AFTER 35 years in which Fleet Street ignored the fact that Sir Cyril Smith MBE was a predatory paedophile, the Daily Mail decided on its front page last Saturday that there had been a “Monstrous Cover-up”.
Private Eye’s first detailed account of Smith’s crimes appeared as long ago as May 1979 (issue 454). That more people have not taken the crimes seriously before now is saddest of all for Smith’s youngest victims - pupils at a residential school for boys in Rochdale called Knowl View who were abused by him in the 1980s and 1990s.
After decades of denials Rochdale council began to reassess Knowl View school in 2012 after Chris Marshall alleged that he was forced to perform a sex act with Smith on school property while another “well-dressed man” looked on. More than a dozen former pupils are also identified as abuse victims of other men in internal council reports. They too have never received justice.
In January Rochdale council appointed Andrew Warnock QC to appraise its supervising role in the school which was home to dozens of boys aged between eight and 16. Warnock reports next month. A parallel investigation by Greater Manchester Police (GMP) has now identified 11 suspects connected with the school.
Victims can be forgiven for not feeling reassured. GMP has now been looking at Knowl View for 20 years and has secured but a single conviction. Meanwhile Warnock’s review is confined to examining Knowl View’s history from “the late 1980s to the mid 1990s” which may mean vital truths about the preceding decades remain buried.
For example, Warnock will consider a series of horrific reports made by Phil Shepherd, a health worker who visited Knowl View in 1991, and a consultant clinical psychologist who investigated the school in 1992. These reveal that “up to a third of the residential pupils have been involved at some stage in serious sexual incidents”. They describe how boys in the senior dorm were sexually attacked over a period of two nights by a paedophile called Rodney Hilton in 1990. And they reveal that pupils in their early teens were working as rent boys.
According to former pupils who have spoken to Private Eye, such problems began years earlier, however. For example, one former pupil alleges that Hilton abused and beat him on school property - specifically in the woods adjoining the grounds - in the early 1980s: a period outside Warnock’s remit.
Another former pupil, Michael Seed (the Franciscan friar who would later persuade Tony Blair into the Catholic faith), describes a “well-organised contingent of rent-boys, selling their bodies to kerb-crawling paedophile homosexuals” in his memoirs. He joined Knowl View in 1970.
While Warnock’s appraisal concerns events beginning in the late 80s, the real question is why problems were not addressed long before. For Knowl View’s earliest history is even darker – and Smith was not the only founder of the school to be suspected of child abuse.
From the earliest stages, Smith was assisted by a Conservative councillor called Harry Wild. In the late 1960s, Smith and Wild chaired Rochdale’s powerful education and children committees and started Knowl View together, delegating the power to appoint staff to the governing body on which they would later serve.
Police investigations into Smith, which began in the mid-1960s and were shut down in 1970, identify Wild as his “close associate”. The file police prepared in 1969 states: “Councillor Harry Wild has been viewed with suspicion regarding his association with young men and boys at Rochdale.” In the decades that followed, that suspicion only grew. By the 1990s, after Wild stood down from the council, he was targeted by Operation European, another Greater Manchester Police child abuse investigation.
In 2000, the Manchester Evening News reported the allegations after GMP’s chief constable intervened to prevent Wild’s appointment as high sheriff of Greater Manchester. Wild told the paper that his community work made him vulnerable to “mischievous claims”: “Of course, one has to consider the type of boy at Knowl View - low-grade really.” Just like Smith, he was never convicted and Wild died, aged 80, in 2001.
How much of this Warnock is prepared to acknowledge will be known next month; but even if he could examine the full length of the school’s life, some victims can never receive justice. One council report confirmed that, aged 14, Ian Broomhead was raped by Rodney Hilton during the overnight intrusion into the senior dorm. He fought back on the second night and continued to fight after he left Knowl View.
With the assistance of the school’s social worker, Martin Digan, and health worker Phil Shepherd, Broomhead began proceedings against Rochdale council. His case was reported by Louise Jury in the Independent. She obtained Broomhead’s only interview, anonymised on publication, in 1995.
‘Under the bedclothes’
“It was physical force,” he said of Hilton's attack. “He threw me against the wall, threw me around the room. He threatened to kill me if I told anybody.” Afterwards Broomhead lay in bed terrified, hearing other pupils screaming but no staff were on duty. He raged against Hilton: “If I saw him now I'd kill him”; against the school: “Before I went there I had a life. I don't have one now"; and against Rochdale council: “I want to go to the Black Box [a nickname for Rochdale's old municipal offices] and just blow the whole lot of them.”
By coincidence, Broomhead’s solicitors were Molesworths Bright Clegg, which had advised Cyril Smith when police originally investigated his abuses in the 1970s. The senior partner at the firm, John Kay, had also known Smith since birth. Mark Walker, the junior who was passed Broomhead’s case, was never told by his client that he had also been abused by Cyril Smith while at Knowl View.
Broomhead did, however, admit it to AIDS worker Phil Shepherd: “Ian told me that he was touched by Cyril Smith,” Shepherd told the Eye. “He would go round putting his hands under the bedclothes when the lads were in bed at night. He was getting access. I said at the time that, if Cyril Smith was involved, then other councillors would be involved.”
‘Close to suicide’
At that time Rochdale council said the “necessary action” had been taken but the pupils in Broomhead’s era were horribly damaged. Several interviewed for this article receive regular psychological treatment. Many have criminal records.
“I’ve been close to suicide,” Ian Broomhead said in his interview with Louise Jury, “and I’m extremely lucky I haven't gone to prison.” He died of a drug overdose ten months later. He was 20 years old.
Last week, the current leader of Rochdale council, Colin Lambert, pledged that he will “not stop until the truth is out”. The sentiment is fine; but for Ian Broomhead is far too late.