LONDON, UK — Try to forget it.
That’s what Jon Bird’s mother told him in 1963 when he ran home at age 4 weeping and in pain, after a stranger pulled him into the woods and raped him.
He heard the same thing six years later, he said, when a boarding school head teacher was fired — but not criminally charged — for sexually assaulting Bird and other students.
Denial, forgetting and covering up were for years the British response to allegations that children were being sexually abused in institutions that were supposed to care for them. Now those walls are coming down.
The UK is poised to launch a major national investigation into allegations that government officials knowingly covered up evidence of sexual abuse of children over decades, even when those crimes were perpetrated by people in the highest echelons of public life and in institutions specifically tasked with children’s care.
“This could be — it probably will be — the biggest inquiry this country’s ever seen,” inquiry spokesman David Jervis told GlobalPost.
Police are looking into reports of a long-rumored pedophile ring in Westminster, the London seat of power and government, that operated in the 1970s and 1980s and allegedly involved high-ranking figures from politics, the police and the military.
In the beginning of August, one such suspect has been named: Edward Heath, the former British prime minister. Heath, who died in 2005, was accused of sexually abusing children in the 1990s, a former detective says, but the investigations were squashed. Police are now investigating those alleged crimes, as well as reports that officers at the time deliberately shut down a formal inquiry.
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Investigations are also going on around the country into children’s homes, schools, hospitals and other institutions where victims — now adults — say that people assigned to their care were exploiting them for sexual purposes.
In some cases, police are investigating whether children were murdered to cover up the crimes.
In March, the UK's independent police watchdog announced that it was investigating the Metropolitan Police — London's police department — for "high-level corruption of the most serious nature" over a 40-year period in relation to the sex abuse claims.
This includes allegations that police deliberately shut down abuse investigations when powerful names came up, altered victims' reports to remove a senior politician's name, and covered up the crimes of powerful politicians.
It’s the ugly legacy of a period in which a lack of child safeguards in public institutions and a cultural preference for protecting the system instead of individuals allowed abuse to proliferate.
For social workers and abuse survivors who have been trying for years to get complaints heard, these investigations are a validation many thought they’d never receive.
“I thought they’d keep a lid on it forever,” said Bird, now operations manager at the National Association for People Abused in Childhood. “I’m still amazed it’s being taken seriously.”
Open secrets, official silence
There have been whispers and rumors for decades in Britain that certain public institutions — and certain high-ranking people — were dangers to children.
Recently released National Archives documents show that in the 1980s even Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was briefed on the pedophilic predilections of people in and close to her government.
There was Sir Peter Hayman, a career diplomat and member (under an assumed name) of the Pedophile Information Exchange, a lobby group that existed in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1978 Hayman left a package of pedophilic materials on a London bus but was let off by police with only a warning.
There was Sir Peter Morrison, a close Thatcher aide and deputy Conservative Party leader, whose rumored abuse of young boys in the 1980s is now the subject of an investigation into abuse in children’s homes in Wales.
There was Cyril Smith, a Liberal member of Parliament (MP) from 1972 to 1992 who was investigated at least three times for sexually assaulting boys but never charged.
In March, after a year of stalling on a newspaper’s information request, the government released documents showing that a top adviser warned Thatcher about Smith’s previous abuse investigations, and that knighting him could harm “the integrity of the honors system.”
Thatcher ignored him. Smith got his knighthood. Last year, Greater Manchester Police acknowledged that there was “overwhelming evidence ... that young boys were sexually and physically abused” by Smith, and that he would likely face trial were the same evidence presented today.
At the time, the attitude to Smith’s rumored predilections was very different.
“All he seems to have done is spanked a few bare bottoms,” a Liberal Party spokesman said in response to a 1979 newspaper investigation.
Hayman, Morrison and Smith are now dead.
In 1984, a Conservative MP named Geoffrey Dickens sent then-Home Secretary Leon Brittan multiple letters charging that people in and linked to the government were sexually abusing children. Brittan claimed to have passed them to Home Office officials for investigation. Nothing more came of it. Brittan died last month.
In 2013, the Home Office, which oversees Britain’s police and other security agencies, said that those letters, along with more than 100 other documents related to child abuse allegations, are missing from their files.
A Home Office-commissioned review of the missing documents could neither confirm nor rule out that they were deliberately removed from the record.
Allegations of abuse by powerful people at that time were treated more as embarrassing secrets than reportable crimes. As far back as 1995, former Conservative Party whip Tim Fortescue explained in a BBC documentary how even open admissions of child molestation could be brushed aside.
“Anyone with any sense, who was in trouble, would come to the whips and tell them the truth, and say, ‘Now, I'm in a jam. Can you help?’ It might be debt, it might be a scandal involving small boys,” said Fortescue, who died in 2008.
Keeping the secret had more political value than reporting it, Fortescue said: “If we could get a chap out of trouble, he’d do as we asked forevermore.”
Those who did try to bring alleged crimes to attention were met with silence or stonewalling from police and prosecutors, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained.
As a social worker in the London borough of Islington in the 1990s, Liz Davies began to work with police on a major investigation of sexual abuse in children’s group homes there.
She maintains that she found evidence that children in the system were being subjected to sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect and even murder.
One day, she said, it all stopped. She was informed that the investigation was over and not given a reason. Her counterpart in London’s Metropolitan Police was told the same, she said.
“We’d been working together every single day. It was very intense,” Davies said.
But now, some 20 years later, she said, “the truth is coming out and it can’t be stopped.”
Savile blows it open
Jimmy Savile was a fixture on British television for almost 50 years, a Yorkshire-accented equivalent to someone like America’s Dick Clark.
