IN THE DARKNESS.
[First published on the 26th February 2011, this is a rare posting in that I tried to describe in it, when I wrote it in 2008, the real – the human – interaction of combatting child-abuse.]
As I’m having to work pretty much constantly on my legal defence against the Jersey oligarchy – I don’t have time to write new blog-entries at present.
However, today I was thinking – with sadness – of some of the survivors I know, and I was reminded of the personal article I reproduce below.
I wrote this quite some time ago – late 2008 perhaps? I suppose it’s a kind of essay, or memoire of some of those experiences, but I never did get around to publishing it.
Sometimes I think in all of the political and legal warfare – some people lose sight of the real lives – real suffering – real people.
A SECRET WORLD OF HURT
By Stuart Syvret.
The telephone rang again, as it did, many times, most evenings. And circumstances dictated that, no matter how exhausted I was, and in need of some rest, I had to take the call. The answer-phone just wouldn’t do.
This was the latter half of 2007, when the tangled and confusing controversy of the child protection failures in Jersey had erupted as a local political issue in the island, but had not yet had any significant coverage in the national media. I had been the Minister for Health & Social Services, but to my horror, had begun to uncover, from around January 2007, some shocking and systemic failures in child protection.
My own investigations, along with the input of whistleblowers, witnesses and victims drew things to my attention – things which had been pro-actively hidden from me and my political predecessors by senior management over the decades.
To cut a long story short, I made the fatal ‘mistake’ – for a politician – of giving an honest answer to a question I was asked in the island’s parliament. I told the truth, and said I had no confidence in Jersey’s child protection systems. Expressing my concerns publicly in this way led directly to me becoming the victim of a political ‘putsch’, and was sacked as Health & Social Services Minister – on the supposed grounds that by criticising the service, I was, “undermining staff morale”.
However, my removal from the post, though intended to shut me up and prevent the controversy from being fully exposed, actually had the opposite effect. Suddenly, people who had been silent, sometimes for decades about what they’d suffered, looked at my battles, as reported in the Jersey media, and thought, “at last, here is someone in authority who will believe me.”
So here I was, sat alone at my desk, late into the night, trying to combine my usual role of political street-fighter, with what had to be a delicate and gentle willingness to listen to often very fragile people.
What you are about to read is an account of one such deeply moving – and troubling – personal contact, from a man I only know as “Paul”.
He called from a pay-as-you-go mobile, and in a hesitant and obviously disguised voice, made some sketchy references to a “friend”, who wanted to meet with me; this “friend” had some information which would help me in the child protection battles.
Jersey is naturally a very conservative environment; people prefer traditional approaches, and don’t like to “wash the dirty linen in public”. This atmosphere often makes people frightened to speak-out – or, in particular, for it to become known they’ve been in touch with me.
I am a joiner and cabinet maker by trade, and was elected to the island’s parliament – “the States” – in 1990 at the age of 25, but, by now, after nearly 20 years service, I had, bizarrely enough, become the ‘Father of the House’ as the longest serving Senator.
But during that 19 year period I had consistently been a thorn in the flesh of the island’s ‘establishment’. So whilst people trusted me, and often came to me with a lot of important information, they often had to do so in secrecy – through fear that being seen to be in contact with me could have a negative impact on their career prospects.
But in the context of the child abuse issues – some people, especially survivors, had far more personal reasons for insisting on immense secrecy – people like “Paul” – as I will explain.
When I sat down to write this article, it was going to deal with what are, the perhaps inescapable, weaknesses of checks and balances in a small, self-governing community. Perhaps I’ll still commit such thoughts to paper, but as I tried to focus on those issues, again and again my mind returned to the direct human encounters which lay concealed beneath the political fist-fights and media storms which have dominated the controversy.
Jersey is a tiny island – a population of 100,000 – where people tend to know each others’ business more closely than in a UK town.
Having been a prominent local politician, I’m fairly well recognised in this goldfish-bowl, so people who wish to make contact with me discreetly often go to extraordinary lengths.
Which is why “Paul” – posing as a ‘friend of a friend of a friend’ – called me; though only later was I to recognise the communications had been from him all along; no other person being involved.
“Paul” wanted to meet me; meet me in ultra-secrecy. And to be honest, there was nothing that unusual in this, given the context of the Jersey child abuse controversy.
So another late-night assignation was arranged to add to the several similar meetings I’d had already.
Towards the end of another solitary night in – having telephone conversations with constituents, drinking, and composing insolent e-mails on their behalf to various intransigent bureaucrats, I turned off the light and left my flat. With an anorak over my head in an attempt to disguise myself, I walked, faced bowed, across town, down Garden Lane accompanied by the increasing drizzle as it cleansed the air of cooking-smells from the closing takeaways. About 2.00 am – yet the rain had reduced the expected amount of mutually lurching drunkards and occasional packs of near-feral children. Only the truly desperate and the lost were passed – as they veered back to rancid bed-sits via a strange percussive navigational combination of alcohol and immovable items of street furniture.
