Mail on Sunday, 11th June 2006
By Eileen Fairweather
Last month this man killed himself in Thailand after being accused of sexually abusing 300 boys. I have to ask the disturbing question: Would these boys have suffered if Margaret Hodge’s London council had not protected him?;
Many years later one victim spoke out, only for Hodge to discredit him as ‘disturbed’. I can reveal the source of this evil slur was none other than the paedophile who abused him.
The text message from Mike Hames, the former Scotland Yard pornography squad chief, was blunt: ‘Rabet’s topped himself.
It’s made my day.’ It arrived three weeks ago, as I was sitting in a sunny garden with Liz Davies, a woman with whom I had forged a deep and unlikely bond. We hadn’t seen each other for nine months and were talking about our kids.
Then Liz’s mobile phone beeped, drawing us back to a far less pleasant past, when we both had to deal with the pain of working with abused children.
Liz and I had met in 1992. She was then a social worker who went on to help me and reporter Stewart Payne uncover a paedophile ring that had infiltrated children’s homes run by Islington Council.
We discovered that paedophiles had penetrated the network of homes so completely that they had begun using them to procure children. The council had wanted to encourage gay men into childcare in the interests of equal opportunities, but this well-intentioned aim was so naively implemented that paedophiles posed as gay men to take advantage of the policy.
The council exempted any man who said he was gay from needing professional qualifications or references, declared gay men less likely to abuse children than heterosexuals as a matter of policy and repeatedly assumed that any criticisms of men who claimed to be gay were motivated purely by homophobia. Even children who tearfully described abuse were considered prejudiced.
The leader of Islington Council, Margaret Hodge, now a Trade Minister, had refused to believe our investigation even though it was later vindicated by a series of damning independent reports. Her attacks on our investigation, and the fact the council mislaid or refused to believe vital evidence, led to crucial delays which allowed many of those responsible to escape prosecution or punishment. Among them was Nicholas John Rabet, who had fled to Thailand to continue his vile abuse of children. The 57-year-old bachelor was deputy superintendent of one of Islington’s children’s homes until 1989 and had been accused of abusing a boy there. He had strong links with other paedophiles involved in the scandal, some of whom also worked for Islington Council. Yet despite a lengthy police investigation, Rabet was never charged.
Last month, however, his cycle of abuse ended with his suicide in Thailand, days before he was to face trial there. Police found him dead, a plastic bag over his head, his ankles locked together in cuffs, in his rented home in the sordid seaside resort of Pattaya, which has long had a reputation for child-sex tourism. Beside him was a pitiful suicide note. He had killed himself, he wrote, as ‘it is the only way to escape the stress of my life.’ Rabet had been due to face trial for molesting 30 underage Thai boys, some as young as six, and police believed he had abused up to 300 others. When they raided his home, they found 11 computer game consoles which he used to lure children, making ‘commission’ payments to those who brought him new victims.
Now, with his death, I feel able to tell for the first time the full horrifying story of what happened in Islington more than a decade ago. The fact Rabet was allowed to escape and go on to abuse children in another country makes me wonder if there is any real justice for vulnerable children in the care of social services.
And it also raises a disturbing question: could the 300 children in Thailand have been saved if Rabet and his cohorts had been jailed so many years ago?
For the first time policemen and social workers have broken their silence to reveal how Islington Council hindered inquiries and, whether through naivety or incompetence, effectively allowed these paedophiles to go free.
At the same time, I can now expose how the council’s policy of actively recruiting gay carers and classing them beyond suspicion was exploited by paedophiles. Mrs Hodge’s social services committee even amended the council’s child protection policy in 1987 to declare abusers of vulnerable children more likely to be heterosexual than homosexual men. It was a disastrous policy of political correctness that effectively protected those who set out to abuse children and its dangers remain only too relevant today. An independent inquiry later confirmed that the council allowed 26 workers facing ‘extremely serious allegations’ to leave Islington without investigation. The council also thwarted attempts by Sussex police to gather evidence against Rabet in the early Nineties, when officers learned that he had supplied a national child sex and pornography ring. Brighton-based Superintendent Kevin Moore said: ‘If we’d had the usual cooperation you expect and deserve, it’s a very strong likelihood we would have got a conviction. Justice was denied.
‘We are all, in child abuse investigations, in a position of trusting each other to do what’s right but in this case that trust was abused. The most vulnerable children were affected by that and it was disgraceful, dreadful.’ Detective Superintendent John Sweeney took over Islington police’s child protection team after the scandal was exposed and painstakingly traced long-ignored victims. He said: ‘When I first learned about the homes, I thought it couldn’t possibly be that bad. But it was worse.
‘Does Islington share responsibility? Any opportunity to intervene that was lost is an absolute tragedy.’
