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Britain’s Botched Child Abuse Scandal

To put it mildly, it was an awkward social situation. After murdering a small boy during a pedophile orgy, a senior Member of Parliament determined to castrate another victim with a knife. He was prevented from this act by a former British Prime Minister who was present at the event. That fellow-pervert suggested that this was going a little far, even for a group that had already murdered several other children. How far we have traveled from Downton Abbey.

If I seem to be treating such a horrific story sarcastically, I honestly do not know how else to respond to such a monstrous and fantastic allegation, or the fact that senior ranks of the British police have treated this phantasmagoric tale—and countless others of the same sort—as sober fact. Lives and reputations have been ruined. Fortunately, it now seems that the whole disastrous saga of falsehoods is about to collapse amidst purges and resignations, with growing warnings about police reliance on “narcissists and fantasists.” The main question presently is how much of the British legal and criminal justice system will go down with this horribly flawed investigation. Dare we hope that common sense will at last prevail?

Some months ago, I outlined the mythology of “elite pedophile rings” that had been circulating in Britain for some years. The allegedly homicidal MP in question was Harvey Proctor, the former Premier was Edward Heath, while other rumored perpetrators from the early 1980s included multiple figures at the highest ranks of politics, intelligence and the military. One of the accused was former Home Secretary Leon Brittan, others were the heads of MI5 and MI6. As the saying goes, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, and that was certainly applicable in this instance—but what was extraordinary was how incredibly weak-to-non-existent was the evidence offered.

The whole “Westminster Pedophile Ring” extravaganza depends on the unsupported testimony of one anonymous man, “Nick,” a 47-year old administrator in the National Health Service, and a former nurse, who reports being present at various events as an abused child victim. His claims may theoretically be correct, but as yet, no corroboration has been found to support them. Even so, he became the star witness for a special police investigative unit, Operation Midland, and last year one leading officer described Nick’s testimony as “credible and true.” As even the Metropolitan Police has now admitted, the prejudicial word “true” should never have been uttered in this context—but how convenient never to have to take any of these cases to trial! If the police were able simply to declare the charges true then ideally, nothing would be left except to build the bonfire for the accused.

Over the months, Nick’s tales have faced increasing skepticism, and major new exposés should be forthcoming within the coming weeks, as long-postponed investigative documentaries finally appear on British television. Nick’s many critics point out that he had for years reported suffering extensive abuse as a child, but only very recently did he add the charges about elite offenders and MPs. So why on earth did the police call Nick “credible”? Later statements explained what this meant. Yes, police might sometimes encounter serial liars and hopeless fantasists, but in police eyes, “Nick” did not fit that bill, as he is a respectable, well-spoken, middle class guy not actually slavering at the mouth. Therefore, he could not be lying. Even if he is reporting events factually, it is surely very bad practice to judge someone’s reliability or truthfulness wholly on their demeanor and speech habits.

We have to be cautious about using the word “lying,” which implies deliberately and knowingly making false statements. It is simple, though, to cite examples where people have falsely reported child abuse, without actually lying. In the 1990s, many thousands of patients of so-called recovered memory treatment recounted atrocious sufferings at the hands of ritualized and Satanic abuse rings. Some of those patients presumably had been abused in some form, but we can say with total confidence that the vast majority of the episodes they were reporting never happened as objective realities. These people, too, generally presented as rational, well-balanced adults, often from decent professional backgrounds, and they genuinely believed what they were saying. But what they described still never happened.

Quite apart from recovered memory cases, other people do indeed tell false tales—although we might again cavil that they are not consciously lying. Of course serial liars exist, and some genuinely reach the point where they do not know the difference between truth and fiction. Britain’s Daily Telegraph recently exposed one alleged abuse victim, “who also claimed to have evidence of two murders, had been convicted of making hoax bomb calls, had falsely confessed to murder, and been accused by a judge of telling ‘whopping lies’.”

In the real world, such a career history would devastate the witness’s credibility, but in the mirror universe of child abuse investigation, it actually bolsters the claims. Let me explain that paradox. Central to that whole mindset is one simple statement that has achieved the status of a religious creed: victims never lie about child abuse. Children don’t lie, nor do adults reporting their childhood sufferings. If you doubt this fact—if you use a word like “alleged” victim—then you are an accomplice to that abuse. If you seek to challenge or discredit statements about abuse, then you are also striking at all future victims and survivors who would be discouraged from reporting their experiences. Doubt is of the devil.

That approach helps us understand the extreme tolerance granted to purported victims who on the face of it sound deeply unconvincing: the ones with lengthy records of psychiatric treatment and commitment; with multiple convictions for petty crime and fraud; with decades-long involvement with substance abuse, including the hardest and most destructive drugs; and the serial liars. What about the ones who utter not a word about the alleged crimes until 20 or 30 years after the event? Surely, these are not credible?

Oh ye of little faith. Listen to the experts, read the professional journals, and you shall know the truth. In fact, we are told, the degree of mental disorder and social malfunction in adult life is a direct and inevitable consequence of the childhood abuse, and the severity of that abuse is directly proportionate to the degree of adult dysfunction. In simple terms, the worse the acts of childhood molestation and rape, the more likely the lying and substance abuse. Of course they seem to be crazy people, drug addicts, and persistent liars, and that fact proves the truth of their claims. Got that? Equally, the worse the abuse, the longer the time period before they might feel able to expose it to the world.

Then, we add the last critical element, of anonymity. No abuse victim wishes to be exposed to scorn, so of course he or she is granted anonymity in making charges, a luxury not afforded to the alleged abuser. That protection is doubly necessary when the victim is exposing the horrors attributed to politicians and intelligence officers, who might seek revenge. In practice, then, we have the perfect situation for the generation of accusations: the more improbable or ludicrous the charges, the more likely they are to be believed, and all accusations can be lodged from behind a wall of secrecy.

In a powerful press conference, Harvey Proctor gave the police a simple choice. Charge him immediately with murder and let the case go before a jury—or else identify “Nick” publicly, and prosecute him for wasting police time. And let the police involved be moved to some other function where their skills can be used more profitably, such as traffic duty.

His challenge stands.

Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels (Basic Books, forthcoming Fall 2015). 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.

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