I reached the end of Garden Lane and turned left briefly across Val Plaisant and entering Vauxhall Street I slowed, looking for the agreed set-back doorway of rendezvous. He had asked what I would be wearing – to reassure him I would look just like any other person one might encounter – in the pouring rain – at 2.00 am – on a bleak autumn Monday morning; green anorak, tatty jeans, grubby training shoes. By now the rain was torrential, brief fragments of captured street-light battering from pavements, windowsills and cars – rivers of this stolen light coursing along the gutters to vanish down drains.
I approached the recess, making sure my footfall was audible so as not to surprise him – if he was there. I stopped upon the pavement, deliberately visible from the alcove, still looking straight ahead to the lights of David Place, “Paul?” I spoke to the night.
I turned to look, and stepped in. I offered a hand which he took and squeezed strongly, though trembling a little. We each stood, backs to a wall, opposite each other – about two-and-a-half feet between our faces.
“Well, hi, I’m Stuart, and thanks very much for making contact with me.” I said, pulling back the hood and shaking rain from my clothing. “You know how difficult it is to fight these things, the establishment are out to cover it all up; people who know things are very frightened, so I understand your need for secrecy, so don’t worry about having to meet in this way. Every little piece of information I can gather helps the cause.”
“Yeah. Paul”, he said, lighting a fag, “I’ve never done this kind of thing before. Drink?” he said, taking a half-bottle of vodka from an inside jacket pocket. I took the bottle from him and rifled a quantity down my throat to join the red wine already present, handed it back and said. “So, what are the issues you want me to know about?”
When having these many encounters, I often didn’t know for sure what to expect. Some of the people were whistle-blowers, some witnesses, some survivors – or relatives of survivors. Sometimes the information they imparted would be a few fragments of things seen or heard, sufficiently concerning to have become fixed in people’s memories – to detailed knowledge of cover-ups – to actual experiences of being abused.
So I didn’t really know what to expect from “Paul”, but given the secrecy he insisted upon, I had speculated he was one of the whistle-blowing States employees – terrified for his career prospects if it ever became know he’d been in touch with me.
This, in essence, is how his story, the conversation – and events – went.
Both his parents were alcoholics; both violent. One had died when he was a small child, and the other had become more derelict and violent as the drinking consumed them.
Eventually, he was taken from the surviving parent and placed in one of Jersey’s notorious children’s homes. And so sad, lonely and empty had his life been, in his innocence, he was actually happy to be going to live in a lively place with lots of other children. The surviving parent died shortly afterwards – leaving him with not a soul in the world.
And within days of the commencement of this state of complete isolation and vulnerability – it began.
For three years – between the ages of seven and ten – he was routinely sodomised by two States of Jersey employees and a third man, one of their friends.
Though I had heard similar experiences, slowly and tentatively emerge from other survivors, I was taken aback at the sheer brutal immediacy of his explanation. I knew instantly that what he was saying was correct – as one of the two public employee abusers he named was already known to me – through attacks on other children which I had heard painfully recounted by other survivors, now adults.
I think he imagined he’d just tell me briefly, in a manly way, the straight facts of what happened to him, so I could add that knowledge to our campaign. And whilst he did state the bald facts in a brief and startling manner, I think doing so broke some kind of dam within him.
In the shadowed light I could just see his jaw-muscles working in his face and some blinked tears descend. “Jesus Christ”, I whispered, and reached out with both hands and took hold of his wrists. He pulled one hand free to draw heavily on his cigarette, but gripped my arm strongly with the other.
“Have you spoken to anyone about this, like a councillor or the police”, I asked?
“Look, I know it’s difficult, but if you feel at all able to do it, you’d find it a help to speak to someone professional about this, I’m just a politician.”
“No, I can’t”
For a few seconds I grew a little insensitive, “Look, do you want to bring the guilty to justice? Do you want to contribute to helping protect children in the future? You should speak to the police, even if you don’t want to make a complaint yourself, your information will still really help them.”
He was trembling now, and took another swig of vodka and offered the bottle across.
“I’m married”, he said. “Well, that’s great, you’ve got on and made a success of your life”, I said, smiling now.
“I don’t usually drink much. We’re very happy, we have a wonderful little girl”, he said, the tears flowing faster now.
“That’s fantastic; look, sorry if I seemed pushy. You don’t have to speak to the cops about it; your life is stable, it’s fair enough you should put your family first, you have the support of your wife.”
“She doesn’t know”, he said.
“Oh”, I said, “I see”, looking into his eyes and holding his arms again.
“She doesn’t know”, he choked again through clenched teeth as a tidal flood of tears burst down his face.
I held him as he wept into my shoulder, tears running from my own eyes.
Releasing and taking deep breaths, he looked at me and pre-empted my question;
“No. I will never tell her. I’ve never told anyone, you’re the only person. I’ll never tell her. She’d see me differently; it would change her attitude towards me; I’m terrified she’d take our little girl away.”
Gripping my left wrist with the force of a car-jack and looking into me with eyes like laser-beams he said, “I’m frightened of being alone again! Please understand, I can’t let them do that to me!”
I put my right hand on his shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, you’re strong, everything is going to be OK.”
