SOURCE: Sunday Times   DATE: 06 March 1994       PAGE: 1/7 

Families split in `child abuse and devil' row

Durham Liz Lightfoot

 A CHILD-ABUSE inquiry with satanic overtones similar to the discredited investigation into devil worship in the Orkneys has been launched in Bishop Auckland, a market town near Durham.

  Families who claim they are innocent have been arrested for questioning after children apparently told social workers of ritual abuse, including the use of rats, ``devil clothes'', drugs and a whip.

 The inquiry centres on one street of solid family houses, largely owned by professional people. The once-friendly community has been torn apart as residents attack the homes and property of those accused by the children.

 Children who once ran in and out of each others' homes now rarely venture out unsupervised. Police have been called several times over the last fortnight to the street and have warned a local clergyman for using threatening behaviour. His wife was arrested last week for alleged criminal damage at the home of one of the accused.

  The inquiry was launched by Durham county social services and the police last August after a young girl alleged she had been sexually abused by an older boy. A boy of 14 is now in secure accommodation, awaiting trial for two alleged indecent assaults. Two adults, a man and his wife, have been in custody since the beginning of January charged with indecent assault on a six-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy. Both adults deny the charges.

 In January, the inquiry was extended when other children made abuse allegations. Three couples were arrested and questioned by police, but all six were released on police bail without charge after protesting their innocence.

  One couple were alleged to have taken part in ritual abuse said to include the use of rats to bite the children during sexual acts and the wearing of ``devil'' clothes. Another couple were alleged to have abused both boys and girls. The inquiry has so far amassed 90 hours of video interviews with the children and a vanload of documents.

  One professional couple were arrested on January 26 and kept in custody at separate police stations while their property was searched. Nothing incriminating was found. ``The allegations are ludicrous but they are very serious and all we can say is no, no, no. It seems such an inadequate word to use against such horrible and unfounded accusations,'' said the wife.

  ``The police have treated us with courtesy and kindness. What has made the whole thing so terrifying is the attacks on our house and our vehicles. One woman threw a poker at my daughter.''

  The wife was questioned by police over a child's allegation that she had been seen from the road beating another child in a neighbour's upstairs bedroom. ``There was a suggestion, which was not very specific, that I had been present at some kind of ritual sex-abuse gathering,'' she said.

  Her husband was accused of raping two girls of six and nine. He said: ``It was alleged that my daughter brought them into the house, drugged them with white powder, beat them with a heavy implement, whipped them, undressed them and then delivered them to me and I was supposed to have been naked on the bed. The whole thing is just ludicrous.''

  Ten days ago, the couple were again questioned by police, this time about a suggestion they had both indecently assaulted an 11-year-old boy. The husband was also alleged to have assaulted a nine-year-old boy. Once again, they were released without charge after making denials.

  Ronald Coia, their solicitor, said: ``It is the most worrying and frightening case I have seen. The allegations against good people are horrific and in other circumstances would be dismissed as ludicrous. But in the present climate of hysteria and fear the most absurd allegations are taken at face value by the authorities.''

  Allegations of satanic abuse first surfaced in Britain in the late 1980s. Five years ago the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) issued a warning about satanic sex rituals, which it later withdrew following the collapse of several satanic inquiries.

  In 1990, allegations into satanic abuse flared up in Nottingham and in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, where children were removed from their families. The claims were later proved to be groundless and the children were returned home. Mr Justice Douglas Brown, asked to examine claims of ritual abuse in Rochdale, dismissed them as the obsession of social workers.

 The following year children were taken from their families when the Orkney social work department suspected a satanic abuse ring led by a local clergyman. It claimed to have disclosures from children about devil worship,hooded cloaks and crucifixes. A Pounds 6m public inquiry found no evidence of any ritual abuse, while social workers were criticised for their suggestive questioning and for lengthy, unrecorded interviews that exhausted the children and left them confused.

  This weekend, Durham council said it could not discuss the case. ``Bearing in mind the sensitive nature of this ongoing inquiry, and particularly the legal constraints involved, we do not consider it would be proper at this stage to enter into any dialogue about the nature of the investigation or the course it is taking.''