‘We were accused of raping little girls, having orgies, killing cats and chickens and drinking their blood … it was all lies but they wouldn’t believe us’
Exclusive: The full story of the families whose lives were shattered when they were falsely accused of abusing children on a remote Scottish island. For the past nine months Vicky Allan has been talking to the families accused and finally cleared of being involved in the ritual abuse of children on Lewis. This is their story …
John and Susan Sellwood were staying at a caravan park in the northeast of Scotland when the phone call came through. Susan came back from the toilet to find John pacing outside the awning. He started to cry. She assumed the worst: that finally the indictment had come through and that soon her husband would be appearing at Glasgow High Court, along with the seven other accused. Soon the whole story would be hung out in a court room and fed to the media: a tale of animal-sacrifice, robed ritual, mass orgies and the sexual abuse of children, set on the Isle of Lewis. “The case has been dropped,” he told her.
The Sellwoods were still in a mildly celebratory mood when they picked me up on Monday. Their “camper van” was a cobbled-together affair, constructed from bits that John finds at the tip where he works. Susan listed the accusations she and her husband had been bombarded with in police interviews. “We’re supposed to have all raped the girls and then the men did. Then we were having sex orgies. We had sex orgies with each other’s partners – wife-swapping, whatever you want to call it – at each other’s houses. We’re supposed to have killed cats, chickens, rams and lambs, then drunk the blood.
“We were accused of drug taking and making snuff movies. I didn’t even know what a snuff movie was. The satanic cult was supposed to have threatened the mother to keep quiet. John was accused of trying to get her to change her evidence after a complaint. This was supposed to have been on CCTV. Porno photos are supposed to have been taken by us using a webcam. The police said that they had medical evidence that the accused had sexually assaulted the girls.” She pauses. “But they had no DNA. They had no DNA evidence.”
Most people’s reaction on hearing such a list is one of disbelief: as a society we are poised in a mixed state of credulous horror and denial of the existence of “satanic abuse”. Since the first wave of alleged cases arrived from America in the 1980s there have been hundreds of such claims in Britain. Only one case, in Pembroke, Wales, where the investigation arising from a boy’s allegation of sexual abuse against his father exposed a large paedophile ring, has ever led to convictions.
The notorious Orkney case of 1991 saw nine children snatched from their beds in dawn raids in South Ronaldsay on suspicion that they were the vitims of ritual satanic sexual abuse at the hands of a paedophile ring. In February of 1991 the case was thrown out of court, and followed by the seven-month Clyde Inquiry into the case, and its condemnation of the actions of the social workers involved .
A 1994 report on cases in England and Wales by anthropologist Jean La Fontaine suggested that what was presented as the testimony of children in satanic abuse cases was almost always an adult construct, and it has become a widespread conviction that the whole phenomenon was a “moral panic”. Which elicits the question: why has yet another case of alleged ritual abuse got so far – costing over ?100,000 of tax-payers’ money – only to lead to a dead-end .
The police investigation on Lewis started nearly two years ago, sparked by a series of allegations made by the children of a family we will refer to as Family X.
The first overt signs of it were a series of interviews across the island, followed by the arrest in October of the eight accused – Sellwood, Ian Campbell, Timothy Tetley, Peter Nelson, David Disney, Lily Place, John Gray and Neil Stretton – in a series of dawn raids across Lewis and England.
Visiting the island in March, I was struck by the silence – that paralysis that descends at the mention of “child abuse”. Locals who lived only metres away from one of the accused would tell me: “I don’t know him. I’ve never met the man.” A rift of suspicion had cracked through the community, and there was a feeling among the islanders that, as the accused were all incomers, it was the “white settlers” bringing their bad ways. As local councillor John Mackay told me: “The problem was it gave every incomer a bad name. They were all tarred with the same brush.”
Still, it was possible to pick up a little information. Most of the accused lived or had lived in the Ness area. David Disney was actively involved in the community, a member of the Church of Scotland, and worked a croft. Neil Stretton was an aeroplane model-maker who kept chickens. John Gray had moved from Rotherham and used to be a Boy Scout leader. Ian Campbell was openly a “pagan” and had moved with his wife, Penny, to the island on a council house swap. Lily Place, 75, of Leicester had lived in the Lional area. John Sellwood was a Mormon who worked as a tip cleaner, helped his wife run a cat rescue centre, and had been Santa Claus at a grotto they ran to raise money for charity. On the whole, these people lived just a few notches up from subsistence. Their lives were held together by disability allowance, medical prescriptions and, certainly since the arrests, anti-depressants. They had come to the island for a “better way of life”.
Most of the accused denied knowing each other particularly well, though, through talking to them, a flimsy web of connections started to emerge. The Nelsons bought chickens from Neil Stretton. The Nelsons had given the Sellwoods a clapped out old van. Susan Sellwood had known John Gray when he lived in Rotherham. Stretton knew John Gray well and was often round at his home. More crucial, though, is the series of links that existed between all the accused and the family of the alleged victims of abuse and in particular the mother of that family, the adult believed to have been involved in initiating many of the allegations. Mostly the accused denied seeing Family X very much, but painted a picture of a disturbed family, in and out of care, with a history of contact with the social services.
