'EARLIER THIS MONTH,' writes Mark Smith, 'I sat in Court and watched a former colleague, a 74-year-old religious Brother whose entire life had been spent helping others, jailed.
'His crime was to have used an electricity-generating device as an instrument of torture to punish boys. Now there will be those for whom the conviction of a member of a religious order will come as no surprise — after all it is easy, given lurid headlines about psychopathic nuns and pervy priests, to conclude that they were all involved or complicit in abuse. It is a conclusion that some people seem almost to take pleasure in reaching.
'Of course had the Brother involved actually electrocuted kids then a jail sentence would seem only appropriate. But he hadn’t. '
To read the rest of Mark Smith's most recent column for cyc-online, the journal of the International Child and Youth Care Network, click here.
Mark Smith, who is a lecturer in social work at the University of Edinburgh, writes about residential care with particular authority.
This is not primarily because he is an academic. It is because his academic career is based on the foundation of twenty years experience in the residential social work sector, where he eventually became the principal of a secure unit.
In an earlier article, published in the journal Practice, he explained how his interest in the subject of historic abuse allegations came about:
'There is perhaps a default position that leads social workers to accept a view that abuse in residential care settings was widespread, reflecting the pre-eminent place of child protection in the profession's recent history. This is sustainable so long as the setting in question is not one we know. Most of my experiences as a practitioner and manager in residential care settings over a period of almost 20 years had been positive with not a hint of systematic or institutionalised abuse. Then, over the past few years, schools and individuals I knew well became implicated in claims of abuse. Many of the allegations simply did not fit with basic facts. I began to follow cases, keeping press cuttings and attending court sittings. I also began to look more critically at the literature on institutional abuse.'
His most recent article goes on to make reference to my own work and to the Jersey case. But it is not for that reason that I include it here. It is because it illustrates, as well as any piece of writing, the dangers of reposing faith in justice when it comes to historic abuse investigations.
The fact that Mark Smith's former colleague had not tortured any boys with electric shocks ultimately proved irrelevant to the court which tried him. He, like many other innocent care workers, received a prison sentence for crimes which had never been committed.
He did so because of the power of a narrative which has been built up over twenty years. This narrative maintains, in the face of a mass of contemporary evidence to the contrary, that physical and sexual abuse was rife in residential care throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
Nowhere, perhaps, has this narrative been deployed with greater force than in relation to the allegations about Haut de la Garenne.