Paedophiles, Paranoia, and Panic: Witchhunt at Shieldfield Nursery

By , March 30, 2010 2:29 am

An Introduction to the Sexual Abuse Scandal at Shieldfield

In 1994, two nursery workers at Shieldfield Nursery in Newcastle were acquitted, at the direction of a High Court Judge, of 11 counts of sexual abuse and rape against children in their care. Parents and others reacted furiously, shouting “hang them!” and parading with banners saying, “We believe the kids!”.

Newcastle City Council, who owned and ran Shieldfield Nursery, responded to pressure to set up an inquiry into what had happened, and established a 4-strong team of social workers and psychologists to investigate what had happened. Meanwhile, Christopher Lillie and Dawn Reed, the co-accused in the 1994 criminal trial, left the area, having been assaulted, vilified, and accused by many of having “got off on a technicality”.

Christopher Lillie and Dawn Reed outside the High Court in 2002

In November 1998 the Review Team’s Report was published. It found that Christopher Lillie and Dawn Reed had abused as many as 65 children at Shieldfield Nursery. Lillie and Reed had had some sort of perverted sexual relationship.

Horrific sexual abuse was detailed. The “powerful” video interview of a child supposedly raped by Lillie was discussed. References were made to a wide-spread paedophile ring, the video-taping and photographing of the sexual abuse, and the depravity of the abuse. Other people who were part of the paedophile ring were hinted at.

Newspaper articles in the national and local press referred to the difficult and troubled lives of those children affected by the abuse. Further articles asked the public to help find Christopher Lillie and Dawn Reed, the “fiends” who had once again gone in to hiding.

Anyone reading the Report would have been horrified at the scale and type of sexual abuse visited on 2-3 year old children by those supposedly caring for them. And the reader would also wonder why the detailed, rigorous findings of the Report, and the evidence seen by the Review team, had not resulted in the convictions of anyone for the horrific crimes.

Dr Camille San Lazaro who "threw objectivity to the winds"

Dr Camille San Lazaro who "threw objectivity to the winds"

In July 2002 came the answer. The criminal process had not failed the Shieldfield Children. Rather, it had got it right. The children at Shieldfield and their parents had indeed suffered greatly, but not at the hands of Lillie and Reed, who had done nothing wrong whatsoever.

Rather, a modern-day Salem-style witch-hunt, mass hysteria, unreliable and unscientific professionals, and a catalogue of disasters had lead to the Shieldfield tragedy, in which impossible and implausible allegations came to be believed, disseminated and acted upon. Christopher Lillie and Dawn Reed were victims of the Shieldfield affair, together with the children and their families.

Lillie and Reed had sued for libel. They sued the authors of the report, Newcastle City Council for publishing it, and various Newcastle newspapers for articles written about them. Mr. Justice Eady, after a 6 month trial, found that the 4 authors of the Report has not only got the facts wrong, they had acted with malice. The judge said, “I am entirely satisfied of Mr Lillie’s and Miss Reed’s innocence.”

Each of the Claimants, Lillie and Reed, were awarded the maximum £200,000 damages each for the libel, and cleared of any wrong-doing in relation to any sexual abuse, or any of the children at Shieldfield.

How did it all start?

In April 1993, Jason Dabbs pleaded guilty to the indecent assault of children at a Newcastle Nursery and was jailed for it. Days later, the mother of “Child 22″ told the police that her 2 year old son had told her that “Chris” had hurt him while changing his nappy. Lillie was suspended, and the child was interviewed on video by the police and social workers. During the interview, the boy was specifically asked if it hurt when his nappy was changed. He said it did. He was asked if Chris had hurt him, to which he replied, “no”.  He said he liked Chris changing his nappy. Child 22 had been on iron tablets for some time and was constipated, and had a long history of behavioural problems whcih had calmed down when he was in the care of Lillie and Reed.

Child 22′s mother was sure that he had been abused. She talked to other parents and told them about the “abuse” by Lillie, and made them concerned about their own children. She was told by the police in July 1993, “No bull shit. I don’t want you talking to anyone”, but by then, several other parents were looking for signs that their children had been abused. Mr. Justice Eady found that, “it has become clear with the benefit of hindsight that the mother of Child 22 is a completely unreliable “historian”. Her accounts changed radically over time” although he made it clear that he did not blame her.

