15:16, October 05 47 0 theguardian.com

2017-10-05 15:16:03
The Guardian view on Operation Conifer: protecting the citizen

Sir Edward Heath’s friends are angry that allegations against the former prime minister, who died in 2005, were investigated even though they could never be tested in court. They believe the police have caused a clear injustice: whatever the upshot, his reputation was bound to be tarnished for ever unless the investigation concluded that there was absolutely no case to answer. Today the summary results of the two-year, million-pound Wiltshire police inquiry, Operation Conifer, were published. Of more than a hundred allegations investigated, seven remained that would have meant interview under caution about allegations of rape and sexual assault – were it not obviously impossible 12 years after Heath’s death. On the heels of disastrous investigations of other public figures, including the former home secretary Sir Leon Brittan and the former defence chief Lord Bramall, this case may have dealt a blow to the credibility of the whole fight against child sexual abuse.

Yet there is a good defence of the decision to investigate, and it must be heard. It rests on the Human Rights Act, which exists to protect individuals in their dealings with official power. The supreme court is due to rule whether the police are always obliged to investigate allegations of serious crime, after the appeal court upheld the argument that the greater the power of the agency of the state, the stronger the duty to investigate allegations made against it. So the police investigation into allegations against Edward Heath was not a futile attempt to bring a dead man to justice, but an important exercise in upholding the right of the citizen. This may be scant comfort to Heath’s friends. But it is an important principle.

The bad feeling surrounding the Wiltshire inquiry has come dangerously close to wrecking even the slight progress made towards understanding the extent and trying to mitigate the damage of decades of institutional child sex abuse. The decision to launch, from outside the Salisbury house where Heath had lived and died, an appeal for “victims” of the former Conservative politician to come forward, has rightly been condemned. Today, the chief constable, Mike Veale, finally acknowledged it a mistake that tainted the investigation by implying the presumption of guilt. The investigation was further undermined by a highly critical judge-led inquiry into the Metropolitan police investigation into allegations against Brittan and Lord Bramall, accused of being members of a ring of paedophiles. The judge concluded that the claims were entirely unfounded, and that the police had made a terrible misjudgment in pursuing them.

This is the nightmare that is at the heart of the huge attempt to learn the lessons of institutional child sex abuse. On the one hand, there are many hundreds of people whose lives have been disfigured, and often worse, by the childhood experience of abuse, denial and cover-up. There are also abusers who have never been brought to justice. On the other, there are familiar faces who have been accused but were entirely innocent. Add to this trust-sapping mix the difficulty of finding credible witnesses among survivors who are often left vulnerable by their childhood experience, and the persistent charge that there has been some kind of establishment cover-up, and it is indeed a poisonous stew.

Wiltshire has pursued its investigations with care. It ought to mark the start of the real work. The prize – a system that has the widest public confidence in its ability to protect children and punish abusers – is worth fighting for.