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Charity launches massive inquest into three decades of child abuse

Sunday Herald report moves Quarriers boss to ask former victims to come forward

By Neil Mackay, Sunday Herald 26/05/02

QUARRIERS, Scotland's leading children's charity, is to launch a massive internal inquiry to discover whether former care home workers were involved in the widespread systematic abuse of children.

A major police investigation is now under way into allegations that care workers at Quarriers Village on the outskirts of Bridge of Weir in Renfrewshire - where abandoned, neglected and orphaned children were housed - embarked on institutional mental, physical and sexual abuse during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

Unlike many other care homes which have faced similar allegations, Quarriers has held up its hands to the crimes that unfolded in the 43 cottages that were home to some 30,000 children over the decades.

Phil Robinson, the charity's chief executive, now wants any former care home resident who suffered any kind of abuse while at Quarriers to contact him so he can pass their allegations to the police. "I'm determined to help anyone who was a victim of abuse get justice," he said.

Robinson has vowed to launch a detailed internal investigation into the allegations and is "cooperating 100%" with detectives. He wants the inquiry, which will involve trawling through the records of thousands of children and tracking down former staff, to uncover whether the abuse that occurred at the home was organised.

Any hint of criminal activity will immediately be passed to the police. Robinson also plans to launch a helpline for former care home residents through which they can ring the charity in confidence and name the people who abused them.

The charity's decision to confront its past stems from last week's investigations by the Sunday Herald into child abuse at the home. In the report, former care home resident Elizabeth McWilliams told how she was beaten daily, sexually assaulted and psychologically tortured during her stay at the Bridge of Weir home from 1937 to 1953. She also told how she was forced to eat pigswill, saw friends have their noses rubbed into beds they had wet, and witnessed an attempted murder when a child was hurled down a flight of stairs.

Her allegations follow the jailing last September of 70-year-old Samuel McBrearty for raping and assaulting children at the Quarriers Village 30 years ago. Police have interviewed a series of former residents as part of a wide-ranging investigation into abuse at the home.

"The escalation in the number of people alleging abuse means we have to face this head on," said Robinson. "We can't right the wrongs of the past, but we can acknowledge that this happened and say we are sorry.

"However, it must be remembered that hardly anyone who now works here was staff at the time these offences happened, and that the system of care has changed dramatically since the late 1970s. A helpline would at least allow people to talk about what they suffered. If they told us they had been physically or sexually assaulted I would tell them to immediately go to the police, or if they didn't want to do that I'd report the incident to the police myself if they gave their consent.

"I also want people to know that they can return here to confront their past if they feel that would help them. We would be here, if they wanted us, to listen to them and console them.

"What happened took place in a time of misplaced trust. We thought then that anyone in a position of trust with children would never do these dreadful things. It was a different era.

After the interview, a Sunday Herald reporter and photographer were allowed to walk around the village, and were taken on a tour of Quarriers church by a church officer - John Porteous. When asked what he thought of the sex abuse scandal engulfing Quarriers, Porteous said: "I think it's all down to bad children. They must have lied or enticed those men."

Nothing was then known publicly about Porteous's crimes. Robinson, however, was aware that Porteous was under investigation, but chose not to reveal to the Sunday Herald that Porteous was facing paedophile charges.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's shadow health and community care minister, said Robinson and the rest of the Quarriers board should resign immediately. "Their actions are an unforgivable and serious dereliction of duty and there should be an immediate and thorough investigation. Their first duty is supposed to be to care for children, but their conduct in covering up what has been happening is a disgrace.

"We need transparency when the safety of children is concerned. It is terribly disturbing to think of a paedophile so close to such vulnerable children. If such people were allowed to get to the-heart of a community like this, Quarriers must have realised that it was a position open to abuse." She added that allowing people to live without police checks in a community for vulnerable children was "tailor-made to be exploited by paedophiles".

"After years spent tightening rules over who can and can't work with kids, we now have a new route for paedophiles to get close to children without coming under scrutiny. All the evidence suggests that Quarriers allowed this situation to happen. They haven't learned the lessons of the past and the positions of those in charge are no longer tenable."

After working as a housefather, Porteous became health and safety officer at Quarriers and stayed in the post until he retired four years ago.

Colin Adams, a spokesman for Quarriers, dismissed allegations that the care home had betrayed the trust of parents, saying: "What about betraying the trust of a man who had, until Thursday, not been convicted?"

Detective Inspector-Ross Mackay of Greenock police, who is leading the investigation into abuse at Quarriers, said the inquiry was still ongoing. He said a number of investigations were still open and had not yet led to charges. Other cases have been reported to the procurator fiscal and some men have been charged and are awaiting trial.

"These are very serious crimes," he said. "It's been a horrendous case. I'd appeal to anyone with information to come forward and speak to me."

Victims of Porteous and those who were abused by other men at Quarriers have also called for Robinson to resign, saying the charity's reputation has been ruined. One former Quarriers resident, who was abused at the home as a child, said it had "endangered children by harbouring and sheltering a paedophile".

In a lengthy interview with the Sunday Herald, Phil Robinson said he had offered his resignation to board chairman Robin Wilson, saying he would quit his post if it turned out he had placed children at risk. Wilson said he was currently backing Robinson. Robinson added: "I became aware of the allegations against Porteous in 1999. If he'd still been employed with us we would have suspended him immediately, but he was retired. We notified staff to ensure that he had no access to children and they satisfied us that he hadn't. He was - and remains - a tenant of ours. His wife still lives in the house in the village."

Robinson said: "If we had evicted him we would have been acting illegally," but admitted he had not taken legal advice. He also admitted that not informing parents that Porteous had been charged with child sex offences was "controversial", but added: "I don't agree that parents should have been informed on the basis of suspicions alone. We didn't want to hamper police investigations and we also had a duty not to disregard the presumption that someone is innocent until proven guilty."

Although Porteous lived in a flat above a cottage used as the corporate services department at Quarriers Village, Robinson insisted that there was no way he could have gained access to any children. He claimed it was "unfair" to accuse him of putting children at risk or of breaching the trust of parents. "To put all the good work that we do under threat because of unnecessary alarm about the risk to children would be a terrible tragedy for the children we strive to care for," he said. "We can't control our tenants or police the village. There is no evidence to suggest that anyone has moved to this village because it is attractive for paedophiles."

Quarriers has now hired a social worker to counsel former residents who were abused. All staff hired after 1995 have been checked by police. However, some 32 hired before then are still unchecked. Robinson said he was happy to meet with parents to discuss any fears.

Over calls for the board to resign, he said: "I'm the chief executive and the buck stops with me. If it is felt that there has been any negligence then I will resign. I don't believe there has been negligence and my chairman supports me."

Greenock Police Incident Room Quarriers Hotline: 01475 492514/516

Copyright © 2002 smg Sunday newspapers ltd. no.176088

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