The Developing Witchhunt

Declared innocent - Christopher Lillie and Dawn Reed

Declared innocent - Christopher Lillie and Dawn Reed

The investigation snow-balled. Meetings were held at the nursery. Children were anxiously quizzed about their time at the nursery by parents and other relatives. Police officers and social workers got more involved.

Many children were examined by Dr. Camille San Lazaro, who kept inadequate records, caused many parents to become alarmed, and whose records were often changed and exaggerated. the doctor accepted in the libel trial that her reports were sometimes exaggerated and over-stated. the judge found that her integrity and credibility were seriously damaged, and said “she was unbalanced, obsessive and lacking in judgment”, and that, “the truth is that, where physical findings were negative or equivocal, Dr San Lazaro was prepared to make up the deficiencies by throwing objectivity and scientific rigour to the winds in a highly emotional misrepresentation of the facts”.

Children were interviewed on video over a long period, often several times. An expert witness, whose evidence was accepted by the judge, said:

The interviews that I examined in the present case are among the worst that I have ever encountered. In this case, extremely young and bewildered children were brought in and interrogated (sometimes for over an hour) by one, by two and even by three interviewers. These interviewers used the full array of suggestive techniques to elicit allegations of abuse.

When the children denied that they had been abused, they were bombarded with more suggestions, they were scolded, they were threatened and they were bribed. And when some children whimpered, moaned or begged the interviewers to end the questioning, the interviewers continued. In sum, the interviews were abusive and the children were victims of the interviewers.

There were three aspects of these data that are incontrovertible: (1) these video-taped interviews provide the only opportunity for us to hear the children’s own words; (2) the children did not initially make statements that were indicative of abuse; (3) when they did make statements these were preceded by extremely suggestive techniques that render all subsequent statements unreliable

Mr. Justice Eady went through evidence in relation to the children one by one, carefully and thoroughly. He found that no child could said to have been sexually abused. Children often said that nothing had happened to them, or were coached, suggested answers, heard things from other children or their parents, or gave impossible accounts – involving children who weren’t at the nursery, or clothes the child was wearing when interviewed, or about places they could not have been to and people they could not have met.  Children were being asked to give accounts of things that had supposedly happened when they were 2 years old some years later.

What the Judge Said about the Report and its Writers

The judge made a finding of “malice”, which meant that the writers could not claim the protection against libel that they otherwise could in such as report. He said that the writers, “came to distort and misrepresent the evidence against them”, that they wrote things that they all knew were untrue, that they claimed to have had open minds, but that he did not believe them, that, “their procedures were quite unsuited to performing it with any semblance of fairness or natural justice. What they did was to assemble arguments, theories and selective bits of evidence and use them to justify the assumptions they had made from the outset”.

He concluded by saying:

The Review Team chose to promulgate to the Council and to the wider public what was recognised within days (by Mr Cosgrove and Mr Marron, in particular) to be a specious and disreputable document. They must have appreciated the harm they would do to the Claimants and indeed the physical risks to which they were choosing to subject them. But they were left to learn about these horrendous allegations for the first time through saturation media coverage. That lacked not only fairness but also humanity. Yet the Team even made the false claim that they had been given advance warning of the allegations and findings and a chance to respond.

Why call it a witch hunt?

It might seem different. After all, we know witches don’t exist, but that child abusers certainly do.

Not all that different - the Salem Witch Trials

Not all that different - the Salem Witch Trials

This is looking at it the wrong way. After all, in Salem they knew witches existed. They had to go and find them, that was all. In the present case, the members of the Review Team “knew” that Lillie and read were abusers. If there were awkward facts which pointed the other way, they missed them out of the report or claimed the opposite.

If a child said he had been abused, no matter how inaccurate or incredible or prompted his account was, they believed it. If a child said nice things about Lillie or Reed, the Team thought it was evidence that the children had been frightened into silence by their abusers.

The fact that not one child made any spontaneous contemporary complaint didn’t bother the writers. The leading questions in the interviews of the children was denied in the report – an outright lie.

It took 9 years for Christopher Lillie and Dawn Reed to establish their innocence. Children were treated in a way that turned out to be abusive, but by social workers and police officers.

So if you read about King James I’s witchfinder, don’t feel smug. It happened here (and in the USA, Germany, and many other countries) over the last 20 years, too.

You can read Mr Justice Eady’s full judgment here, and an article by the man who started helping Lillie and Reed after the report was published here.

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