As child abuse allegations are dropped in Lewis, the accused have become victims of the system, reports Vicky Allan
It started as it had done in Orkney, with the dawn raids. At 6am on Friday, October 3, swarms of police cars and vans teemed into the small village in the wind-stripped Ness area of Lewis.
In the week beforehand, Penny Campbell had noticed cars outside her house early in the morning, and, worried, had thought about calling the police. Now, she says, she realises that it must have been the police themselves. That same morning, further down the island in the district of Lochs, Peter Nelson and his daughter Mary Anne were roused from their beds, taken in for questioning and their house searched. An officer asked Nelson where his robes were. At the time, he says, he thought he must be referring to bath robes. Actually he meant satanic costumes.
There were others who were also questioned. Others who had once lived on the island, many of them in the Ness area, but had in the last year moved back to England: 75-year-old grandmother Lily Place, David Disney, Neil Stretton and Timothy Tetley. In total, seven men and one woman, all incomers to Lewis, were arrested, the men accused of “rape and lewd, indecent and libidinous practices” and the grandmother of “lewd, indecent and libidinous practices”. The complainers were young girls who had already been removed into care.
It ended, too, almost as it did in Orkney, with the case being dropped: this time before it even reached the court, with a declaration last Friday from the Crown Office. “Following a thorough investigation by the Procurator Fiscal and careful consideration of all the available evidence, Crown Counsel has instructed that no proceedings be taken in this case.”
There has been, as yet, no apology, no explanation of how it could have got so far, leaving the case a black hole of rumour and suspicion. For the last ten months, these eight accused and their families have lived with an awareness that they were being prejudged by some as guilty. Their homes have been daubed with graffiti, their windows smashed. In Lochs, Nelson’s car was torched, his prized garden wrecked, bleach poured around his trees. Penny Campbell, whose husband Ian was one of the accused, has seen public places clear when she arrives. She has been told in a phone call: “Penny I will never come near you again.”
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On one level the dropping of the case would seem cause for relief for the accused, but Penny Campbell sees this as the worst possible result. “It should have gone to court because now our names will never be cleared.”
When I visited the island in November many of the accused had left, either before the arrests or after – only Peter Nelson, John Selwood, and Ian Campbell remained. The first time I met Penny Campbell she took my name down and slammed the door in my face. Already she had developed a belligerent armour for dealing with strangers who might suspect that her husband was guilty. Intelligent and perceptive, she has maintained a calm and persistent conviction throughout. “I know he’s innocent. 100%,” she said. “I have no doubt whatsoever and people that know us know that.”
She spends most of her evenings writing to MSPs, criminologists, human rights organisations . For the most part she has done this on her own. Until May 7 her husband was excluded from their home .
Like Orkney this is again a tale of ritual abuse allegations. Both Penny Campbell and Nelson confirm that among those practices they were questioned about were animal sacrifice and ritualistic ceremonies. “They did ask me,” says Penny Campbell, “about animal sacrifices and I think that was the one point when I actually started to laugh. I couldn’t help it. It just sounded so ridiculous.”
It is difficult to see how yet another abuse case has got so far on such collapsible evidence. Either this is an indication either of the difficulty in securing convicting evidence, or of the unreliability of the methodology used to secure the initial allegations. Criminologist Bill Thompson who worked on the Orkney case , believes it is the latter: an inherent flaw in the interviewing techniques used on children. “I can say without fear of contradiction,” he says of the Lewis case, “that they used the same methods and same techniques as they used on Orkney. The methodology is invariably the same.”
Certainly, even talking to the Nelsons and the Campbells it seems as if there were many holes in the physical proof that should have been caught prior to arrest. Both families claim not to have been on the island for the entire period between 1995 and 2001 when the abuse was believed to have taken place. The Nelsons, for instance, only moved there in 1997.
With the case now dropped, both victims and accused are perpetually suspended in limbo, the accused followed by a cloud of possible guilt which perhaps will never evaporate. Penny Campbell is unsatisfied with Friday’s statement issued by the Western Isles council, which thanked the community for the “dignified way” in which it had responded. “They seem to have completely dismissed what we have suffered.” She is clearly not going to let it drop.
This Lewis case seems set to become yet another unsolved story of ritual abuse allegations: one that leaves behind the suspicion that not only are there those who will be branded with a false badge of guilt, but that the victims, too, probably are still victims, and we have a system that does neither any justice.
As Thompson says: “Whatever we think about rape and the failure to convict rapists, the idea of accusing somebody without thorough investigation has to be seriously questioned.”
Keywords: Operation Haven