From The Sunday TimesMay 4, 2008
Within these walls: the Jersey childcare scandal
As police continue to search for bodies at Haut de la Garenne — the centre of the Jersey childcare scandal — Britain’s foremost crime writer, David James Smith, asks: how many victims, abusers and government officials kept quiet?
Kevin hid from the police the first time they came over to see him, in February. He was suffering from depression and decided he just couldn’t handle talking about it all. So, when the two officers flew in from Jersey and made their way to the hostel in Hackney where Kevin was staying, ready to take his statement, he had already left, and was hiding away at the home of a friend, waiting until the police had gone.
Kevin was living in a hostel because he had been having trouble with noisy neighbours in his old flat. When the police were called, Kevin felt they were laughing at him instead of arresting his neighbours, so he barricaded himself inside and smashed all the windows. The electricity was already cut off and Kevin relied on candles for light. He knocked over a candle and set fire to the curtains. But, like he said, that was an accident. He had been drinking, of course. All his life, starting from the age of 16, he has been drinking. Mostly lager and vodka.
Kevin was not used to giving witness statements to the police. More often he was the aggressor, the one being arrested. He did not have much faith in authority. The only time he had ever told anyone in authority what had happened to him – his probation officer back in Jersey in 1995 – nothing had been done, so far as he knew. He had never heard another word about it. Not from his probation officer, who was David Trott, nor anyone else.
Kevin had not personally kept count, but had recently been told he had 130 convictions, many of them the result of drinking and fighting, and had spent accumulated years of his life in prison, all on short sentences, never longer than nine months and mostly much shorter.
He was 57, and spoke quietly, uneasily, in clipped sentences. He had once been a shopkeeper in Jersey, and had worked as a decorator, but was now laid low with emphysema and would be lucky if he ever worked again.
Kevin had been married and had five children, and had done everything in his power not to pass his terrible legacy on to his children. The family was back in Jersey. Kevin did not like being in Jersey. He had told his wife, his ex-wife by now, his story, in the years after they were first married. He had later told his eldest daughter, and it had been she who called the police in January on Kevin’s behalf, not long after the public announcement of the historic-abuse inquiry.
Kevin had heard that announcement with a mixture of relief, fear and scepticism. When the police called to rearrange the interview, he determined to try harder. Just imagine if the man who had harmed him was still out there harming others? Here was a chance to make it all stop.
On March 1, the officers flew back to London. Again Kevin thought he could not go through with it, but this time he did not run away. He sat and talked for four hours while they took his statement. The police told him that the man’s name had been mentioned by quite a few others they had talked to. Kevin felt good when he had finished, like a weight had been lifted. But the feeling didn’t last long. The anxiety and depression soon returned.
Kevin was up all night before he came to talk to me, a few weeks later, but again he did not hide away, and even though it was difficult to look me in the eye, and even though he had blocked things out and tried so hard not to think about them for the past 40-odd years, he was a good and, I believe, honest witness to what had happened to him and his brother in the cellars and dormitories of Haut de la Garenne, all those years ago.
Kevin’s brother is no longer around to give his account. Michael O’Connell used a rope swing suspended from a tree on a country lane in the Jersey district of Lower Trinity to hang himself, a week after his 14th birthday, in October 1966. It was a few days before Kevin turned 16, the year he started drinking. He was Michael’s older brother and has lived on with the knowledge that he could not protect Michael. But now, at least, he can speak for him.
Kevin and Michael’s father had always been violent at home, but, for reasons that were never clear to his children, he reserved his greatest venom for Michael. He refused to allow the family to call Michael by his name. Instead he insisted they call him Herbert, and instructed them to treat “Herbert” as their slave. Their father had once broken Michael’s arm. I asked Kevin if he had any happy memories of his father at all, but Kevin couldn’t think of a single one. He could not recall any interest from social services, only occasional visits from the truant officer.
Kevin got into trouble with the police and, after being caught breaking into shops with a gang of other teenagers, he was sent to Haut de la Garenne by the court. His family life being awful, Kevin thought: “Great, get away from it for a bit.”
One of the worst things about Haut de la Garenne was that young criminals were thrown in with children who had done nothing wrong, and children of all ages, so the possibilities for bullying among the 60 or more residents was endless.