Peter Nelson was leaning over the gate of his garden, propped up on a crutch, when I first met him. He and his 37-year-old daughter, Mary-Anne, had moved to the island in 1998, having bought their property on an exposed patch in the Lochs area of the island cheap, although it had a big garden. This was his challenge, his dream: to create a garden more ambitious than the one that had won him Gardener of the Year. In 2003 he opened his mini-Eden to 280 visitors, raising money for Save The Children.
Nelson seemed anxious to tell his story when I met him following the allegations. Even at that point he was still not committed to trial. He knew, he said, Mrs X, the mother of the victims. She had even come to him a number of times for help, asking if she could come and live with him. He had been concerned about the children’s welfare and had contacted social services several years ago. Like the Sellwoods and Penny Campbell, he would occasionally struggle to remember the names of people involved.
Nelson had tried to commit suicide just the previous week, taking sleeping and blood pressure pills. “It’s a nightmare,” he said. “All I’ve done is come here to make this garden.”
Without doubt the accused have their peculiarites. For the most part they seem outsiders. Nelson’s garden is fenced off and surveyed by CCTV. “ I stand out because I’m different,” says Nelson, “People say: ‘Why don’t you go to a football match? Why don’t you go to the pub? People are suspicious of you because of that. You’re not anything unless you’re into sex, drugs and drinking.”
The Sellwoods and Campbells suspect that certain small prejudices may have coloured the investigation. Penny Campbell believes that the police showed “blatant religious discrimination, equating paganism with devil worshipping … Ian and I believe that it was because he described himself as pagan and I didn’t that he was charged and I was released.”
Within the community it was well-known that they were pagan. When their homes were raided it was pagan books that were taken. As one South Dell inhabitant told me: “Before they came, the community was warned: ‘We’ve got some witches coming.’”
In the months following John’s arrest the Sellwood’s lives were derailed. For the first 10 days Susan lay on the sofa, propped up, numbed by diazepam. When he went to prison in Inverness, she travelled to see him, spending in that first month ?1000, a crippling stretch on their pension and disability allowance. They don’t run their market any more. They always go to the supermarket before 8.30am. Some friends no longer call. John feels nervous now in all dealings with children: “I am different than I used to be. It gets me upset and I don’t know how to handle it.”
So why did the case get as far as it did? The Crown Office says it was dropped because there was “insufficient available evidence”. Many of the accused feel that they had not been properly investigated before arrest. Instead, supposition and “shock tactics” were used in the hope of eliciting an easy confession. John Sellwood, for instance, tells me they informed him that they had him “on video”. This turned out to be vague and highly interpretable CCTV footage of him supposedly threatening one of the witnesses.
Bill Thompson, an expert in false allegations and consultant on the Orkney case, believes, however, the real problem may lie in the credibility of those making the allegations – both Mrs X and the children. He questions whether the methods used in obtaining the story from the children were valid.
The victims had been in disclosure therapy with National Children’s Home (NCH) and the social service. There are guidelines for this, but, Thomson says, they are often not followed and the truth is determined using a series of validity indicators.
“What has to be asked,” says Thompson, “is whether the guidelines for the interview techniques have been broken?” This, he believes, is just another Orkney all over again. “It will be the same methodology. It always is. What it boils down to is a social worker or police officer starts asking leading questions and this then sets off a whole series of speculations.”
There is no accusation in our society worse than paedophilia, no word that clings more damningly. “It’s just that one word,” said Peter Nelson. “I would rather die than be called a paedophile.”
Because of this word the Nelsons had their car torched, their greenhouse smashed and bleach poured round their trees. Because of it, the Campbells received abusive phone calls. Nobody, certainly, on Lewis is going to forget that word. These are airtight communities – so close, the phone book published in Ness lists not just the names of the inhabitants, but also their nicknames or their parents’ names – and a history is difficult to escape. Even in the past week Peter Nelson has had his garden raided at night, teenagers shining torches into his CCTV cameras. As Dell councillor John McKay commented last week, the dropping of the case has provoked a “mixture of emotions and reactions” on the island. “You know what people are like. You’re always guilty in the eyes of some.”
In March, I met Penny Campbell in her home in South Dell. With a whispered intensity she told me that she was not going to leave Lewis. Even then she was already involved in a letter-writing campaign on her husband’s behalf.
“Our fight,” she wrote to me later, “is on all sides at the moment. Against an incompetent, biased and politically motivated police force, against social services and against ignorant people who, through no fault of their own are unaware that such injustices can happen.” Since then she has issued press statements, enlisted the help of Bill Thompson, and attempted to fuse the fellow-accused in solidarity. Just as on Orkney, perhaps, they think they can win an apology and compensation. They want to have their names cleared. They want to make the point that, in allegations of child abuse, perhaps names of accused should not be released until proven guilty. Meanwhile, however, a single fact remains. All the evidence suggests the children in Family X were sexually abused. And, in the cloud of smoke and the feverish cries of “satan”, it looks as if the perpetrator(s) is/are set to disappear.
Keywords: Operation Haven