I met Nick Rabet long before I investigated him, when I visited the children’s activity centre he opened in 1990 on the Sussex Downs. A social worker I knew held his son’s eighth birthday party there and invited my child. He said Rabet was a socialist philanthropist, who had been deputy head of an Islington children’s home but quit to open this lavishly equipped centre on his private manor estate. He invited scores of Islington’s deprived inner city kids to visit. Local social services sent him young offenders to rehabilitate and children’s charities frequently visited. The centre’s facilities were lavish: quad bikes and mini motorbikes, free pinball and football machines, snooker and a disco.
Yet Rabet charged just £4 per child. How, I asked him, could a London social worker afford a manor and so many staff? Rabet said he inherited the estate through his ex-wife, and he was running the centre as a ‘loss leader’ until established. I felt puzzled. The men helping out didn’t seem to really like children. They were impatient and unkind when one fell. What my instincts told me, even if I didn’t then understand, was that these men had created this honeypot for children for one reason only: so they could use them. But although I resolved never to take my child there again, I did nothing further.
Two years later, I learned that a social worker wanted a journalist to expose Islington social services. Liz Davies arrived for our meeting laden with files in bulging plastic bags.
She had resigned in despair, after being investigated by the council as ‘anti-equal opportunities’ for raising concerns about a supposedly gay worker trying to foster a boy, who later said he was abused. Before leaving Islington, she photocopied the confidential files of numerous children alleging abuse. ‘I had to,’ she said. ‘Islington is destroying evidence.’ She told an extraordinary tale, claiming pimps, paedophiles and pornographers controlled Islington’s 12 care homes. Frankly it seemed so far fetched I didn’t know whether to believe her.
She said that Lyn Cusack, Islington’s assistant director for children’s services, had failed to act, as had the area child protection committee.
Davies nervously showed me a letter Margaret Hodge, then council leader, wrote in 1990, rebuking Davies’ boss for requesting funds to investigate why vulnerable Islington children were visiting a man previously convicted of running a child brothel. Didn’t this prove that Hodge didn’t care? The union wouldn’t help. Unison also feared that the concerns were ‘homophobic’. Staff had nowhere to turn save the Press, and Davies offered secretly to co-ordinate whistleblowers and evidence. ‘I’ll probably never work again,’ she said. ‘But I can’t keep quiet.’ She told me of a major police child pornography inquiry into Rabet, previously deputy superintendent of Islington’s home at 114 Grosvenor Avenue. I remembered the odd man at the children’s party and his creepy friends. I felt sickened. They had touched my child.
I checked Davies’s claims with Superintendent Mike Hames, head of Scotland Yard’s Obscene Publications Squad, now the Paedophile Unit, and described my encounter with Rabet. He laughed at Rabet’s claim that he inherited his country pile through a wife. He was a confirmed bachelor, he said. Rabet really acquired it by befriending its elderly owner, an American widow with an oil fortune. She made out her will to him, and died shortly afterwards. That might just seem like good luck, except that one of Rabet’s wealthy paedophile pals, who ‘donated’ £13,000 to his centre, had an identical modus operandi. Neil Hocquart inherited large sums not once but twice, after elderly men died of heart attacks weeks after bequeathing everything to him. Identifying vulnerable old people to exploit was, police believed, as important to Rabet and his paedophile friends as singling out abuse victims.
At this point I knew I had stumbled across something truly awful. Police had raided the Cambridgeshire homes of two of Rabet’s friends in 1991. They found more than 100 child sex videos and 300 photographs of children at the Swaffham Prior home of Hocquart, a 40-year-old photographer. At nearby Ely they found his friend Walter Clack, 69, a former assistant to onetime Governor of the Bank of England, Robin Leigh-Pemberton, trying to dispose of a sick home video of a middle-aged man abusing a boy. They also discovered that both men regularly ‘volunteered’ at Rabet’s children’s centre.
Hocquart had bought the centre’s quad bikes, took a child he met there on holiday with other men and dis-tributed naked photos of him to the international paedophile network through contacts in Amsterdam. Before police could question Hocquart, he took a fatal overdose. Clack was fined £5,000 a derisory sum, but child pornography offences were not taken as seriously as today. Hocquart’s diaries suggested the men belonged to a huge ring of paedophiles in the arts, clergy and busi-ness world and that Rabet was a major supplier of victims.
Police then raided Rabet’s Sussex home. Unfortunately, he had time to clear out hard evidence. But paedo-philes are compulsive hoarders and they still found a ‘shrine’, with photos of hundreds of boys. Rabet kept children’s underwear as ‘trophies’. Name-tagged clothes helped lead British police to a boy I shall call Shane, who formerly lived in Rabet’s Islington children’s home. Police showed Shane a picture of himself lying on his bed at the home, chest bare, next to Rabet. Shane tearfully disclosed years of abuse.
