Dark truth on island of secrets and shame
The island of Jersey is renowned for keeping people's business private. Gordon Rayner asks if this culture contributed to a decades-long child abuse scandal
By the time the former children's home of Haut de la Garenne has given up all of its terrible secrets, the darkest chapter yet will have been added to an appalling history of organised child abuse.
Over the course of the past seven days, the horror of what allegedly went on within the austere Victorian edifice has slowly unfolded, beginning with the discovery of a child's skull buried under a concrete floor.
More sinister revelations have followed each day -- the discovery of a bricked-up cellar and, inside it, a concrete bath and a set of shackles, in which it is claimed naked boys and girls were held prisoner while they waited to be sexually and physically assaulted. On Friday, another dungeon-like chamber was found beneath a trapdoor.
The "deep, dark place" described by many of the 160-plus alleged victims who have now contacted police was exactly as they had last seen it more than 20 years ago and, as police prepare to break into two more cellars, the belief is that they will soon discover the remains of more children who "went missing" from the home. Outside, in the swirling fog that shrouded parts of the island last week, officers have been digging up nearby fields where it is feared yet more remains may have been buried.
We now know Jersey's most shameful secret: that for the last 50 years, child abuse has thrived in Haut de la Garenne and, after its closure in 1986, in a succession of other schools and institutions. Many of the accused still live on this tiny island, which measures nine miles by five, and Jersey must ultimately answer two questions: How many of its 90,000 population knew what was going on, and why did none of them do anything about it?
Critics of the island's oligarchic establishment believe they already know the answer: that Jersey, with its long-standing culture of secrecy, put self-preservation before justice.
And it is this allegation of an establishment cover-up, with its echoes of Belgium's notorious Marc Dutroux case, which is likely to leave the most indelible stain on Jersey's cherished reputation.
When Dutroux was convicted in 2004 of raping and murdering a string of young girls -- two of whom had starved to death in his cellar -- he said he was part of a widespread paedophile ring which included policemen and elite members of Belgian society. Although his claims were never proved, a large percentage of Belgians still believe them.
On Jersey, Gary Matthews, a former member of the island's parliament, the States of Jersey, says he was not greatly surprised to discover that institutionalised child abuse had been able to go unchallenged for so long.
"The first instinct of the Jersey establishment whenever there is trouble is to keep it quiet," he explained, pointing out that the political classes are terrified of scandals that bring questions and interference from the outside world. "The culture of secrecy started during the German occupation in the Second World War, when there was a certain amount of collaboration. Then, in the 1960s, when Jersey built up its all-important financial sector, secrecy became the rule.
"As we now know, paedophilia was also taking place in the island's institutions, but the instinct for sweeping everything under the carpet seems to have extended to that, too." He believes that many of the island's politicians are concerned only with their image, and with protecting the tourist industry and the stability of the finance sector.
To add to the problem, Jersey's attitude towards paedophilia appears firmly stuck in the 19th Century, a time when child abuse was sometimes treated as a petty offence.
Take the case of Roger Holland, a 43-year-old St John Ambulance volunteer who openly declared the fact that he was a convicted paedophile when he applied to become a part-time policeman in 1992. Six years earlier, he had indecently assaulted a mentally impaired 14-year-old girl, whose trust he had gained through his ambulance work, and had admitted molesting a second child whose parents felt she was too traumatised to press charges. He confessed that he had "a problem for younger girls".
Such an admission, it might be assumed, would have led to him being automatically barred from joining the island's honorary police, who have considerably more powers than the equivalent special constables in Britain. But, no. Jersey's authorities decided that his conviction was in the past, and so allowed him to stand for election as a constable's officer. He was elected unopposed.
After re-election in 1995, he was promoted in 1997 to the rank of vingtenier, the second most senior in the island's volunteer force, which supplements the work of the full-time police.
Although concerns about his criminal convictions were raised with Jersey's attorney-general, Holland was allowed to carry on, even after a young girl alleged in 1999 that he had "committed a sexual act with her" in the back of a police van. He finally resigned from the force in November 1999, and in 2001 was jailed for two years for two counts of indecent assault.
It was against such a background of complacency about child abuse that Haut de la Garenne became a paedophiles' paradise.
One of the alleged victims who has contacted the police, a woman identified as "Pamela", and now aged 49, claims: "Rape was rife for boys and girls of all ages. Some weekends, staff held parties, and other people would come and drink at the home. They knew how to pick out the weak ones. All of us would try to lie very still in our beds and try not to attract attention."