The earliest allegations the police received were predominantly concerned with incidents in the 1970s and ’80s, but as the inquiry developed, the 1960s began to feature more prominently, and that was when Kevin was sent there, around 1963 or 1964, he thinks, when he was 13 or 14. Michael was already at Haut de la Garenne when Kevin arrived. And Kevin’s time there would have coincided with visits from Edward Paisnel, a notorious paedophile known as the Beast of Jersey.
Kevin’s tormentor was a man he knows only by his surname. He has not been publicly identified before, and Kevin, a semiliterate child at the time, was not even sure how to spell the name of the man who had ruined his life. The Sunday Times knows his name, but for legal reasons we are withholding it from publication. He is known to the police, who are investigating allegations against him from a number of people who passed through the home. Kevin recalls that this man often wore a white jumper and used to carry a big, yellow torch.
The superintendent, Colin Tilbrook, and this particular member of staff made up Kevin’s reception committee at Haut de la Garenne, on the Friday he recalls arriving. They told him what a bad person he was. He was bad news and would need cleaning up. He was dragged down to the cellar, pulled along by his hair and ears, and punched and kicked. The route to the cellar, then, was out the main entrance at the front of the building, round the side, back in through the double doors – the area now covered for the forensic digging – and down the stairs to the vaults.
Kevin was put in the cellar straight ahead of him. There was a large bath in there. He was stripped naked and made to get into the bath, which was already filled with cold water. When the man with the torch left, locking the door behind him, Kevin was trapped in darkness for the whole weekend.
This became a pattern. The perpetual darkness was barely tolerable. The same man would return late on a Sunday and open the door, all normal, like nothing had happened. Come on, off you go. That really got to Kevin. It was just too surreal.
Alas, this was not the whole story. When Kevin was naked and bathed, the man would touch Kevin’s genitals while masturbating himself to a climax. When he had finished, he would kiss and be affectionate with Kevin, telling him what a good boy, a nice boy, he was. This, too, the contradictory behaviour, was difficult for Kevin to comprehend.
Kevin has no idea how long he was at Haut de la Garenne – he says that’s something he has blocked out – but in all the time he was at the home he never received any visitors. He used to leave the home to go to school during the week, but nobody ever asked him about his life, and he never spoke to anyone.
When he was not in the cellar, Kevin would sleep in a dormitory with maybe 10 or 12 other boys. Often the man would come in, with his torch, and walk along and pick a boy, seemingly at random, and begin touching the boy’s genitals under the blanket. Sometimes it might be Kevin, or he might watch as it happened to the boy in the bed next to him.
Kevin was never raped or orally abused, but he heard other boys describe having been sodomised by Tilbrook, and he himself had been caned and occasionally hit by him. Kevin says that he used to fantasise about killing the other man, his sexual tormentor, but of course could never do anything about it. The thing he felt more than anything was complete terror and helplessness.
Kevin thinks Michael was still in the home when he was released, though Michael ran away on several occasions and was also farmed out to foster carers. Michael was arrested with two other boys and accused of setting fire to a barn. It was while he was waiting for the case to come to court that Michael hanged himself, apparently fearing he would be returned to Haut de la Garenne.
The inquest report in the Jersey Evening Post from October 1966 makes pitiful reading, with Michael’s mother quoted as saying she knew her son was in safe hands with Mr Tilbrook at the home.
About six years later, after Kevin had left home, he was walking past his parents’ house, saw the police were there and went to see what was happening. There had been a drunken fight. The father had broken into the barricaded matrimonial bedroom and strung a rope to the light fitting. Here he had told his wife, go on, you bastard, and hang yourself, like your son. Kevin wanted the police to take his father away but they said it was only a domestic. The next morning his mother killed herself with an overdose.
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It is impossible to say for sure why the abuses at Haut de la Garenne went on for so long without being uncovered and then continued to be concealed for two decades after the home was closed, in 1986. There is no evidence, at this stage, so far as I know, of a deliberate conspiracy to disguise the wholesale abuse of so many children. As Kevin said to me, he was told he was bad, he believed he was bad, he was told nobody would believe him, and he believed nobody would believe him, which, so far as Kevin is concerned, is exactly what did happen when he did eventually tell someone, in 1995.
Like Kevin, many people did speak out.
They told police, probation officers, other adult carers, and figures of authority, yet, somehow, nothing was done. The truth is, I suspect, that nobody cared very much about those children. They were the orphans and kiddy-villains of the great unwashed, and just didn’t matter.
