Wednesday, 31 August 2011
Jersey inquiry:'A child lies buried... I'm not going to walk away'
THELEGRAPH GORDON RAYNER 23RD MAY 2008
Jersey inquiry:'A child lies buried... I'm not going to walk away'
The policeman at the centre of the Jersey inquiry tells Gordon Rayner he will not be cowed by threats
Bent cops. Hostile politicians. Buried bodies. And at the centre of it, a maverick lawman who has received death threats for daring to uncover dark secrets from the past.
Sounds familiar? It is, of course, a formula that has been endlessly revisited by film and television scriptwriters. But for Deputy Chief Officer Lenny Harper this is real life in the unlikely setting of Jersey, as he and his team try to discover the truth about appalling physical and sexual abuse allegedly meted out to more than 100 children in a former care home.
Although Harper is considered a hero by those who trust him enough to reveal the details of their childhood at the Haut de la Garenne home, there are those on the island who see the Ulsterman as an enemy of the state, an "outsider" poking his nose in where it is not welcome.
Since he became involved in the investigation, he has had more than 140 poison-pen letters - one even threatening to burn down his house and firebomb his car.
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Ministers in the island's parliament have ridiculed him, referring to him as "Lenny Henry", and earlier this month Jersey's two most senior politicians used keynote speeches to suggest that the real scandal was not child abuse but the media coverage of the case which Harper has unapologetically courted.
Until now, Harper has refused to be drawn into a fight, but on Wednesday he could barely contain his anger as he faced the cameras to rebut suggestions that he had deliberately withheld a laboratory report that suggested a "skull fragment" found at the home might in fact be a piece of wood or coconut shell.
Not only had he not seen the lab report, he said, but cuts on some of the 30 pieces of bone and seven milk teeth discovered so far by his team pointed to "a homicide or unexplained death". He even produced one of the teeth to press home his point.
His message was clear: no amount of criticism will prevent him from pursuing the truth.
In his most candid interview to date, Harper, 56, admits that the increasingly personal attacks on him have taken their toll and concedes that his retirement later this year will come as a relief.
"Make no mistake, this is the most stressful job I have ever had," says Harper, who worked for the Metropolitan Police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Strathclyde Police before taking this posting in Jersey six years ago.
"It's more stressful than working in south London, Glasgow, the Springfield and Falls Roads in Belfast.
"I have had not only threats to have my house and car burned, there have been rumours spread about my private life, letters written by people suggesting I'm having an affair… It's just constant. People have called me a liar, and at one point a letter was circulated to the newspapers in London saying I was guilty of abuse.
"So yes, I have taken it personally and I am finding it quite difficult."
Like the old-fashioned copper he is, Harper has, on the whole, refused to take up valuable police resources investigating the smear campaign, or even the threats against his property.
He finally drew the line, however, when one critic persistently made obscene gestures at him when he was out with his wife, Christina - and made sure the person in question was given a warning.
"It's had an effect on my wife as well… it's not pleasant and it's just unremitting," he says. "I do not have a problem with the job and doing the job, but it's all the surrounding nonsense.
"There are those who are just waiting for us to make a mistake. We are doing what we have to do, and there is no way we can backtrack on that. A child or children lies buried in the cellars under Haut de la Garenne, and no one would expect us to just walk away from that, even if it eventually turns out that those bones are very old."
Speaking in the TV lounge of Haut de la Garenne, Harper admits he was unprepared for the "venom" directed at him, and has been surprised at where it has come from.
While he has had widespread support from "ordinary people", and singles out the island's home affairs minister for praise, he adds: "I don't need to comment on the rest of the politicians; what they have said speaks for themselves."
He is too discreet to mention anyone by name, but it was Jersey's health and social services minister Ben Shenton (whose job is to combat child abuse) who sent an email to cabinet colleagues in March ridiculing Harper and saying: "My wife keeps referring to Lenny Harper as Lenny Henry - I don't think she's far wrong."
The question has also been raised publicly as to whether Harper had ever been investigated for "adult abuse".
Earlier this month the island's bailiff Sir Philip Bailhache (who acts as the speaker in Parliament) said in his annual Liberation Day speech that many journalists continued to write about the island's "so-called child abuse scandal.
All child abuse… is scandalous, but it is the unjustified and remorseless denigration of Jersey and her people that is the real scandal". The Chief Minister Frank Walker, the equivalent of Jersey's prime minister, has also rounded on those who have drawn attention to the case, accusing them of "trying to shaft Jersey internationally".
"They don't like me," says Harper. "That much is obvious. I don't know the reason why. I'm quite sure none of them has got any connection with it but it's beyond me."
Since the Second World War, Jersey, which as a Crown Dependency makes its own laws, has been ruled largely by a political elite of businessmen and bankers who appear to have transplanted the Jersey financial sector's culture of silence into all branches of the island's establishment.
Harper says he first encountered this omerta when he was investigating several corrupt police officers who had variously been accused of taking bribes, accessing police databases as favours for associates, and passing on intelligence files.
Is it simply that Jersey's political elite are fearful that negative publicity will damage the island's banking and tourism?
"They don't like bad news, and I don't suppose they like the fact that the bad news is coming from elsewhere." Meaning from someone who's not Jersey-born? He nods.
The Deputy Chief Officer has a wicked sense of humour and a throaty laugh, but they do not disguise his determination to seek justice for the 116 people currently regarded as victims of abuse on the island.
Tragedy struck his own family four years ago when his son-in-law was killed in Iraq while serving with the Royal Military Police. His daughter Raqual was pregnant with the couple's second child at the time.
Harper is close to his two grandchildren and, like any parent or grandparent would be, he is sensitive to the suffering which children have been through in Jersey's dark past.
"Regardless of whether this becomes a murder investigation, we are dealing with victims of alleged child abuse, and some people seem to forget that," he says.
With a defiant dig at some of his predecessors, he adds: "Many of the victims have had no contact with the police previously, other than hostility, and they are telling us they have come forward because they trust the inquiry team. That is a great source of pride for me and for the team."
He also cites the alleged victims as the reason for his controversial decision not to go public with doubts about the "skull fragment". "If I had announced it, the knives would have come out," he says.
"The inquiry team would have been attacked… and my view was that that would have done the abuse victims no good at all. Now I have given my detractors twice the stick to beat us with, but the truth is they didn't need an excuse."
He will retire on August 31, when the inquiry will still be wide open. Will he have mixed feelings? "It will be a huge relief in some ways to leave the pressure behind," he says. "I will miss the people who I'm working with on this inquiry immensely.
It is the best inquiry team I've ever worked with. But if I can tell myself that I've done everything I can do for the victims and for the people working for me then I will be quite content."