Two book Reviews : Kathy’s Real Story by Hermann Kelly and The Secret of Bryn Estyn by Richard Webster

By Mark Smith

Date Posted: Saturday, 11 December 2010


Mark Smith teaches at the School of Social Work of the University of Edinburgh and his writing on residential child care has been published widely. Mark’s book Rethinking Residential Child Care was published by Policy Press in 2009.  


Two book reviews :

Kelly, H. (2007).   Kathy’s Real Story: A culture of false allegations exposed  Dunleer: Prefect Press.

Webster, R. (2009, paperback edition).   The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The making of a modern witch hunt   Oxford: Orwell Press.


As the Jersey historic abuse episode stutters to an ignominious conclusion with the sacrificial conviction of an elderly couple on what, in the great scheme of claims made, were pretty trivial offences, it is worth asking some serious questions about the wider phenomenon of historical abuse. These are questions that, over the past 15 years or so have been difficult to ask without risking accusations of being at best an apologist for child abuse or perhaps even a fellow traveler. One of the few crumbs of comfort I take from the election of the Con/Lib government is that it may take a more measured approach to this issue in contrast to the ideological obsession with child abuse and cavalier suppression of civil liberties evident under New Labour. David Cameron was in fact a member of the 2002 Home Affairs Committee that looked into the investigation and prosecution of cases of historical abuse and drew some pointed conclusions about that process, subsequently ignored by the Government. He could not have sat on that Committee without realizing that something at the heart of this whole business was rotten. I am encouraged, too that Professors Pat Sikes and Heather Piper this year published a book Researching Sex and Lies in Classrooms. Perhaps the tide is beginning to turn and we can at least start to engage with this issue on the basis of evidence and rational argument without being silenced by the shrill emotivism that it has come to surround it.

Galvanised by the above I review two books proffering contrary views on the subject of historical child abuse. Let me preface my reviews with some background. When accounts first began to surface over the course of the 1990s, I began by assimilating the emerging orthodoxy of widespread and endemic abuse in care settings. I reconciled myself that I had been lucky. Most of my experiences in residential child care over a 20 year period had been positive. Occasionally, misbehaviours could provoke a physical response from staff but I had not come across any systematic or institutionalised abuse. My ongoing PhD research, which is basically an oral history of Scottish residential schools confirms that I did not go about with my eyes shut and that no-one else who worked in the schools recognises the lurid accounts of daily beatings either.

Then allegations of abuse came closer to home. Over the course of the 1980s I worked in a List D School (the Scottish term for former approved schools), run by the De La Salle Brothers. Every year, a team of boys and staff travelled to an English CSE, St George’s in Merseyside, to play football. Towards the end of the 1990s staff there began to be implicated in abuse. In all nearly 100 staff were investigated for abusing children over previous decades. The tale of St. George’s features prominently in Richard Webster’s book, The Secret of Bryn Estyn.

Matters then reached still closer to home. The De La Salle Brothers became implicated in the abuse of boys in their care in Scotland. Allegations were laced with images of men in black robes indulging in gratuitous torture. I knew some of those against whom the allegations were being made. I knew one of those making claims of abuse. He and others spoke of experiences that were untrue to the point of being bizarre. I began to keep press cuttings of the emerging accounts and as cases came to court I sat through some of the sessions. I maintained this critical interest as other institutions I knew became embroiled in abuse scandals. A colleague who knew the St George’s situation told me that financial compensation was driving events there. While recognising that something funny was going on I struggled to find the compensation argument credible given the volume of allegations. I also didn’t think that the police would be taken in to such an extent. The publication of The Secret of Bryn Estyn caused the scales to fall off my eyes.

Bryn Estyn was the approved school at the heart of the North Wales child abuse scandal, which emerged over the course of the 1980s and 1990s and led, ultimately, to the UK government commissioning a Tribunal of Inquiry under Sir Ronald Waterhouse. Waterhouse concluded that while there was no evidence to support the more sensational claims of paedophile rings preying upon children in care there was, nevertheless, widespread physical and sexual abuse of children in council and privately-run children’s residential homes and schools across North Wales. Webster does not deny abuse noting that:

It requires only a little knowledge of human nature to recognise that wherever adults and young people are placed together in residential settings – whether in boarding schools, in religious institutions or in families – sexual abuse will sometimes take place. Care homes are no exception to this and some of those who are now in prison are there for no other reason than that they are guilty of the crimes alleged against them. (p 4)

He does, however, provide compelling evidence to dispute the scale of the abuse averred by Waterhouse and in so doing casts serious doubt upon the efficacy of several prosecutions and convictions., including that of Peter Howarth, perhaps the most high profile conviction.

