‘I’m angry for the children, for us, for a lost nine years’
Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
Wednesday July 31, 2002
The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk) (England)
Two nursery nurses forced to flee their homes in fear of their lives after being accused of sexually abusing dozens of children yesterday won libel damages of £200,000 each at the end of a six-month court case.
Dawn Reed, 31, and Christopher Lillie, 37, went into hiding almost four years ago after Newcastle city council published a report claiming they had abused their charges at Shieldfield nursery sexually, physically and emotionally; used them to make pornography; and were part of a paedophile ring. The pair had been acquitted of sex abuse charges in a criminal court.
They were at the high court in London yesterday to hear Mr Justice Eady pronounce them innocent.
Awarding them the highest permitted damages, the judge said: “They have earned it several times over because of the scale, gravity and persistence of the allegations.”
The council’s report appeared four years after Ms Reed and Mr Lillie were acquitted at Newcastle crown court of sexual offences against children. The judge said: “With the possible exception of murder, it is difficult to think of any charge more calculated to lead to the revulsion and condemnation of a person’s fellow citizens than that of the systematic and sadistic abuse of children.”
In the wake of the report the Sun appealed to its readers to “help us find these fiends”. Ms Reed and Mr Lillie left their homes, families and jobs to go into hiding.
The saga – which has echoes of the Cleveland child abuse scandal 15 years ago, when dozens of children were removed from their parents and taken into emergency care – began in 1993 when a worker at a different Newcastle nursery pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting some of the children in his care. Within days of his court appearance the mother of a boy at Shieldfield told police that Mr Lillie had abused her son.
He and Ms Reed were brought to trial but acquitted on the direction of the judge. The council, their employer, set up an inquiry into abuse allegations, and appointed Richard Baker from the University of Northumbria, an academic with a social work background, as team leader. The other members were Judith Jones, a former child protection officer, Jacqui Saradjian, a clinical psychologist, and Roy Wardell, a former director of social services. None of the team, who were paid more than £350,000 for their services, had any legal training or experience.
The judge said the team “clearly fell under the spell” of Camille San Lazaro, a paediatrician at the Royal Victoria infirmary, Newcastle, who examined 53 children and made findings of abuse. She was “unbalanced, obsessive and lacking in judgment” and had given “untrue accounts” to the criminal injuries compensation board .
The review, which delivered its report in November 1998, was a “shambles” which denied the pair basic legal safeguards, Mr Justice Eady said. “The ‘accused’ were not notified of exactly what was alleged against them, or told what the evidence was, or given an opportunity of testing it or responding.”
The pair were assured that interviews with the children were untainted by leading questions, when the team knew the contrary to be the case. The team then “chose to promulgate to the council and to the wider public what was recognised within days 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.
The saga leaves Newcastle city council facing a legal bill of more than £4m, including the damages and the claimants’ costs. The judge ordered the review team to pay the damages plus costs – estimated at nearly £2m – but the council had agreed to pick up the bill.
The judge made a “very rare” finding of malice against the team. They had forfeited the protection of qualified privilege, which usually protects reports produced in the public interest from libel claims, because “they included in their report a number of fundamental claims which they must have known to be untrue and which cannot be explained on the basis of incompetence or mere carelessness”.
But Newcastle city council, which was also sued, succeeded in its defence of qualified privilege, and the judge dismissed the claim against it.
The review team said they were “shocked and upset” by the judge’s finding. They had undertaken the inquiry in the “spirit of public duty” and had never sought to mislead anyone. They were now considering an appeal.