The long awaited Operation Conifer report by Wiltshire Police into allegations against the former late Prime Minister Edward Heath sums up the dilemmas investigating historic child sex abuse when the alleged perpetrator is now dead.
Child sexual abuse – because it is essentially a shameful and private act – is one of the most difficult crimes to prove and even more difficult when it is historic and the person accused is dead. An adult rape victim may be able to recognise their assailant, a child will have more difficulty unless it is a member of their close family or a teacher or youth worker.
Wiltshire Police have been attacked for spending public money investigating these claims and as a result damaging the reputation of a very prominent public figure when he can’t answer back.
In my view they were completely right to do so because of the number of people who came forward making these allegations. To refuse to do so would amount to complicity in a further cover up of these allegations and to assume that all the people who made them were liars without examining any of the facts.
And it would compound the present scandal of child sexual abuse – which is why we are having an inquiry- because across society in churches, schools, family, politicians ( like Sir Cyril Smith) and entertainers ( Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris) there are now real examples of hidden child sex abuse going back 30 to 40 years.
The police investigation to my mind has been proportionate and fair. They have not said every one of the 42 ( actually 40 because three cases were the same person under different names) people who came forward totally proved Edward Heath abused them. And of the seven cases , including an 11 year old boy, where they believe Edward Heath should have been questioned under caution, that this meant Edward Heath was automatically guilty. It was just that other facts suggested their allegations sounded serious enough to warrant the ex PM being questioned. about them.
And where they think the accusers have been wrong or misled they have said so. In three cases they decided it was mistaken identity.
And in two worse. -one is a live investigation into misleading the police and the other has been cautioned for wasting police time.
They seem to have gone about their job in a meticulous way – just as in these circumstances any serious journalist would do – by looking for corroboration of the allegations from people who were not abusers or the abused. The fact that one case merited attention, for example, came because in questioning government chauffeurs ( which as any lobby journalist knows are some of the best sources for revealing occasional indiscretions), one of them mentioned Heath visiting an area where separately a person alleged he was abused there.
They have also revealed what looks like one of Edward Health’s best kept secrets that he could drive and owned two cars.
They also appear to have uncovered another possible case of child sexual abuse – unconnected to Edward Heath – by contacting male sex workers in Salisbury which is still under investigation.
In their inquiries they seem to have scotched a specific rumour that he abused people on Morning Cloud and other racing yachts, By chasing up the crew it looks extremely unlikely that he would have both the space and the privacy to do so.
The report says:”There is no indication from former crew members that children were ever taken aboard the different Morning Cloud yachts. There was no information or evidence that any of the identified crew members were complicit in child sexual abuse or witnessed Sir Edward Heath engaging in abuse.”
And it debunks suggestions that Heath was ” asexual”.
“During the investigation the issue became relevant as it was publicly implied that it was implausible for Sir Edward Heath to be an alleged suspect in child abuse related offences as he was considered to be ‘completely asexual’.
“Witnesses who were interviewed by investigators from Operation Conifer offered different opinions about Sir Edward Heath’s sexuality. However two witnesses, who have not disclosed abuse, provided evidence that he was sexually active with consenting adults during parts of his life.”
On the security services the report baldly says; “Enquiries were undertaken with UK Security and Intelligence Agencies and there was no information that progressed the investigation any further.”
I note a much fuller report is to go to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and the intention is to attach the findings to more general inquiries about paedophiles in Westminster which will be a controversial part of the investigation – given what happened to the Operation Midland inquiry.
What this report doesn’t do is lift the lid on the alleged Westminster paedophile scandal and change the direction of the inquiry. Rather it adds to the whole problem of not proven allegations and how to balance how much and what should be investigated. It rather leaves some matters in limbo. I notice with great interest that Wiltshire Police did appoint an independent scrutiny panel to oversee their investigation – which should stop people accusing the police of time wasting – and they fully support they way Wiltshire went about it.
But I entirely reject the idea that we need another judicial review after such a meticulous investigation. That would be a waste of public money.