Except, of course, that most were not orphans or villains – they were the offspring of parents with troubles of their own, too busy struggling to survive or drowning their sorrows to look after their children.
Kevin’s family, the O’Connells, were in fact a family of seven children, Irish of origin, who lived in a small house not far from St Helier. They were firmly trapped in a world of social deprivation that was significant in post-war Jersey and persists to this day, even though some of the old estates have been demolished.
Here was an unexpected, surprising aspect of Jersey life – a world of poverty the tourists never saw from the beaches or the shopping lanes of the capital, St Helier. Tourism has been in serious decline in Jersey for 15 years – long before it became publicly known as the island of child abuse – down from half a million visitors a year in 1992 to just over 300,000 in 2007.
As Stuart Syvret would be the first to tell you, most of the island’s ruling elite would not know much about that hidden world either. Many of them were in a different stratosphere, worth millions through business or inheritance or both.
Though Syvret had risen to become a minister in the Jersey government – called the States – he had never felt part of the ruling elite. Even before the furore, there was a long history of antagonism between Syvret and his fellow senators, especially the chief minister, Frank Walker.
Jersey had no political parties, or none of significance. People called it a one-party state, but, in a real sense, it was a no-party state, just a collection of individuals who sometimes seemed to govern, as Syvret would put it, as a secret cabal.
Syvret grew up on a St Helier estate, in the same social universe as many of the victims of Haut de la Garenne. And many of the problems those children faced were familiar to Syvret. He described his own father as a violent alcoholic who had broken Syvret’s jaw when he was six.
Despite the accusations that he was self-serving and publicity-seeking, Syvret had not gone on about his own background during his recent campaign to draw attention to the survivors of abuse and the failings that had led to their suffering. But, because Jersey is so small – a population of 87,186 at the last census in March 2001 – it did not take long, just a few degrees of separation, for me to connect him to the people he was now trying to support.
He had grown up first in “the grotty back streets of St Helier” and later in Clarence Court, a block of flats on the edge of the capital that he described as the dumping ground for the problem families of the island. His childhood had been poor, neglected and hard, and he had few formal qualifications, beyond his skills as a cabinet maker.
But he had been highly politically motivated from an early age, mainly on environmental issues and social concerns. He had entered the States as a deputy at 25, in 1990, at the same time as Frank Walker, who was then the 47-year-old head of the mini media empire that owned the island’s sole newspaper, the Jersey Evening Post. Walker will soon be 65 and is due to retire from public office at the end of this year. As he told me, somewhat ruefully, when we met recently, he never dreamt he would spend his last months in office facing the issues that now confront him.
Jersey has a lot of politicians for such a modest population. The States is home to 29 deputies, who are local representatives, 12 connétables, who are honorary officials, not unlike parish mayors, and 12 senators, the senior politicians who are elected by the whole population.
The head of the States is the bailiff, appointed by the Queen, currently Sir Philip Bailhache, whose brother, William, is attorney-general. The deputy bailiff is the former attorney-general Michael Birt. The bailiff is not only the head of the States, he is also the head of the judiciary, which creates a potential clash of interests that greatly troubles Syvret and others.
Jersey is nothing if not a creature of tradition, with its uniquely anomalous status, being answerable to the UK but largely independent of it in terms of law and government. Even now, there is no sex offenders’ register in Jersey and no equivalent to Ofsted, the body that routinely inspects schools and children’s care homes in the UK. Many of Jersey’s laws and practices go back 800 years to its alliance with Norman France. Petty offenders can still find themselves facing summary justice in front of the centenier at a parish-hall inquiry. Miscreants were still being flogged with birch stems until they bled into the 1950s – something mercifully absent so far from the allegations at Haut de la Garenne.
Syvret became a senator before Walker, but acceding to the highest levels of the Jersey government only increased his jaundiced view of the Jersey establishment, “the oligarchy”, as he refers to it, with its centuries-old interest in preserving the image of itself and its island. He expresses amazement that they have somehow managed to persuade the rest of the island that democratic party politics would be a bad thing. Meanwhile, says Syvret, the establishment heavyweights are meeting at parties or masonic events, where the real decisions are made, the rest of the politicians just following as lobby fodder.
