There’s nowhere to hide on Jersey anymore. The world’s media is watching life on the well-heeled streets, where there are more smart cars than people to be seen. The island, like a genteel Home Counties town floating in the sea, is still flinching from the shock of abuse allegations at a former children’s home.
After Jersey police found what they believed to be a fragment of a child’s skull at Haut de la Garenne, the journalists descended. “You see that wall over there,” a policeman says, pointing at the long, low stone wall hemming the austere Victorian house, “There were reporters all the way down, and those Sky News and BBC vans with big satellite dishes. I had never seen anything like it.”
The island is more used to the arrival of businessmen than reporters with questions. Now, almost a month on, the space behind the wall at Haut de la Garenne is empty save for the rain. The journalists may be drifting away after obtaining initial headlines, but questions remain.
A short distance away, the evidence being slowly dug from the cellars below Haut de la Garenne is the subject of debate. “I heard the remains they found were the size of a 50-pence piece,” one local says.
The same point is repeated in St Helier, the capital and the heart of the island’s finance industry and politics. Jim Perchard, the island’s assistant health and social services minister, says: “What the police found was the size of a fifty-pence piece, and the tests have not been completed.”
The facts uncovered so far in the police investigation can be summed up as: a fragment of a skull two underground cellars beneath Haut de la Garenne and traces of blood uncovered in a bath in the first cellar. The fragment and the blood are being forensically examined.
Police say the findings corroborate victims’ accounts of dark underground cellars used as punishment rooms where alleged floggings and rapes took place. More than 160 people have given evidence to the police alleging abuse, leading to the identification of about 25 suspects.
Lenny Harper, the chief investigating officer, suggests “it is not beyond the realms of possibility” that a child was murdered. There are several pieces of evidence to suggest there could be further human remains but “nothing specific”.
Harper, from Northern Ireland, has been in Jersey for six years. He says the vast majority of abuse allegations at Haut de la Garenne date from the late 1960s to its closure in 1986. The police are investigating allegations about other institutions, with the most recent claim dating from 2001, although they are concentrating on Haut de la Garenne. One person has been charged so far in relation to Haut de la Garenne, and police expect to make more arrests.
The police are keen to correct some of the “facts” that have appeared in the media and are wary of sensationalism. Louise Nibbs, the sole press officer for the investigation, whose phone rarely stops, explains what they found was not a child’s skull but a fragment of one. “The bit about the child’s skull was made up. We complained to a couple of papers, but it is still repeated. There are journalists who want us to find eight corpses just to satisfy their news desks. They are very impatient.”
Eddie the police sniffer dog, who took part in the search for Madeline McCann, is hunting for clues. Along with the media, islanders have their own interpretations of everything he finds.
According to Stuart Syvret, former health and social services minister on the island, the evidence emerging reveals the island’s “catastrophic child protection failures”. The senator – an elected member of Jersey’s governing assembly – who was sacked after whistleblowing on child protection concerns on the island last year, believes more abuse remains unexposed.
For Syvret, who has long claimed cover-ups of child abuse on the island, the Haut de la Garenne case contains “overwhelming weight of testimony of the most appalling abuse that existed in any institution” in Jersey. Syvret also believes the alleged cover-up of abuse, which police are also investigating, has been due to the “self-supporting” nature of relationships between members of the Jersey establishment.
“It is like living in a Kafka novel,” he says, in characteristically colourful language. Syvret describes Jersey as an “oligarchy” – a government by the few, although elections are due this autumn. Syvret is a member of the Green party and likes to tell people he is “just a carpenter by trade” in contrast to some of his “millionaire” colleagues.
He calls Jersey a “one-party state”, but he is the most popular politician on the island.
According to one islander, the contrasting views emerging show that “everyone has an agenda” about the abuse allegations. He claims some reactions are driven by a need to “settle scores”. The islander questions why 160 witnesses have “come out of the blue” after decades have passed since their alleged abuse, and believes they are “doing it for the compensation”.