First published in hardback in 2005, Bryn Estyn received critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for political writing. Such acclaim, however, has not extended to the social work establishment, where the book has been largely ignored. This is illuminating because Webster, in a tome that extends to 700 pages, provides by far the most intellectually rigorous exploration of historical abuse available. At a time when we are assailed with injunctions towards evidence-based practice, the best available evidence on this subject is perhaps too uncomfortable to countenance. Webster is, however, persistent and Bryn Estyn was re-released in paperback on 15th February 2009, to coincide with the ninth anniversary of the publication of the Waterhouse Report. The paperback version also includes a post-script to take into account more recent events at Haut De La Garrenne in Jersey, where Webster was instrumental in exposing the obfuscation over the provenance of stories of human remains. Webster’s view of the Jersey situation would appear to have been borne out by events.

So where to start on this massively researched volume? Perhaps with the author himself. Webster describes himself as a cultural historian. His understanding of cultural history means that when he uses the term ‘witch hunt’ (as he does in the strapline to Bryn Estyn and, indeed, throughout his unfolding narrative) it is not a throwaway term but is grounded in a deep knowledge of the work of Norman Cohn, the chronicler of historical witch hunts. Witch hunts, contrary to public belief, are not the preserve of the mob but are invariably driven by the cultural elites of Church and State. They are constructed around a combination of fact and fantasy and when the two are mixed in unequal proportion, fantasy can overtake fact and can act to generate and intensify a particular web of belief, which becomes very difficult to unravel. When this happens Webster argues, “(T)here is only one way to undo its influence. This is to document how the narrative which has achieved such power was actually created in the first place. In short, it is to tell another story – the story of the story (p. 11). This is what he sets out to do in The Secret of Bryn Estyn. The ‘secret’ is that there was no widespread or systematic abuse there.

The book is an incredible read in every sense of the word, propelling the reader through its various twists and turns. As Webster says, “If I have related it at times as though it were fiction it is because, in some respects, that is exactly what it is. What renders it dangerous is that, until now, it has generally been taken to be fact” (p. 11). The fact that the book is a gripping read only adds to its appeal, which, ultimately, is its sheer authority. It provides a compelling deconstruction of Waterhouse’s account of events in North Wales. It goes on to narrate how a belief in systematic institutional abuse crossed the Welsh-English border into Cheshire and Merseyside and indeed to almost every police authority in the British mainland. The result of this is that, over the course of the 1990s, a quite incredible 8000 care workers were caught up in police ‘trawling’ operations, where officers, rather than investigating reports of abuse, actually set about uncovering such accounts through largely unsolicited interviews with former residents of care homes. This process, hardly surprisingly, unleashed waves of fabrication and fantasy, engulfing thousands of innocent care workers. This is where the witch hunt metaphor becomes particularly apposite. What has happened in respect of care homes over the course of the past couple of decades has roots in the same need within the human condition for demonological fantasy that fuelled earlier witch hunts. Only this time it is a secularised version driven, not by the Church, but by the media, the new high priests and custodians of morality. Labouring under the conceit of modernist rationality only acts to obscure and entrench the fantasy at the heart of many of our beliefs.

Scandals, Lynch and Bogen (1996) tell us, occur at moments ‘when history is up for grabs’. And of course Ireland, where the shift from Church (or Church and State) to a secularised liberal or neoliberal democracy has taken place over such a short timescale, may be particularly prone to the dynamics that emerge when one moral order is displaced by another. Rejecting the moral authority of the Church might be more readily reconciled in the national psyche if the Church can be identified as having abrogated any moral claim to support. And what better way to strip it of any moral authority than by implicating it, institutionally, in child abuse? And while the Ryan Report undoubtedly provides evidence of abuse and neglect in residential care, might this fact coalesce with a number of broader sociological and cultural factors to create the conditions for a witch hunt of the nature described by Webster? Might an unequal mix of fact and fantasy come to exist?

