Sunday, January 15, 2006

Ruined Lives Of Islanders In Child Sex Fiasco

The allegations could not have been more lurid or devastating. Eight people, including a 75-year-old grandmother, were accused of raping and sexually abusing children in black magic rituals, of wife-swapping orgies in which they dressed in robes and masks, and of sacrificing cats and chickens and drinking their blood. The case, on the God-fearing Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, made local, national and international news. But on Thursday the Scottish Crown Office and Northern Constabulary quietly confirmed that the case was now closed.

For the accused, however, the nightmare is far from over. Last week The Observer spoke to three of those charged. They are desperately seeking a public inquiry into what they claim was a seriously flawed case, which has not only destroyed their lives but also ruined any chance of convicting those who were genuinely guilty of neglecting and abusing the children involved.

'The worst thing in the world is to be sexually abused as a child. The second worst is to be falsely accused of sexually abusing a child,' said Peter Nelson, 59, who moved from England to Lewis for a better, simpler life. 'There is no accusation in our society worse than paedophilia, no word that clings more damningly. I would rather die than be called a paedophile. My life has been completely ruined. I've been an honest, proud man all my days. All I cared about was my garden. Now everyone thinks I am a paedophile. My life is over. I have become a hermit.'

The case began in January 2003, when two sisters told social workers they had been sexually abused. Initially, the allegations related only to two individuals and involved inappropriate touching.

In August that year, police spent 11 days interviewing the girls' mother, Mrs A, who became their key witness. After her involvement, the number of suspects spiralled and the nature of the allegations broadened dramatically.

The woman, who has learning difficulties and epilepsy, was sexually abused herself as a child and has a history of making false allegations. She told police there were 13 abusers who wore robes and masks. She drew pictures of them and said animals were involved and that she and the girls were forced to watch videos of sexual acts and deaths during ceremonies. Two months later, on 3 October, 2003, police arrested 11 people in dawn raids on homes in Lewis, Leicestershire, West Yorkshire and Dorset, in what police code-named Operation Haven.

Eight were remanded in custody before appearing at Stornoway sheriff court charged with offences including rape, lewd, indecent and libidinous practices involving three girls under 16, between 1995 and 2001. All denied the charges and a trial was expected.

Mr Nelson wept as he recalled that morning. He and his daughter, Mary-Anne, 37, were asleep at home in Lochs on the west of the island when they were awoken by their dogs barking and the police banging on the door.A search warrant was produced.

'When they raided this house I don't think the detectives realised I am disabled,' said Mr Nelson. 'I have spinal injuries and my daughter is my carer. But one of them asked me whether it was an unnatural relationship I had with my daughter. They asked whether we shared the same bed. The next thing he said I was being accused of the rape of three children and my daughter was being accused as well.' Mr Nelson and his daughter had met Mrs A several times and had contacted social services because of concerns about the welfare of her children.

John and Susan Sellwood had also been asleep in their home on the north of the island that morning. They were also arrested and driven in two cars to Stornoway police station.

'I was absolutely terrified,' said Mrs Sellwood. 'I didn't know what was happening to us. I was bundled into the back of an unmarked police car and taken to the station. I was told I had married a child abuser and rapist and I was accused of wearing black gowns and masks and being into devil-worshipping, Satanism and the sacrifice of animals. I was also accused of being involved in sex orgies and of holding down the girls while the men raped them. I thought I was going to be physically sick. I was hysterical.'

In the months following the arrests, the lives of those charged were derailed. One morning, in March last year, Mr Nelson decided to take his own life. He had woken up to discover that his huge garden, which had been his pride and joy and which he had opened to the public to raise money for Save the Children, had been vandalised and the word 'paedophile' spray-painted across the white walls of his cottage. He took an overdose of sleeping and blood-pressure pills. His daughter found him unconscious but he recovered later in hospital.

The Sellwoods were also subjected to relentless vigilante attacks. Another man, who The Observer has decided not to name, as he is the uncle of the three girls at the centre of the case, their mother's brother, was also charged.

From his home in Rochdale, he said he had told social services in Stornoway in 2002 that his sister was a fantasist who had a long history of inventing abuse claims in the Midlands before she moved to Lewis in the Nineties. 'The children suffered from very serious neglect regarding their basic welfare and the mother and father had inadequate parenting skills. But the sad fact is that the problems of this dysfunctional family spread out to embrace a number of perfectly innocent people.'

Nine months after the charges were made, they were suddenly dropped and the case collapsed. There was no explanation from the police or from the Crown Office, other than a statement which said: 'We can say that all the available evidence was carefully examined before this decision was taken.'

Despite this, and perhaps not surprisingly, many people felt that there could be no smoke without fire. Two months ago, a report by Scotland's social work inspection agency concluded that the three girls had indeed been subjected to a decade of horrendous sexual, physical and emotional abuse. The 162-page report said that one girl was so hungry she ate cat food. Another had no shoes to wear, and another slept in a cupboard. Physical neglect had included beds soaked in urine and animals roaming freely through the house.

When the report was published there were calls for the case to be reopened, but last week the Crown Office and Northern Constabulary said it was now firmly closed. The falsely accused are now writing to politicians urging a public inquiry to get to the truth. 'The truth is that we were innocent all along and the investigators have displayed unbelievable gullibility and credulousness,' said the brother of Mrs A.

Others who were falsely accused share that view. 'I think it is absolutely awful what has happened to those children. I think anyone who abuses children should be locked up and the key thrown away,' said Mr Nelson. 'I know police and social workers have a difficult job. They have to investigate any claims of abuse, but we are now hearing all these rumours that police knew Mrs A had made false allegations before and that she was given immunity from prosecution in exchange for her agreement to act as principal witness. We are innocent victims of one woman's troubled mind. We want our names cleared and we want an apology.'

Murdo Fraser, chief inspector of the Western Isles Northern Constabulary, refused to comment on their claims. He said simply that the police investigation was of a high standard. 'The force had a sufficiency of evidence to charge a number of people and we did.'

The Observer was unable to trace Mrs A for comment. It is understood that she is still living in Lewis but has changed her name. Meanwhile, her three children are being looked after by foster carers and are said to be thriving. Because of the handling of the case, however, whether due to incompetence or malice, those who may have actually been guilty of abusing the children look set to remain free.

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