The oligarchs, said Syvret, were totally unrepresentative of the people they claimed to represent – the ordinary people of Jersey. Walker takes issue with Syvret’s depiction of a ruling elite. He says the States’ members represent a variety of backgrounds and political opinions.
Syvret had been suspended from the States in the mid-1990s, after refusing to apologise for questioning another senator’s personal financial interest in a law he was voting for. In 2001 he called for Walker’s resignation after an extraordinary sequence of events in which Walker hired a private detective to find the source of malicious rumours that he was a wife-beater. Two politicians were made to publish an apology to Walker in the Jersey Evening Post, for having spread the false rumours. It was said the woman detective had pretended to be a tabloid journalist from London, seeking dirt on Walker, and the politicians had passed on the unfounded gossip.
Walker said at the time that he had acted to end five years of hell. Syvret said he should resign for using such underhand methods. Walker has been married three times. The unfounded domestic-violence rumours are still aired regularly, though when I heard them eventually it was not from Syvret, who was quick to say that episode had no relevance to the child-protection scandal.
Syvret is a fighter, gloriously outspoken, a gift to the media but also, so far as I could tell, possessed of integrity, staying true to his beliefs.
In 2007 he had been in charge of health and social services for seven years, first as president of the Health Committee and then, following some much overdue government modernisations, recast as the minister for the Department of Health and Social Services. He had, he said, been waging a continual war to improve the performance of children’s services and social services. He began trying to obtain a copy of the report that followed an independent inquiry into the recent conviction of a teacher at the island’s most prestigious boys’ school, the fee-paying Victoria College. In 1999, Andrew Jervis-Dykes had been given a four-year sentence for a series of indecent assaults on teenage pupils who he had plied with alcohol and sometimes shown soft porn before abusing them.
Allegations had first been made against Jervis-Dykes four years before he was eventually arrested. It was only after his arrest that the school suspended him. According to the report, the headteacher had told a senior school governor – later deputy bailiff of the island – Francis Hamon about the earliest allegations over a game of squash, and had been told to keep quiet about it. It was not clear when the rest of the school governors knew – these included the still-serving bailiff, Philip Bailhache.
After Jervis-Dykes’s arrest, a colleague, Piers Baker, who had also been on the trips, wrote a letter supporting Jervis-Dykes to the police and then refused to give the police a witness statement, allegedly with the backing of the headteacher. When called to the police station to watch a video, apparently showing Jervis-Dykes masturbating a sleeping boy in a ship’s bunk, Baker said he could not identify the boy.
Baker resurfaced as a civil servant in the States soon after, as a maritime official, where his role, among other things, gave him responsibility for child protection at sea.
Syvret complained, but to no avail. Baker still works there. The parents of one of the victims had approached Syvret, trying to obtain a copy of the Sharp report, which criticised Baker, among others, and highlighted the years of failure to act against Jervis-Dykes – years in which he was free to continue to abuse. Syvret could not get the report from official channels, even though he was a States minister. Neither the attorney-general nor the education minister would give it to him. He eventually obtained it from a mole and leaked a copy to the Jersey Evening Post that, he said, never bothered to publish it.
Early last year, he says, he began to be approached by whistle-blowers who were working in the childcare system and were alarmed at current or recent methods being used at homes. The most public example of this was Simon Bellwood, who recently settled his industrial-tribunal claim for unfair dismissal against the States, after he was sacked as a social worker from Greenfields home, where he had complained about a bizarre practice known as the “grand-prix” system of reward and punishment, which, he believed, was leading to excessive periods of solitary confinement for the residents.
Talking to people had a snowball effect of putting Syvret in contact with more whistle-blowers, both staff and victims. One teenager claimed to have been kept in isolation at Greenfields for two months, bringing him to the point of a breakdown. Then came the unhappy story of the Maguires, Jane and Alan, who had run a so-called group home for children in care and had been the subject of many allegations of physical abuse and, against Alan, at least two claims of sexual abuse too. Jane was the “house mother” and her husband, “Big Al”, was the “house father”. Before starting this work, in the autumn of 1979, Jane had worked briefly at Haut de la Garenne.
Despite admissions to the States’ authorities by the Maguires that they had washed children’s mouths out with soap and administered physical abuse, such as slaps, as physical punishment, they were allowed to leave the home and take up another post elsewhere in the care system. The president of the education committee, Iris Le Feuvre (later sacked by Syvret), wrote them a fulsome letter of thanks on their “retirement”, though actually they did not retire at all, but continued to work in social services.