What happened next was scandalous.
Islington lost incriminating files, denied there were concerns about other children Rabet took away, and sacked concerned staff. Rabet was never prosecuted. Superintendent Moore says now: ‘Tragically, none of us can say why Islington did what they did.’ But he does not discount its ‘drive to set a political agenda’. Because I had met Rabet, this felt personal. I was determined to prove the children of Islington were being abused. Children’s home worker Neville Mighty answered the phone when Sussex police rang looking for Shane. Management disliked Mighty, a Jamaican with traditional views: he later stormed Lyn Cusack’s office to protest about men he called pimps staying overnight with children in care.
Now he began comparing notes with colleagues about Rabet. Islington suddenly accused Mighty of impropriety. He had supposedly touched a girl’s knee and used innuendo. He was sacked and barred for life from working with children a ban he overturned in 1999.
I and colleague Stewart Payne spent three months in 1992 talking to frightened social workers, victims and parents, mostly in grim Islington estates. By the end, we had around 30 whistleblowers. We had to protect the identity of all of them. I sometimes came away from meetings near to tears but Stewart would make me laugh. He said he felt like pouring a bucket of disinfectant over himself. I had sleepless nights and midnight phone calls from people who were too terrified to talk face to face and feared something was going to happen to them.
We found Shane. He was now 20 and in turmoil. He came into care when he was 12, after his mother had a nervous breakdown following years of domestic violence. He felt rejected but Rabet, who wore a silver sher-iff’s badge and instructed the kids to call him The Sheriff, seemed fatherly and fun.
Shane’s mother only asked Islington for brief respite care while ill. But she said: ‘They stole my son, I couldn’t get him back.’ I had started out with the prejudice that anyone whose child ended up in care was feckless, or worse, but she was a decent, honest working class woman. Rabet swamped Shane with expensive gifts and Pounds 30a-week pocket money. ‘I couldn’t compete with that as a single mum,’ his mother said. ‘This man effectivelybribed him, then Shane became frightened to speak out.’ When I met him, Shane played with toys as he talked, repeatedly throwing them into the air. His distress was palpable. Rabet had told him his mother did not want him back, plied him with whiskey and cigarettes, then photographed him after he passed out.
He took Shane at weekends to his Sussex home. Shane hated the abuse but drunkenly bore it as the price of having a father figure. His mother said: ‘I knew it was all wrong and I begged Islington at meeting after meeting to let me take my son home. But they closed ranks and tried to make out I was paranoid. No one believed me.’ I knew five social work whistleblowers did believe her, but I had to protect their identities. Shane kidded himself that Rabet really cared for him. But the day hair grew on his chin, Rabet abruptly lost interest and developed new, younger ‘favourites’. Shane knew then that he had been conned. I felt his mother’s heartbreak. It was clear she had lost her son. But Shane was also heartbroken his emo-tions had been exploited as well as his body.
Police looked for files supporting Shane’s allegation. A worried source in Islington told me what was in the council records, ‘because they’re about to disappear’. The council, he claimed, routinely suppressed the fact that allegations of abuse had been made. The files included letters from Shane’s mother, his headteacher, psychiatrist and social worker to senior management, all protesting about Rabet’s ‘ inappropriate’ relationship with the boy. All clearly feared abuse.
Sure enough, Islington said no relevant files were found. There is no evidence Margaret Hodge had any knowledge of this at this time, or of collusion by managers, although two independent inquiries later con-firmed that files needed by police in three separate child sex ring inquiries did indeed go missing. Islington’s administrative chaos was blamed.
I told police of the files’ contents. Only then, belatedly, did Islington find and produce the documents.
But, shockingly, the council still gave no help to police in tracing and interviewing other likely victims and witnesses. An Islington Labour Party source confided that the investigation was considered ‘homophobic’. Liz Davies secretly met Sussex police officers. ‘I told them everything I knew. They were good officers but seemed overwhelmed by the scale of the investigation.’ I was beginning to feel really angry. I wanted to be wrong about what we thought was going on, but this extraordinary lack of coop-eration and urgency confirmed my worst suspicions.
Nobody was ever prosecuted as police believed they did not have enough evidence. The burden of proof under British law is high and, as Superintendent Moore says: ‘We cannot always use the uncorroborated ev-idence of young people.’ But there was disquiet about the scandal. The independent Ian White report or-dered by the Government confirmed in 1995 that Islington had refused to investigate ‘extremely serious allegations’. It was ‘a deplorable state of affairs’, within a social services department which had disintegrated ‘from top to bottom’. He described Islington as a ‘classic study’ in how paedophiles target children, hugely aided by the council’s naive interpretation of gay rights. ‘Equal opportunities … became a positive disincentive for challenge to bad practice … and a great danger’.
