Leon Brittan, who died last week, had a very distinguished career in British public life. Among other things, he served as Margaret Thatcher’s Home Secretary and later became a member of the European Commission. It is startling, then, to find that among the standard eulogies for the great and the good, some news headlines  reporting his death feature such unexpected words as “abuse ring,” “pedophile,” and “child murder.” Brittan had the misfortune to play a starring role in a long-simmering sex scandal currently fascinating that country’s media.
For years now, rumors have been floating about a “Westminster Pedophile Ring” that supposedly operated in the 1970s and 1980s and which included senior politicians, civil servants, and military figures, mainly right-wing Conservatives. Recently allegations reached new heights when police said they were seriously considering claims that the group had murdered several young boys. As the Independent headlined, “Tory MP Killed Boy During Sex Attack.” In themselves, these horrific charges contain nothing flagrantly impossible. Yet we need to be very careful indeed about accepting a story that depends on thorny issues of evidence and credibility that will be deeply familiar to American observers of our own country’s sexual politics.
The whole dreadful affair has now developed a complete mythology, with two pivotal hero figures. One was flamboyant Member of Parliament Geoffrey Dickens, who in 1984 compiled a massive dossier about pedophilia in British public life, with details on some 40 allegedly tainted politicians. He gave this to Home Secretary Leon Brittan, whose department promptly misplaced or buried it, supposedly as part of a general establishment cover-up. Only in recent years has the affair returned to life. The other key figure is the pseudonymous “Nick,” supposedly one of the abused boys from that earlier era. Finding his chilling account of witnessing murders “credible and true,” British police have now reopened the investigation, in the process generating sensational headlines.
Parts of the story are plausible. We know that in that era—roughly, the decade following 1975—several British public figures were indeed involved in outrageous and exploitative sexual misbehavior, including some cases of child abuse and child pornography. One horrific example was Liberal MP Cyril Smith, a 300-pound blimp with a penchant for spanking teenaged boys. Although such cases of sexual malfeasance were well-known to police and media, they were thoroughly hushed up, a process made vastly easier by draconian British libel laws.
The “pedophile ring” rhetoric is, though, misleading. If we look at the known sexual scandals from the politics of this era, they tended not to be “pedophile,” in the sense of involving someone sexually focused on children at or below the age of puberty. The word is thus chosen to maximize seriousness, implying young child victims, compulsive serial offending, and incorrigibility. In fact, the recorded cases commonly involved homosexual men interested in male teenagers or young adults, usually male prostitutes. That does not for a second excuse the behavior, but it does put it in a different category from molesters preying on infants.
That distinction is significant in light of the claims made about Geoffrey Dickens, who is today presented as a near-prophetic champion of decency and child protection confronting a perverted ruling class. Dickens was in fact an outrageous demagogue, who never found a sensational issue or moral panic that he failed to leap on. His special bugbear was homosexuality, a broad category that, for him, included pedophilia as one of its subsets. If we actually had a copy of the legendary dossier, we can be quite sure that it included very few actual pedophiles and a great many homosexuals. Almost certainly, too, the impressive-sounding term “dossier” dignifies a generalized rant.
Charges of rings and conspiracies should also be treated circumspectly. The “elite pedophilia” charges circulated very widely in tabloid media of the 1980s, usually in the context of lunatic theories of Satanism and supposed “ritual child abuse,” sometimes linked to anti-Masonic hysteria. Then as now, these fevered rumors Named Names, including Cabinet members and members of the royal family, as well as prominent Jews, like Brittan himself. It’s not surprising, then, that law-enforcement officials at the time were profoundly (and rightly) skeptical of any new nuggets Dickens had to offer.
But let’s move to the present day, and especially to “Nick,” the main (and seemingly only) source of the murder charges. I personally have no idea of Nick’s identity, or of his veracity, and it is possible that every appalling word he is uttering is grounded in truth. But based on the extensive media reports of the affair, I do have concerns.
I read, for instance, the accounts of the homicidal orgies attributed to the elite ring, in which at least one boy was strangled. This gives me a mighty sense of déjà vu because I know identical stories of actual, confirmed incidents that happened in London at this exact time and which have been known in the public domain for decades. Those crimes, though, involved a quite genuine pedophile crime network that was as far from “elite” as it was possible to be, a group of underclass trash who hung around fairgrounds to find child victims. They indeed killed repeatedly, in exactly the ways now credited to our “elite” perverts, and the similarity between those stories and the current charges bothers me. If someone were inventing “pedophile ring” crimes, this is what they would come up with.
Recently, one of the leading detectives in the renewed investigation remarked that “I believe what Nick is saying to be credible and true.” Based on reports to date, police have never referred to any actual corroboration of the charges, any piece of evidence that Nick gave that he would not have known if he had not been present at these crimes. Rather, we hear repeatedly of his “credibility,” a word that is thoroughly subjective: “I believe.”
When I say that X is “credible,” what we mean is that I find what he has to say believable, and that fact depends as much on my willingness to accept his statement as on any quality in his character or demeanor. This is a familiar theme in contemporary American debates over sexual assault, as when Rolling Stone found a witness who recounted fraternity rape stories, declaring her “credible” because it fitted their ideological needs to do so. Editors and journalists simply wanted and needed to believe. Seeking corroboration was unnecessary, and the mere suggestion of doing so would have blamed and demeaned the victim.
In Britain, too, there are ample reasons why authorities would now find Nick “credible” in the way they would not have done a decade or so back. The main new factor is the appalling case of disc jockey Jimmy Savile, who used his celebrity status to carry out a career of rape and molestation lasting half a century. Since 2012, desperately anxious to avoid new attacks on their integrity and competence, law-enforcement agencies have sought out and prosecuted celebrity sexual crimes from bygone years, commonly relying on the uncorroborated testimony of reported victim and survivors.
Sometimes, this exhumation of past horrors has undoubtedly served the cause of justice, but questions remain. Should an individual really be tried and convicted on the unsupported, uncorroborated evidence of alleged victims who report crimes from 30 or 40 years ago? Surely, we can now point to enough cases where such testimony has proved to be wholly fictitious, and malicious, so that real injustice resulted. Witnesses fantasize, and witnesses lie.
Perhaps British politicians of the Thatcher era were indeed sexual monsters. But we should pause before accepting what, on its surface, looks like a deranged fantasy.
Philip Jenkins is the author of Images of Terror: What We Can and Can’t Know About Terrorism . He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.