The allegations that the then director of social services, Anton Skinner, had heard were in fact far more serious than their admissions, but he seemed to have accepted the Maguires’ denials.
I spoke to one of their victims, John Le Boutillier, who recalled how Skinner had made him and other accusers appear before the Maguires and say they had been lying.
In 1998, as I understand it, someone threw a note tied to a brick through the window of the Maguires’ Jersey home, making allegations against them. Arrogantly, or foolishly, they took the note to the police to complain, and an investigation began that led to them being charged with a series of assaults.
Some evidence was called at court, with staff, residents and even a neighbour prepared to give evidence of assaults, some of which were documented in the Maguires’ own home records. In November 1998, the case was dropped. The Jersey Evening Post reported that the attorney-general had found that the evidence was insufficient to proceed. The attorney-general was Michael Birt – the current deputy bailiff. I wrote asking him why the case against the Maguires was dropped, and received a reply from a court official who said that the correct procedure had been followed and that Birt had consulted the police and others before making the decision.
These are old events, but try telling John Le Boutillier they no longer matter. He and his sister were brought up by the Maguires for the best years of their childhoods. As John put it, they turned him into a nervous wreck with a stutter, who did badly at school, got no exams and ended up with a no-hope job. His sister fared little better. Both have had problems with drugs and alcohol and John has spent time in prison.
John described Alan Maguire as a big, bullying ex-army sergeant, always being used as a threat by his wife – “you wait till Alan gets home”. He would stand in front of the children shouting at them and hitting them at the same time. He would hit them across the head. Both of them would use weapons, such as wooden spoons, to hit the children. John had his mouth washed out with soap. Alan’s pièce de resistance was to squeeze the sides of your head tightly in his hands and lift you off the ground.
John, who will be 37 this year, began a civil action against the Maguires and the education department. He dropped it because he was about to get married and didn’t want to ruin the marriage before it had started by incurring legal debts. The marriage fell apart anyway, but at least he had tried. He had told his ex-wife everything that had happened to him.
By now, Syvret had decided he was facing “some kind of catastrophic, systemic, cultural failing in the childcare apparatus of Jersey”. He had heard some allegations from former residents of Haut de la Garenne but, as he said to me, he was really more alarmed about the more recent problems elsewhere, and the clear resistance to dealing with them openly.
He first raised the matter in the States last summer, spontaneously, in response to a question about childcare. He believes the oligarchs began plotting his removal from that moment on, first trying to force him to resign and eventually voting to have him removed from office in August.
When I met Frank Walker and his chief executive, Bill Ogley, they claimed not to want to talk about Syvret. This wasn’t the time for petty politics, they said. But as I was leaving they handed me Walker’s 91-page dossier on the reasons for the dismissal of Syvret, documenting his alleged poor performance of office, his harassment of civil servants and fellow politicians, his disclosures of confidential documents, and his abusive behaviour towards other ministers.
Syvret is unrepentant. He has no doubt he was sacked for making a fuss. Driven by a kind of mania during this period, Syvret would stay up all night, collating information, writing e-mails and reports, trying to ensure some proper intervention and drastic improvement in childcare. He was meeting abuse survivors at all hours of the night “in rainy back alleys”.
Not long after his dismissal he had a call from police headquarters, inviting him to come down for a chat with the deputy chief officer, Lenny Harper. To his astonishment, Harper told Syvret the police were in the advanced stages of an inquiry into historic abuse at Haut de la Garenne and elsewhere. According to Syvret, he was told plainly that this was the first time anyone outside the force had been informed of the inquiry. The police had deliberately chosen not to notify other ministers.
Walker and Ogley told me when I met them that they had been notified much earlier in the year that the inquiry was underway. In any event, Syvret said, it was like a mountainous weight had been lifted. Finally, the truth would come out.
Lenny Harper, who is leading the historic-abuse inquiry as senior investigating officer, told me a number of older police officers in Jersey could recall how children were always running away from Haut de la Garenne and how they used to have to take them back. The officers were troubled now, at what further suffering they might have inflicted on those children. Harper had spent much of his first six years in Jersey addressing problems of corruption in the force, leading to some dismissals and convictions against a small group of rogue officers. One of those had phoned Stuart Syvret shortly after the historic-abuse inquiry went public, warning Syvret not to trust Harper and complaining bitterly that Harper had targeted the rogue officers’ malpractices, as if there was nothing wrong with them. It was not the Jersey way, the officer had complained to Syvret about Harper.