Beginning to compose himself, he looked at me and said, “I just wanted somebody in authority to know.” I nodded and said, “You’ve done the right thing. This has clearly been very hard for you. But you’ve helped to expose the truth.”
“Look – as long as you don’t actually identify me – you can add my experiences to the campaign. I won’t – I can’t – go to the police. But I do want to help protect other kids.”
Words had pretty much become superfluous by this stage, and we communicated through expressions, but I nodded, and said, “OK. Look, thanks. I’m really grateful for this meeting. I think I understand what it took to do this.”
After a few moments we composed ourselves, wiping our eyes dry with the backs of our hands, and passing the bottle across. Though I had recently been responsible for getting the island’s parliament to ban smoking in enclosed work-places, and hadn’t smoked myself for many years, I gratefully took a cigarette from him as we shook hands looking at each other one last time – then turning to go our separate ways through a night silent save for the slamming rain.
I looked back, once, and saw dark windows and pools of rain reflecting his passing and I was struck again, by the thought that when I had these meetings with people like “Paul”, what I was seeking – and finding – were ghosts.
Shades and spectres – the vaporous trails of long-departed children – still haunting the outer shells of people I met. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of these ghost-children – in eye – or word – or gesture – and you want to reach out to them – but these burnt and vanished phantoms disappear into the scars, the tattoos, the needle marks, the self-harm lacerations, the haunted faces and the wrecked lives.
Once safely into the comparative anonymity of Garden Lane, I threw back the hood and stared up into the downpour whilst cupping the cigarette protectively in my hand and began to stagger back to my flat – unable to do anything except shake my head every ten paces or so.
Jersey is a small place – where chance encounters with people are common. One day, months later – when walking down King Street, I caught a distant glimpse of him, with his wife, their happy, smiling child swinging, hand-in-hand between them. I quickly turned to look in the window of a camera shop – just not knowing what the dynamics might be if our eyes locked.
Here was a man who had not allowed it to destroy him. So many others who went through similar experiences had been rendered alcoholic, drug-addicted, mentally ill, and alone – ultimately embraced by suicide in many cases. But he – through some superhuman strength – had subdued the monstrous suffering, chained it down, and permanently consigned it to some small dungeon in his mind.
There the experiences stay – whilst he gets on with his successful and happy life.
But oh – at what a cost?
That bleak rainy night – crying into the shoulder of a strange man – in a doorway in a back-street – revealing through a river of tears that which he could never tell his loving wife.
“Paul” certainly achieved his avowed objective – of helping the cause, when he arranged to meet me. But a part of me likes to think something further came of that encounter; that he achieved some kind of catharsis – and is free of his past.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for many of the others. The survivors and their supporters had one year of optimism – thanks largely to the unstinting and courageous efforts of Lenny Harper – a tough, straight, no-nonsense cop who was unafraid of the island’s establishment, and would have no truck with “The Jersey Way” – the ingrained culture of mutual protection and cover-ups engaged in by the well-placed. But Lenny retired – and inevitably, new officers were recruited who would be far more amenable to the wishes of the Jersey establishment. The richly resourced Jersey spin-apparatus went into over-drive to try and trash Mr. Harper and his work. And not content even with that, a brazenly unlawful suspension was enacted against Mr. Harper’s boss, the good, supportive Police Chief Graham Power.
As I had long predicted – the island authorities failed to prosecute most of the accused. 2008 began with four notorious abusers escaping prosecution; and later that year it was announced another eleven abusers would not face prosecution – as far as I’m aware, one of those eleven being one of the men who abused “Paul”.
Two-and-a-half years of dedicated police work – over a hundred complainants – over forty credible suspects – and so far only a handful of insignificant – and not ‘well-connected’ – individuals charged and convicted.
And not so much as one of the many people who criminally concealed child abuse – the people who failed to protect people like “Paul” – have been charged.
With dozens of alleged abusers not even facing trial – and likewise, those who knew, but who protected the abusers, facing no sanction – many survivors feel betrayed – violated all over again – at yet another episode of self-protecting moral bankruptcy by the Jersey authorities.
When I look at Jersey’s politicians – the sneering, ignorant, weak, inadequate, half-witted barbarians – I think of men like “Paul” – and of so many other people like him.
I think of all the meetings I’ve had with survivors – some of which would, quite literally, end with them crying on my shoulder.
Several such harrowing encounters – including the meeting with “Paul” – were fresh – so very fresh – in my mind in December 2007 – as I stood at my desk in the States chamber – having been shouted-down and had my microphone cut, for attempting to make a speech that expressed some recognition and empathy to the survivors.
As I had staggered back to my flat in the early hours of a rain-lashed Monday morning – after the meeting with “Paul” – and learning what he had suffered – I didn’t think it was possible to have to carry a more frighteningly bleak realisation of just how disgusting some people can be.
But the States of Jersey had given me a lesson; having refused to hear the speech, my “colleagues” were now sitting-down appreciatively to a free Christmas lunch in the Old Library.
And I was staggering back to the same flat I had returned to after meeting “Paul” – now knowing that there is no limit to the darkness.