Harper’s explanation of why victims failed to speak out previously is different. “Historically, child abuse cases have shown victims have not been believed and also intimidated into not coming forward. Children have found it hard to be believed by adults, particularly during the times when the allegations we are looking at took place.” But he adds there was “no excuse” for adults not to listen.
Now the media is listening and Harper believes this is a good thing. “While there are the risks of prejudicing future trials, I can understand victims feel the need to speak. Our investigation could not have got to this stage without the media, as it has led to more people coming forward. With the exception of a few hysterical headlines, the coverage has helped us make 95% of our progress.”
The media has also shed a spotlight on the island’s chief minister, Frank Walker. Islanders are still talking about a BBC Newsnight interview last month where Walker was accused by Jeremy Paxman of caring more about the island’s reputation than decades of child abuse. Walker hit back at the programme’s treatment, reportedly calling it “hugely disappointing and thoroughly unprofessional”. The Jersey government is now monitoring reports every day.
The coverage from the island’s only paper, the Jersey Evening Post, whose former owner, the Guiton Group, was once run by Walker, is restrained. In response, critics have created new outlets for their views. Syvret publishes a blog, while Walker’s now infamous Newsnight interview has been placed on You Tube. A public rally was also held in support of abuse victims recently.
Amid such scrutiny, the Jersey establishment remains sensitive about its reputation. A Jersey government press officer warns against using the term “tax haven” to describe the island. “I would suggest that tax haven has negative connotations – offshore financial centre is better,” he says. The island has 51 banks, over 30,000 registered companies and more than £150bn deposited at any one time – 60% in foreign currency. The poor are a small minority, with an unemployment rate of 1.4% in the population of about 90,000. By comparison, the UK’s unemployment rate is 5.2%. However, Jim Perchard, the assistant health and social services minister, is keen to stress that the island is “not without a social conscience”, despite its wealth.
Syvret believes the media coverage of the investigation is helping break a “wall of silence” based on protecting the island’s reputation. “The media has managed to uncover more in the past few weeks than anyone else here over decades,” he says.
Like many others, Syvret says he heard nothing about the abuse allegations until the police investigation. But he believes there can be “no doubt” that others knew on the island, which measures around nine by five miles. “It’s a Jersey joke that there are no secrets – it’s a small place and everyone knows each other,” he says.
What more is known about the alleged abuse, and by whom, is yet to emerge from the police investigation. A 1981 inspection report into Haut de la Garenne, which the Jersey government gave to the police, does not refer to any allegations. But it notes the “disturbed behaviour” of many children who stayed a long time at the home. Children were also kept in a “rather too sheltered environment” and their network of friendships did not extend into the community.
As the investigation unfolds, the words of those who were in Haut de la Garenne will most likely lead to the truth. Giffard Aubin, who was placed in the home at the age of seven, is among many who are seizing the opportunity to speak out. As he talks, Aubin sits in a pub in St Helier’s Royal Square, clutching old photographs to show a French TV crew.
During his stay from 1942-51, Aubin claims older boys wet and electrocuted his legs. He alleges he was also used as “a live dart board” and hit with a police baton. Aubin claims the boys abused him while they were looking after younger children because of a lack of staff at Haut de la Garenne.
He says the home was so overcrowded that when one boy died of sunstroke, Aubin did not hear about it until a long time afterwards. “It was impossible to know what was going on in other parts of the building, and we never saw much of the staff,” he recalls.
Now, he is “not surprised” by the flood of allegations emerging from former residents. “There were so many allegations, but the authorities covered them up,” he says. After Aubin left the home, he did not want to talk about it. “I wanted to block out the atrocities,” he says. But now, he wants to talk.
When asked why nobody spoke about abuse, Aubin replies: “They say money talks and it certainly does on this island. The whole problem is certain people don’t want to make things difficult for themselves.” The TV crew move their camera closer, as his face lights up with a smile.
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