Mrs Hodge’s council was so obsessed with creating equal opportunities that it actively encouraged gay men into childcare and was less likely to view them with suspicion than heterosexual men. However people like Rabet were not gay men, but paedophiles masquerading as such so they could work their way into the system. Mrs Hodge remained in denial. She claimed managers lied to her, no councillors alerted her, and that ‘the issue of the council’s equal opportunities policy as a barrier to good childcare practice was never raised, however obliquely’. She also insisted the police found no evidence of a paedophile ring. The senior officers who investigated find this risible. ‘All the Islington abusers knew and protected each other,’ said Detective Superintendent Sweeney.
Some of the staff accused of abuse then left the country. The managers who had failed to investigate them were allowed to quietly resign from the council and take up new jobs. As their replacements came in there were attempts to look at long-ignored allegations. It was well-intentioned but underfunded and ran out of steam. Also the trail had gone cold.
But offenders were fleeing. Rabet sold his Sussex estate and joined another former Islington children’s home boss in Pattaya three eventually ended up there. Police had his luggage searched at Gatwick and found computer games: Rabet obviously intended to abuse Thai children. Warnings were passed on but the developing country was then illequipped to challenge the thousands of Western ‘child sex tourists’.
Rabet’s friend Bernie Bain, who had been another Islington children’s home boss, went on to join Rabet in Pattaya. Bernard Leo Bain had fled Britain in 1996, just before Detective Superintendent Sweeney could arrest him for raping seven young boys in care and was briefly imprisoned in Morocco for child pornography. But he, too, killed himself, in May 2000.
His suicide note expressed only self pity. He was, says Sweeney, ‘depressed about money’.
Incredibly, Bain had gone on from running a caravan business at Islington’s Elwood Street home, widely used by other paedophiles, to co-found a travel company worth millions. I had pursued these men relentlessly because I realised how very dangerous they were to children. It was so immensely frustrating to then learn they had been allowed to escape the net.
Many years later one Islington abuse survivor, Demetrious Panton, did speak out, incredulous at Margaret Hodge’s appointment as Children’s Minister in 2003. He could prove Islington councillors and senior managers knew about allegations he made throughout the Eighties that he had been severely abused as a ten-year-old, by Bernie Bain in 1978. Bain resigned from Islington in 1979 with impunity, despite concerns he had numerous other victims.
Yet Mrs Hodge notoriously discredited Panton in a letter to the BBC, painting him as ‘extremely disturbed’. But she never explained the source of her slur against Panton, who is now a highflying consultant. Although there is no evidence this is other than a disconcerting coincidence, I can reveal for the first time that the Islington ‘expert’ who branded Panton disturbed was none other than Bernie Bain.
In February 1978, weeks before Bain first raped Panton, he circulated a report labelling the child a liar and fantasist. It was a character assassination that was to stick: a paedophile’s attempt to save his own skin recycled, however unwittingly, by a Minister. The report is the most evil and premeditated discrediting of a ten-year-old boy. No senior managers were ever disciplined over this scandal. And none of the workers accused of abuse was ever prosecuted. The police, so late in the day, and with suspects fleeing, simply could not accumulate enough evidence.
Assistant director Lyn Cusack resigned for ‘personal reasons’ in 1993. Two councillors admitted Demetrious Panton had described his abuse and asked the council to investigate Bain. But both Mike Devenney, Mrs Hodge’s chair of social services and her acolyte, Stephen Twigg, later said they could not ‘recall’ ever mentioning abuse to Mrs Hodge. Devenney later became a Disability Commissioner when Mrs Hodge had the disabilities portfolio, and Stephen Twigg became her researcher at Westminster, then her junior at the Department for Education. I watched their progress with disbelief. So did whistleblower Liz Davies. My concerns are over accountability and justice for the children. No one was ever held responsible. All the children, their families and the social workers who tried to defend them at enormous personal cost feel betrayed.
Sussex police tried, unsuccessfully, to gather enough evidence so they reluctantly released Rabet from bail. Detective Superintendent Sweeney still laments the failure to prosecute.
He said: ‘I was deeply affected by how much pain and trauma these men inflicted on really young children. They were brutal.’ But he hopes that councils who are now actively recruiting gay foster carers will be more rigorous in their vetting processes than Islington was. He said: ‘I wouldn’t say gay couples can’t foster. But people must learn the lessons of Islington. These weren’t social workers or gay people; these were paedophiles posing as gay to escape detection.’ Hundreds of children suffered horribly, in Britain and Thailand, so that the idealistic incompetents who ran Islington Council could boast they had pioneered ‘equal opportunities’.
What a very high price defenceless Thai children paid, so that Margaret Hodge and her people could state that no Islington abuser was convicted. Liz Davies, now a senior lecturer in social work at London Metropolitan University, is at least teaching a new generation of social workers to be more vigilant.