Monday, May 19, 2008

Jersey 'skull' was not even a piece of bone

Richard Webster's new blog kicks off with a discussion of media reactions to the revelation that the so-called fragments of a child's body the discovery of which propelled the Jersey child abuse enquiry onto the front pages has been revealed by carbon-dating experts to be not a piece of bone at all.

Webster has written extensively about miscarriages of justice against care workers, most notably in his book The Secret of Bryn Estyn and his own investigation had led to this latest revelation about Haut de la Garenne. He is also interviewed by Brendan O'Neill in Spiked magazine.

It seems that police were apparently told as long ago as April by the carbon-dating specialists who had analysed the fragment that 'This one ain’t bone'.

The officer in charge of the case, Deputy Chief Officer Lenny Harper appears to have consciously sought publicity in order to encourage more possible victims to come forward. But it now appears that the main piece of evidence used to generate this publicity turns out to be bogus.

How much does all this matter? Given what we know about the historical failure of child protection policies and the insular nature of Jersey's society, it seems virtually certain that at least some child abuse will have taken place at Haut de la Garenne. If the publicity from the bogus 'child's remains' story has given any genuine victims the confidence to come forward, might it be that the ends will have justified the means?

Surely, in the end it does matter. The police's task is not just to publicise their own revulsion at child abuse, it is to get justice for the victims and punish the genuinely guilty. The saga of the skull fragment must surely cast doubt on the way the police have handled the investigation, and will not help them when cases actually come to court. At the same time media frenzy risks triggering not only truthful accusations against the genuinely guilty, but also false accusations against the innocent. Which again raises the twin dangers that genuine victims will not get justice if the currency of complaints has been debased by false accusations, and that the innocent will be convicted.

Remember that the football manager Dave Jones (in the news this week for taking Cardiff City to the FA Cup Final) some years ago found himself facing 13 charges of child abuse but the entire case against him collapsed when it came to court.

Child abuse is not only a serious crime, it is one that is rightly regarded with particular abhorrence by today's society. It is important therefore that when the police investigate accusations of child abuse they are thorough and rigorous in investigating evidence and avoid manipulating the media to achieve sensational coverage.

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