The journalist Hermann Kelly begins to raise such possibilities in his book Kathy’s Real Story, which sets out specifically to refute Kathy O’Beirne’s account of relentless familial and institutional abuse in her best-selling book Kathy’s Story (published in the UK as Don’t Ever Tell). Kelly does this fairly effortlessly through some basic investigative journalism (a quality largely missing from most journalistic incursions into this subject). Specifically, he shows that Kathy O’Beirne was not in the Magdalene Laundry she claims to base her account upon (or indeed any other).  He casts his net further, however, and asks some telling questions of some of the source material on institutional abuse in Ireland, and in particular the RTE programme States of Fear. Through a fairly rudimentary examination of the records of residential institutions he refutes some of the central claims made in States of Fear. He then goes on to discuss some of the headline cases of clerical abuse, many of which, ultimately have been found wanting in terms of their veracity. Kelly also discusses the role of the Residential Institutions Redress Board in providing what he sees as a state sponsored apparatus for the construction of claims of abuse based around the lure of financial compensation.

Kelly tells a similar, if less sophisticated, story to Webster. Both authors confront taken for granted beliefs about what residential care was like with hard facts and, in the face of these facts, received orthodoxies are found wanting. Both books capture well what it must be like for those accused of abuse, recounting some tragic stories. Kelly speaks of those accused of child abuse as being ‘regarded as the face of evil’ (p. 200). This is a telling phrase, for it is this idea of evil and the seeming need for it in the human condition that Webster develops in his postscript to Bryn Estyn. The focus of this quest to identify and root out evil has shifted from its personification in religious discourse in the Devil to more secular arenas. In its pursuit of evil the State can become more oppressive than any religious regime, its adherents sustained by what Webster calls a pornography of righteousness every bit as strident and dangerous as erstwhile religious zeal. In a secularised discourse there is perhaps no more potent replacement for the Devil than the brutes accused of abusing those they were supposed to care for. Yet is the demonisation of residential care and those who worked in it justified? Chillingly, Webster concludes his post-script by quoting Frankfurter, an American writer on witch hunts who argues that “atrocities take place not in the perverse ceremonies of some evil cult but rather in the course of purging such cults from the world” (p.30). Might the clamour to be seen to respond to undoubted abuses in care have unleashed atrocities of its own through the manner in which allegations of abuse have been pursued and prosecuted? And it is not just individuals who are the victims of this process. The crusade to purify residential care has replaced the tyranny of abuse with tyrannies of indifference and stultifying regulation. Other victims are those genuine victims of abuse whose accounts risk becoming lost among the false ones.

The subject of historical abuse is, according to Webster, one of the most extraordinary stories ever told, one that is crying out for rigorous and sophisticated sociological and epistemological examination and interpretation. In beginning to tell that story there is a need to consider all sorts of questions, such as what is abuse and might its definition change over time and indeed whether many abuse narratives may actually construct rather than merely describe experiences. (In support of this latter point I draw upon a statement given by a woman who claimed to have been abused in Kerelaw School in Scotland, where she said that she was unaware that she had been abused until the police came to question her about the claims of others). Instead of engaging in the level of analysis and interpretation required to reach conclusions about this subject that might do justice to its importance, it has been reduced to a latter day morality play, replete with its heroes and villains. This sorry state of affairs is bolstered by self-referential inquiry reports and, in Scotland at least, government funding of projects sustained by ideology rather than evidence. Sadly this is the level at which political and professional establishments seem happy to engage with the issue. As I said in the introduction, I wonder if there may be some signs of a shift. If that were the case then reading Webster should be an essential starting point in any emerging understanding of historical abuse.


Lynch, M. and Bogen, D. (1996) The Spectacle of History: Speech, Text and. Memory at the Iran-Contra Hearings. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Sikes, P. and Piper, H. (2010) Researching Sex and Lies in Classrooms. London, Routledge

Home Affairs Committee (2002)