Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Jersey's image damaged by sex abuse allegations

As police continue their investigations into alleged child abuse at a Jersey care home locals fear the high profile case may damage the island's image as a safe, family-friendly paradise. Crime Correspondent DEBORAH McALEESE reports from Jersey

Just days after the partial remains of a child were discovered in a former Jersey care home at the centre of a major child abuse investigation, tempers were beginning to fray within the States of Jersey Assembly in St Helier.

Deputy Andrew Lewis: "Will the Chief Minister (Frank Walker) be taking exception with the BBC over the technique that Jeremy Paxman - the very biased technique - he used in interviewing him?"

Chief Minister: "I have not yet decided whether I will be taking another complaint forward on the facts that Mr Paxman totally misquoted me with his opening question and then refused to accept my answers to those questions."

Deputy Geoffrey Peter Southern: "Does the Chief Minister regret using the words 'shafting the international reputation of the island' on television?"

CM: "I was unaware because I was not told - against the code as I understand it of the BBC - that the cameras were working. But no, I do not regret what I said. What I said ... was - and I excuse the language but it was, I thought, a private conversation: "You are seeking to shaft Jersey internationally"."

The Constable of St Helier Alan Crowcroft: "Does the Chief Minister have a communication strategy for dealing with the current problem and if so when is he going to start using it?"

CM: "I do not believe that question even deserves the dignity of an answer. If the Constable cannot see how we have met the onslaught from the national media then he must be both blind and deaf."

All politicians have made it clear they want justice for the alleged victims. However, the exchange provides a telling image of a government desperate not to damage the glossy reputation of sunny, wealthy and safe Jersey.

The people of Jersey are fiercely proud of their small island. But while welcoming to holidaymakers, for many the world's media, who descended there after the discovery of the remains under a stairwell at Haut de la Garenne were unpopular visitors.

"Some people are saying it's a bit like the Madeleine McCann case when the media descended en masse on Portugal," said Portadown man Charlie Douglas who has lived in Jersey for 17 years. He added: "Jersey people are lovely. They are very open, honest and friendly but all this media interest can be intrusive for people, especially on such a small island."

It is not surprising that Deputy Police Chief Lenny Harper's emphatic welcome to the Press and willingness to provide regular updates has come under criticism from some quarters who believe a "more discreet" approach should be taken.

He has come under personal attack and was even forced to consider legal action against the island's children's minister who allegedly mocked him and the investigation in an email. This incident has since been "cleared up, " Mr Harper says.

The 56-year-old is quick to take on his critics, claiming that without the media attention the majority of alleged victims - whose evidence is vital to the inquiry - would not have come forward.

"I think the attitude of some politicians who wanted us to lock the media out would have been a disaster for Jersey. I'm glad to say the senior politicians have seen that is the case and they have been very supportive.

"The high profile media strategy was deliberate from the start. If it hadn't been for the media, in excess of 90% of our victims would not have come forward.

"Any time we did high profile media, victims would come forward. The media coverage has instilled confidence in the victims by showing them that this investigation will be seen through to the end.

"I think that the degree of media coverage and the way the investigation has been portrayed has increased confidence in the victims and has done the job it was supposed to do."

Mr Harper adds that despite some criticism - and despite what he described as a campaign of intimidation by "corrupt former cops" -he has been overwhelmed by support from local people.

"The amount of goodwill, good wishes and letters of appreciation I have had over the last couple of months has been great. I have had nothing but kindness and friendship from the vast majority of people here. Jersey is a lovely place."

The former care home at the centre of the abuse investigation - a cold, grey-looking Victorian building - is tucked away along a remote country road a short distance from St Helier. It has now become an object of curiosity to both residents and visitors, many passing it hoping to catch a glimpse of the investigation.

"I've never seen so many people going up and down this road. It's a bit sick really," said one local. He added: "Are these crimes what Jersey is going to be remembered for?"

Jersey, which has a population of around 90,000, has enviably low crime rates. The island has one full-time police station and 240 police officers so it was inevitable that such a major investigation - with 160 alleged victims and around 50 suspects - would put a strain on its limited police resources. Some 18 outsiders have been called in to help, including two PSNI.

But it is the rumours of cover-ups and alleged attempts to hamper the police probe that are adding an even more sinister twist to this horrific story.

"There have been rumours going around for years," said one local. " It should have come out ages ago but nobody would listen. There is a lot of suspicion about who knew what."

Leaving Haut de la Garenne - where behind the walls investigators are sifting through dust and debris - I involuntarily look back at the building with its sprawling grounds and barren trees and wonder what terrible secrets it might be hiding.

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