This blog would be trading under a false description if I failed to mention Wednesday night’s BBC 1 programme ‘When Satan came to town’ about the allegations of ritual satanic abuse of children in Rochdale in the late 1980s.
I watched the programme on video last night and it did make uncomfortable viewing. I remember well the air of moral panic that surrounded child abuse issues during that time. It demonstrates just how credulous intelligent, professional people can be, since the details of the allegations, repeated so many years later seemed self-evidently ludicrous.
What did the most damage was the absolute conviction of social workers that they were acting in the best interests of the children and that of course abuse was happening. It led them to ignore the evidence and manipulate the facts to suit their preconceptions. Although the programme was by no means sensationalist in tone, it was hard to escape the feeling that the treatment by the children by Rochdale Social Services itself amounted to abuse and cruelty.
As a society and we rightly find sexual abuse so wicked and abhorrent that there is a temptation to rush to judgement without giving those accused the presumption of innocence. Cases such as those of Ian Huntley or Victoria Climbie, where inaction by professionals led to tragedy, reinforce this.
So it is always tempting to think 'no smoke without fire', 'better safe than sorry' and therefore to deny natural justice to those who face accusations of abuse. There is also a temptation for those of us involved in public life to keep our heads down over such issues and keep quiet – we don't want it levelled at us that we are soft on child abusers.
But we have a duty to defend the rules of justice and to remember that even in pursuing the very noblest of ends we should not resort to dishonest means. More particularly we should respect evidence, retain healthy scepticism and not make people's lives subservient to moral crusades.
These questions are all dealt with in more depth and detail at the website of the author and campaigner Richard Webster, which readers may find interesting.