 1980s, following a combined investigation by social services and police into incest and sexual assault within an extended family living on Nottingham's Broxtowe estate. On the basis of evidence elicited from the children in the case, key members of Nottingham's social services area 'Team 4' asserted that allegations of a 'satanic' conspiracy were being ignored or deliberately suppressed by the police. The police rejected this claim.
'Ritual satanic abuse' was already an issue in America, but Broxtowe was seen to be the first British case, sparking off a national panic.
The false nature of the satanic abuse allegations in the Broxtowe case was exposed by late 1989, with a report by a specially appointed team involving both police and social services, the Joint Enquiry Team (JET). Pages of evidence detailed how the complex Broxtowe investigation had been hijacked by the obsessive theories of the social workers involved.
The JET report was completed just over 10 years ago. But Nottingham social services kept it from the public for years. Only in 1997 was the ban broken, when myself and two journalist colleagues published the report's revised and shortened version on the internet. The consequences of that ban are still apparent a decade later - in social work and mental health practice, in the criminal justice system and in media coverage of sexual crime.
What, asked the JET team, were the factors that contributed to the mistaken insistence that the Broxtowe child abuse case was one of ritual satanic abuse? Collaborative sessions at the NSPCC's new centre in Nottingham, using untested and still controversial 'play therapy' techniques with some of the children from the extended family central to the case, appeared to have prompted the children to talk of witches and other occult phenomena. The JET team was unable to investigate these to conclusion because the social services area manager in charge refused to release videotapes of the play sessions, but they cast grave doubts on the results obtained.
Foster parents had, under instruction from social workers, kept diaries recording the conversations of the disturbed children from the Broxtowe estate family who were placed in their care. Here, there had clearly been discussion between foster carers, 'lead questioning' and cross-contamination and, in some cases, direct contact between the children.
Finally, the enquiry team traced the influence of independent outside experts who had interpreted the foster-parent diaries and in one instance briefed the foster parents together. Although the claim is still disputed, evidence suggests that at this meeting one expert distributed a list of spurious 'satanic indicators', drawn from dubious American sources and purporting to show how to recognise the signs of 'ritual abuse' of children by Satanists.
The Joint Enquiry Team in Nottingham reinvestigated every 'satanic' allegation made by the children and their social workers and found no evidence to back them. They traced their origins to faulty interviews, cross-contamination and flawed statements, and concluded that a mistaken obsession had taken root. They said very clearly in their report that there was absolutely no basis for the 'satanic' claims being made.
But by then the media had got wind of the Broxtowe case and of the more wide-ranging claims of child sacrifice and satanic conspiracy. Before long, other allegedly 'satanic' cases began to surface throughout Britain - mimicking what had happened in America.
'Team 4' continued, in the face of all the contrary evidence, to insist that the police had got it wrong. They gave interviews and presentations at specialist conferences publicising their views, setting up a countrywide advisory service and taking part in TV documentaries. The view was expressed that a male-dominated police culture was refusing to take seriously what the predominantly women care-workers were saying, thus creating further serious risks to children.
It took two highly publicised scandals over yet more supposedly 'satanic' cases in which children were taken from their families, in Rochdale and the Orkneys, to bring matters to a head. Yet because of an internal decision by Nottinghamshire social services, the JET report remained hidden from the public and fellow professionals. This was despite the fact that it contained serious warnings that fabricated ritual abuse cases could crop up elsewhere in Britain because of fundamentally flawed investigative processes.
By 1991 public anger and professional concern led the Department of Health to update their guidelines on dealing with suspected child abuse by incorporating a new set of procedures for dealing with suspected cases of 'organised abuse' - drawn up in ignorance of the JET report's findings. But the failure of the Area Child Protection Committees (ACPCs) to incorporate the lessons of Nottingham has meant that local variations of the 'abuse guidelines' for ACPCs often seem to accept that 'organised' or 'ritualised' child abuse can still include the discredited concept of 'satanic abuse'.
From 1992 to 1994, for example, a huge investigation in Pembroke under the new guidelines claimed 'satanic' dimensions. It resulted in 12 people standing trial in 1994 on conspiracy and abuse charges. In what many in legal circles regard as a serious miscarriage of justice, six of the accused were convicted, though one has since been freed on appeal. Other such cases occurred in Bishop's Auckland and Newcastle.
The vital question of corroborative evidence - or the complete lack of it - has figured in a range of controversial cases involving retrospective charges of sexual abuse based on increasingly discredited 'recovered memory' therapies. A disturbing zeal, reminiscent of the Broxtowe case and focused particularly on nursery and care-home environments, is now being employed to root out shadowy networks of 'paedophile rings'.
Now the public awaits the much-delayed publication of the report of the multimillion-pound enquiry into abuse in north Wales children's homes. When the report is published, it will be important to remember that the kind of problems identified by the original JET report - sensational allegations backed by questionable evidence, fashionable theories picked up by child abuse workers, medical practitioners, lawyers and independent pressure groups - have not gone away. And that, as the JET report's authors warned, can only end up harming the best interests of the very children whose welfare society aims to protect.
Reproduced from LM issue 118, March 1999