Syvret, who felt he could trust Harper, contacted him straight away. It turned out this was just one call in a wider campaign by ex-officers to discredit Harper, with complaints about him, and attempts to smear him among journalists and others. Harper would not be drawn on whether he thought the campaign was politically motivated. A later e-mail, sent by Ben Shenton, the very senator appointed to replace Syvret as health minister, had mocked Harper and been seen as an attempt to undermine the inquiry. Frank Walker told me Shenton had subsequently said the inquiry and officers had his full support.
The police had begun the inquiry in early 2007, following up on recent allegations of sexual assault involving the Jersey Sea Cadets. Some complainants had told the force they ought to be looking at Haut de la Garenne too. The police went public because they wanted to encourage others who might have suffered to come forward. It was clear from the way the inquiry had escalated that they had not anticipated just how many complaints there would be.
At the last count there were upwards of 160.
But of course it was the digging that had created the headlines and lurid speculation of mass graves in the cellars where the search teams were working. Harper said there were no specific cases of missing children, but there was one specific allegation – he would not give details – which, if true, could well have resulted in a death.
Then, too, there were the bones found by builders in 2003 when they were refurbishing the building for its relaunch as a youth hostel – it was reopened by a guest celebrity, the former Newsround presenter John Craven in 2004, and is now closed for the foreseeable future.
The bones had been examined by pathologists, dismissed as animal bones and destroyed. Harper, in his allusive way, seemed to question the validity of the assessment of the bones and seemed certain there had been human remains there.
This appeared to be confirmed by the discovery of a small fragment – about the size of a 50p piece, he said – of a child’s skull. From materials found around it, the police were confident it had been placed there during or after the 1920s. As we went to press, the police acknowledged subsequent discoveries of milk teeth and other bone fragments. Otherwise, the work was all about interviewing the witnesses and processing and cross-referencing their information on the database. Historic cases of sexual assault were notoriously hard to prosecute as there was invariably no forensic evidence and it often came down to one person’s word against another. What would win convictions here would be “similar fact” evidence – several victims describing the same kind of incident – which was why it was so important for the police to hear from everyone who was ready to come forward. That, of course, was what had encouraged Kevin O’Connell, in the end, to make his statement. An act, as I told him, that showed considerable courage.
The suicide of Michael O’Connell had first been drawn to the attention of Syvret by a friend of Michael’s. Syvret had discovered the dates of Michael’s death and his subsequent inquest, and attempted to introduce them in a Christmas speech to the States in 2007. He had been shouted down by Frank Walker and others because he had broken with convention by not making a routine speech but choosing instead to talk about victims of child abuse in Jersey care homes.
When he refused to sit down and tried to carry on – even as some members came up and practically screamed in his face – the bailiff, Philip Bailhache, switched off his microphone.
It seems only fair to point out that the Jersey politicians weren’t to know then what you have read here, about Michael’s tragic history of abuse. But, even so, it might seem like a somewhat unedifying spectacle – a group of grown men, or mostly men, shouting down a speech which was, in part at least, about a boy who hanged himself.
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The police made their inquiry public at a press conference in November, on more or less the same day that a 47-year-old serial sex offender, Chris Curtin, was imprisoned for five years for historic offences of his own. Curtin had claimed in court – not for the first time – that he had been the victim of sustained abuse at an unnamed children’s home in his youth. This had little bearing on his sentence, and rightly so. The home was, of course, Haut de la Garenne.
Chris’s brother, Danny – who had not been in the home and has no convictions for sex offences against children (and whose wife wishes he had changed his surname years ago) – remembered Chris showing him photographs of young girls long before he was ever convicted. Danny thought nothing of it then. The police later told him that 20 women had come forward with memories of a man approaching them as children. Back then Chris used to work in Bambola, St Helier’s leading toy shop. When a mother claimed he had put his hand up her daughter’s skirt, Chris denied it and Danny thought there must be a mistake. Danny had no idea.