He was famous for his charity work and children’s shows on the BBC. But less than a year after his death in October 2011, allegations came to light that he used both those outlets to find, groom and rape children. Hundreds of people have since come forward to claim that Savile sexually assaulted them when they were underage.
“That was the watershed moment in the UK,” Bird said.
A subsequent London police investigation has led to the arrests of 17 other men so far on sexual offenses against adults and children, most committed between the late 1970s and early 1990s.
The conviction and imprisonment of British TV personalities like Gary Glitter and Rolf Harris made headlines. But it was also clear from victims’ reports that institutions and the people who ran them were complicit in the abuse.
There are now at least 13 separate investigations underway across Britain into past sexual offenses against children.
Some are internal reviews to understand how institutions like the National Health Service or the Department for Education exposed children to predators and failed to act on reports of abuse.
At the top is an independent national inquiry announced in July that will seek to determine whether and to what extent institutions in England and Wales were negligent in their duty to protect children from sexual abuse.
“A full public inquiry is required because under those terms people have to take oaths and therefore swear to tell the truth. My fear is the whole story won't come out without that,” said Bishop Paul Butler of the Church of England, which has uncovered evidence of sexual abuse by clergy. “We have to be investigated just like anybody else.”
Investigations in Northern Ireland and Scotland will be left to those regions’ devolved governments, May said, despite calls to include them in the national one.
It has gotten off to a rocky start. The first two inquiry chiefs stepped down over concerns that they were too close to establishment figures likely to surface in the course of the investigation.
In February the inquiry virtually started from scratch, announcing New Zealand High Court judge Lowell Goddard as the new chief. It relaunched last week with a new panel of investigators.
Evidence hearings will not begin for months, spokesman Jervis said. The full investigation, he added, will likely take years.
When it was announced, Prime Minister David Cameron said the inquiry should leave “no stone unturned.” When news emerged of a separate sexual abuse scandal in Britain — one involving the exploitation of young women by primarily South Asian gangs — he called the problem a “national threat.”
But Simon Danczuk, an MP leading the push for a full investigation, said in December that he believed Cameron was “dismissive” of the allegations toward establishment figures and ready to “move on.”
Cameron sat on a parliamentary committee examining police investigations of abuse at children’s group homes in 2002, when he was still an MP.
Phil Frampton, 61, who was sexually abused as a child in care, gave evidence to the committee. In a phone interview, he recalled Cameron’s demeanor as “pretty arrogant and dismissive.”
In transcripts, Cameron’s questions have a skeptical tone: Could people be making fraudulent accusations to claim compensation? Were police questions triggering false memories? How many accusers had criminal backgrounds? (Cameron's office did not immediately respond to several requests for comment last week.)
Before Savile, that was the common attitude toward accusers raised in state institutions, who were often cast as troubled youth seeking money or attention, Frampton said.
“For us, who’ve been fighting for so long, [the national inquiry] is very, very important, and a chance to set the record straight,” Frampton said.
A criminal trail
There are also police investigations that could lead to the arrest and prosecution of offenders who are still alive.
These operations are complicated beasts. Take, for example, the investigation into Elm Guest House, a former hostel in Barnes, a suburb southwest of London.
The Edwardian house served simultaneously as a legitimate bed and breakfast, a brothel for gay men and, allegedly, a place where trafficked children were brought to be sexually abused by adults. Police are investigating claims that prominent government officials were among the men who raped boys at the house.
Police opened an investigation in 2012 called Operation Fairbank. Fairbank subsequently launched three new lines of inquiry (not included in the 13 investigations mentioned above).
One of those, Operation Fernbridge, is looking at reports of a pedophile ring operating out of Elm. This includes claims that boys were trafficked to Elm from Grafton Close Children’s Home, a group home in southwest London.
In 2013, police arrested two men on charges of sexually assaulting children at Grafton Close in the late 1970s and early 1980s — John Stingemore, its former manager, and Anthony McSweeney, a Catholic priest.
Stingemore died in January at the age of 72, weeks before the trial against him was due to start. McSweeney, now 68, was convicted Feb. 27 of sexually assaulting a boy and making child pornography. He will be sentenced later this month.
Another line of inquiry, Operation Midland, is investigating claims that three boys were murdered by an organized ring of pedophiles operating in London and its surrounding counties.
The families of two boys who went missing near Elm Guest House in the late 1970s and early 1980s have asked police to investigate the possibility that their sons were taken and killed by people linked to the house.
A system gone wrong
Britain must now reckon with a history of crime and institutional neglect on an overwhelming scale.
Jordans Solicitors, a law practice in Yorkshire that specializes in representing sexual abuse victims in civil lawsuits, received between 600 and 1,000 calls last year from people claiming to have been abused, attorney David Gibbs said.
Sexual abuse of children happens all over the world. Institutions everywhere sometimes fail the people they’re charged with protecting.
But some believe that British culture in the latter half of the 20th century allowed these two truths to merge in a particularly toxic way; that these abuse allegations are the dark, ugly consequence of a social system that valued the preservation of order and the establishment above all else.
“Remember the atmosphere of the times,” said Lord Norman Tebbit, a member of Thatcher’s cabinet, on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show in July.
“At that time, I think most people would have thought that the establishment, that the system, was to be protected. And if a few things had gone wrong here and there, that it was more important to protect the system than to delve too far into them.”
Asked if there was a government cover-up of child sex abuse, he said, “I think there may well have been. But it was almost unconscious. It was the thing that people did at that time. You didn’t talk about those sort of things.”
Jon Bird of NAPAC compared the cultural shift on child abuse in Britain to the animal rights movement.
“There was a time when they thought you could do whatever you liked to an animal and it doesn’t feel any pain,” he said. “I think there was a time when they thought children were the same way.”