Peter Hannaford, 59, an orphan who spent the first 12 years of his life at the home, alleges that rape and torture "happened every night and happened to everyone".
We now know that one of those who visited the home was Edward Paisnel, the "Beast of Jersey", who for 11 years terrorised the island by abducting children from their beds, dressed in a hideous rubber mask and nail-studded wristbands, and sexually assaulting them.
Paisnel, who was jailed for 30 years in 1971 for 13 sex attacks on children and women, would hand out sweets to the children at Haut de la Garenne and ask them to call him Uncle Ted. At Christmas, he would dress up as Santa Claus. Police are investigating whether he was one of the "guests" at the horrific parties held in the home.
Jersey is just one of many communities that have been shamed by the discovery of widespread paedophilia in institutions charged with protecting the most vulnerable children in society. But it is the extraordinary length of time over which the alleged crimes took place that makes this case so shocking.
Esther Rantzen, the founder of the children's charity ChildLine, says Jersey's isolation was a large part of the reason the scandal remained hidden for so long.
"Small communities, such as islands, churches or children's homes, make it very difficult for children who are suffering abuse to safely disclose it to someone," she says.
In recent years, thanks to the work of charities such as ChildLine and the NSPCC, children have been far more likely to report abuse, knowing that their allegations will be taken seriously. But on Jersey, widespread fear of the establishment still exists.
During my time on the island this week, I have been approached or telephoned by a number of people who wanted to talk about what they believed to be one of the factors in the alleged culture of cover-up -- the island's allegedly nepotistic political and legal system, which some likened to a banana republic.
In almost every case, these individuals say that they can not risk being quoted by name, because they are genuinely afraid of being persecuted for speaking out. "The people who run this island are very powerful, and they are not answerable to any higher authority, so they can very easily make life difficult
for you,'' says one. "Anyone who speaks out is regarded as an enemy of Jersey."
The ease with which secrets can apparently remain hidden is a result of the intimacy which exists between the island's political classes, business leaders and those in authority.
Ever since the Channel Islands were granted autonomy by King John in 1204 (having become part of England's kingdom as a result of the Norman Conquest), Jersey has had an entirely independent political and legal system, based around its 53-member parliament. It has no political parties, and so there is no opposition, aside from the odd maverick such as Stuart Syvret, the former health minister, who claims he was sacked when he tried to draw attention to the child abuse scandal last year.
There are no checks and balances from outside, and some of the most important work, such as choosing the chief minister, is carried out in secret. The island's politicians, judges, policemen and business leaders are also drawn from a small pool, with many being relatives or friends.
For example, Frank Walker, the island's chief minister, was until recently chairman of the company that owns Jersey's only newspaper, the Evening Post. The bailiff, the equivalent of the Speaker in the House of Commons, is also the head of the judiciary. The attorney general, whose job is to give the bailiff impartial legal advice on prosecutions, is his brother. The list goes on.
"It is an excessively intimate system which doesn't have any checks and balances," claims Austin Mitchell, the Labour MP for Grimsby, who has for years tried to encourage more openness in Jersey's political system. "When a problem comes up, it is often concealed. Things don't tend to get investigated and exposed in that climate."
One more disturbing question presents itself in the light of the child abuse scandal: just why, on a such a small and supposedly idyllic island, did so many hundreds of children end up in care homes?
The answer lies in another little-publicised fact about Jersey -- its high level of poverty, which brings with it the sort of social problems that lead to children being taken into care.
Although Jersey, with its €327 billion financial industry, has the second-highest gross domestic product per capita in Europe, the island's wealth is largely held by the privileged few. Some 13,000 people -- more than one in seven -- live in social rental properties, Jersey's equivalent of council houses, and half of all households fall within one or more of the recognised measures for relative poverty.
The crumbling 1960s council estates of St Helier are testament to the years of neglect. Rusting cars rot on rubbish-strewn drives, windows have bedsheets for curtains and the paint is peeling off walls and doorframes.
"This place is run by the finance industry for the finance industry," says one resident. "Anyone else just doesn't count."
Although they dare not say it publicly, many on the island hope that the scandal will finally force Jersey's ruling class to get its house in order, and address the problems which, they say, it has always preferred not to discuss.