In the small world of the Jersey underclass, it is no surprise that the Curtins lived on the same estate, Clarence Court, as Syvret, and that Danny Curtin was best friends for a while with Kevin O’Connell. Danny remembered waiting to meet Kevin one day in 1966 and being told, he won’t be coming, his brother’s hanged himself.
Chris Curtin was caught stealing around the age of 12 and sent to Haut de la Garenne. His friends Colin and Big Steve used to go up there on their skateboards to visit him. Colin well-remembered Chris telling him that it wasn’t right, what was going on there. Chris took Colin to see the room in which he had been kept locked up. He showed Colin bruises on his wrist.
He was convicted of serious sexual offences against children in 1991 and in 1995. Chris died in La Moye prison, Jersey on December 29, 2007, about a month after being sentenced. “Well, he won’t be missed, will he?” said Big Steve, when Colin told him that their friend had died. Danny was notified as next of kin, but took no part in arranging a funeral. By the time Colin found out, the funeral had already taken place.
For many weeks afterwards, the exact circumstances of Chris’s death were not entirely clear. He had died of a heart attack, and so the Jersey deputy viscount, who is responsible for these things, initially opted not to hold an inquest, concluding that it was “natural causes”.
Surely, for public confidence, an inquest might have been a good idea?
I was told Chris had complained repeatedly to prison staff of chest pains on the night of his death. And didn’t get immediate medical help. Was that because he was a paedophile?
We may never have known for sure, if I hadn’t inquired. The deputy viscount, Peter de Gruchy, didn’t seem to want to know either, and never bothered to answer my e-mails, asking him to explain his decision. Old Jersey habits, it seems, die hard, even now, when transparency is so desperately needed. Imagine my surprise, about 15 weeks after Curtin’s death, when a Jersey contact called to tell me that an inquest on Christopher Curtin was about to be held. I was told in advance that Haut de la Garenne would not be mentioned at the inquest, and this proved to be the case. Because, after all, that is the Jersey way. The coroner also dismissed “rumours” that there had been a delay treating Curtin.
Now it was too late, Colin wished he had asked his friend more about the abuse he had suffered. He decided that he could at least tell the police what he knew.
The police confirmed that they had spoken to Chris before his death and Colin’s account supported what they had already been told. There was nearly a second death at the prison last month when Roger Holland attempted suicide the day after being jailed for two years for sexual offences against children. He had a history of such convictions, but this had not prevented him being elected an honorary police officer in Jersey during the 1990s.
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Kevin O’Connell is still afraid of the dark. His flashbacks are worst at night and he often has hot and cold sweats and panic attacks. Lager and vodka are one remedy, of sorts. The memories, he said, have messed up his life.
I contacted his probation officer, David Trott, who still works at the Jersey probation service, to find out what action he had taken after being told by Kevin of his past as a victim of abuse, back in 1995. I did not hear back from Trott, but from the chief probation officer, offering a bland statement about a probation officer’s duty to pass on any information to the appropriate authorities. He would not comment on what had – or had not – happened in Kevin’s case.
I was beginning to understand by now what Syvret meant when he said that the phrase “not the Jersey way” haunted this entire episode. What was the Jersey way? To conceal and dissemble? Not any more. It would have to change.
Frank Walker acknowledged that these were dark days for Jersey and its reputation. He stood by his remark that Syvret was trying to shaft the island internationally, and said he wanted to get the truth out that Jersey was not an evil place and, for most people, bringing up a family in Jersey was a delight. He spoke of the “horrors of Haut de la Garenne and the isolated cases elsewhere”, but emphasised the recent interim judgment of an expert outsider, Andrew Williamson, who had been called in to examine the Jersey care-home system, and said that there were no children currently at risk in homes.
No doubt Walker wished the scandal would go away, but with the police considering up to 50 suspects in all, at least half of them from Haut de la Garenne, the prospect of arrests and trials seems certain to keep Jersey as the focus of negative attention, long after the planned end to the digging, around the end of this month.
Unlike Syvret, Walker had not personally known anyone who had been a resident or a victim at Haut de la Garenne, though he may unknowingly have met a few as he told me his only connection with the home was visits he used to make there at Christmas during the 1980s, when he went to distribute presents as a member of the Round Table.
Michael O’Connell was long dead by then, of course. I wondered at the life he might have led, even if he had lived. It probably would not have been so very different from Kevin’s. Forty years later, Kevin was still trapped in the dark cellars