Retired judge claims he was right about  abuse in North Wales

RETIRED HIGH COURT JUDGE, Sir Ronald Waterhouse, has today defended himself against criticisms of the findings made by the North Wales Tribunal which he chaired. According to a story in this morning's Western Mail, Sir Ronald says that his report, which he presented to parliament in February 2002, did not overestimate the scale of abuse in North Wales as critics have claimed.

He was responding to attacks made on the Tribunal findings in the light of the successful appeals of Basil Williams-Rigby and Mike Lawson (see below). The North Wales branch of the campaigning group FACT (False Allegations against Carers and Teachers) has pointed out that the entire inquiry conducted by Sir Ronald was premised on an acceptance of the very methods of police trawling which have now been discredited. Not only was trawling directly responsible for putting these two innocent men in prison, but it has also been severely criticised by last year's Home Affairs Committee report.

Sir Ronald is reported as saying: '
We were fully aware of the criticism put forward by FACT, which didn't exist as an organisation then, but the people who who founded it were putting their views to us during the course of the inquiry.' 

The claim which Sir Ronald makes here is untrue in one respect and potentially misleading in another. The people who founded FACT were former colleagues of Basil Williams-Rigby and members of his family. They were all based in Merseyside and none of them played any part in the North Wales Tribunal.

It is certainly true that the Tribunal was made aware of criticisms of trawling at a very early stage. But this had nothing to do with FACT.  I myself wrote to Sir Ronald in 1996 before the Tribunal began in an attempt to draw his attention to the dangers of trawling. The same points were made in an article which I wrote for the Guardian which appeared on the first day of the  Tribunal.

The solicitor Chris Saltrese also attempted to direct the Tribunal's attention to these problems. But it is misleading to give the impression, as Sir Ronald Waterhouse's quoted words tend to, that the Tribunal was receptive to such views or that such evidence was ever heard in public.

The Tribunal made no attempt hear formal evidence from critics of trawling. As is recorded elsewhere on this website, when Chris Saltrese felt impelled by such omissions to write to Sir Ronald in order to call attention to the problems posed by police trawling his letter had a frosty reception. He was rebuked in front of his fellow lawyers by Sir Ronald who told him that, since his claims were not subject to cross-examination, he did not consider that Saltrese's letter formed part of the evidence before him. The letter would, he said, have 'no impact' on his mind. In a remarkable pronouncement he then said:

I make it clear that I receive, from time to time, letters from various people who feel very strongly about the subject matter of the Inquiry. I do not propose to read any further letters of that kind (NWTT, p. 14706).

One comment of Sir Ronald's which features in today's newspaper report might be touching in its naivety were it not so disturbing in its implications. 'If trawling is undertaken,' he is quoted as saying, 'it must be done very sensitively and carefully without making suggestion. You need to go and ask "could you tell us about your experience in care", rather than saying "were you abused by Joe Soap".'  No doubt this is true but quite where the dream-world described by Sir Ronald makes contact with reality is less clear.

It was certainly not during the course of the evidence which one former resident of Bryn Estyn gave to the Tribunal. As early as Day 7 of the proceedings, this man, who appeared as a complainant alleging physical abuse, was asked by Tony Jennings, counsel for former deputy head Peter Howarth, whether, when he had been visited by the North Wales Police during the 1991-2 investigation, he had been asked about Howarth:

Q. Did they ask you about Mr Howarth specifically?

A. They mentioned his name, yes.

Q. Did they ask as to whether you had anything to say about activities by Mr Howarth whilst you were at Bryn Estyn?

A. And I said I didn’t know.

Q. Did they ask you generally whether you could provide any information that reflected on the role of Mr. Howarth as Deputy Head?

A. No, no, no. Had I witnessed any sexual abuse from Mr. Howarth, had I been abused, did I know anyone that was being abused; them sort of questions.

Q. They were interested in any abuse by Mr. Howarth that you were aware of, yes?

A. Yes, I figured serious abuse, yes.

Q. You mean that they were not interested in minor abuse?

A. No, not at all, no, not at the time, no. Everything was up in the air and everyone was looking for convictions, yes, and they was getting them as well, yes, because they was guilty (NWTT pp. 758-9). 

This witness not only indicates that the police officers who interviewed him had supplied Howarth’s name, he also says that they had specifically questioned him about whether he had been abused by Howarth.

Later on, cross-examined by Andrew Moran QC, counsel to the North Wales Police, the same witness indicated clearly that the questions he had been asked about Howarth had been explicit and detailed:

Your officers told me about apparent vibrators and apparent sex rooms that Howarth had, your officers told me this. I haven’t spoken to anyone in 15 years, do you know what I mean. I wasn’t abused, I haven’t had no vibrators, I hadn’t seen no sex room, do you know what I mean (NWTT, pp. 780-1).

Here there would appear to be clear evidence of how the details of one allegation could be ‘carried’ by police officers from one witness to another, for the unusual idea that boys might have been sexually abused with vibrators was actually contained in the statement given by the very first witness to make an allegation against Howarth.

How, then, did the Tribunal chaired by Sir Ronald Waterhouse, deal with this immensely significant evidence when they came to write their report?

The answer is both simple and depressing.

They ignored it.

21 March 2003                   


© Richard Webster, 2003


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