Abuse Probed at Children's Home on Isle of Jersey

A children's home on the British island of Jersey, closed in the 1980s, is now at the center of a ghastly investigation of sexual abuse — and possibly murder. Human remains have been found and dozens of former residents have cited cases of abuse dating to the 1940s.

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Investigators on Jersey, one of the Channel Islands between Britain and France, continue to search the cellars and grounds of a former children's home, looking for evidence and bodies.

A 2-year-long probe of possible child abuse became a murder inquiry after police uncovered partial human remains there last month. Vicki Barker reports on a scandal that's shaken an island better known for Jersey cows, family-friendly holidays and offshore finance.

U: Seven-six control, seven-two, seven-one-four.

VICKI BARKER: The constable standing guard outside the Haut de la Garenne former children's home reports the license plate number of every car that passes down this narrow country lane. There was disbelief on and off the isle of Jersey when police investigating allegations of pedophile abuse found a skull buried under a staircase, and sniffer dogs indicated more human remains may be present.

BARKER: Total shock. That's the only way I can describe it.

BARKER: The Reverend Lawrence Turner is vicar of St. Martin Le Vieux, the closest church to Haut de la Garenne.

BARKER: A stunned silence was operational over the weekend, I think, and there's this obvious thing, if only we'd have known.

BARKER: After decades of silence, islanders are coming forward with stories of almost unimaginable cruelty, of children lifted from their beds and being raped in cellar dungeons by staffers and sometimes by visitors too.

The stories date from as long ago as the 1950s until shortly before the home closed in 1986.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO PROGRAM)

U: This is Louise(ph) who has e-mailed. There is nothing innocent anymore about this island. It's very sinister...

BARKER: Until recently, local radio shows were asking nothing more controversial than whether the island should abandon Greenwich Mean Time.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

BARKER: Picture-postcard Jersey was where Britons got to picnic in their past. In 1204, Jersey chose England over its nearer neighbor, Normandy, after England made the better offer, and the island has cherished its feudal privileges and traditions ever since.

It's effectively still a one-party state and has always moved at its own pace, which on the island's roads, is a maximum 40 miles per hour. But if Jersey trades on its past, it is also trapped by it. During World War II, the Channel Islands were the only part of Britain to be occupied by the Nazis. Allegations of collaboration linger and contribute, locals say, to a culture of silence on the island.

U: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BARKER: The Dolphin Pub in the harbor town of Gorey is just down the road from Haut de la Garenne. Conversations about the scandal generally stop when reporters approach. Two locals will talk but say they'd rather meet again in the morning, when it's quieter.

Gordon Mann(ph) is a Scots-born contractor. He's lived on Jersey for 35 years.

SIMON: Quite a lot of people know that there was something going on. I think you have to live here to understand it, why people would be reluctant to say anything. It's a beautiful place to live, Jersey. It's a fabulous place 99 percent of the time, but it is the way it is.

BARKER: Developer Tim Weissmuller(ph) says in a place like Jersey, it's always easier to keep your head down.

SIMON: Nobody wants to be uncomfortable, and I suppose if you do raise your head above the parapet, you have to be 110 percent sure of your story, of your facts.

BARKER: But Gordon Mann says he's heard some social workers were convinced by the children's stories and tried to report the alleged abuse.

SIMON: They were warned if they took it any further, they would lose their jobs, so what more could they do? So this to me says that's a cover-up, any way you want to put it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAY WATER)

BARKER: It's hard to credit tales of dark conspiracy among Jersey's sunlit bays, but a number of locals paint a picture of an elite more interested in protecting Jersey's image as a tourist destination and offshore tax haven than in getting at the truth - of a ruling class so tightly knit after centuries of intermarriage that conflicts of interest seem almost inevitable. Reverend Lawrence Turner acknowledges that some of those perceptions are justified.

BARKER: There are a lot of strands of family trees, you know, the branches spread far and wide. So you don't say anything for fear that you won't be listened to anyway, and if you do say it, and you are listened to, you've got to live with what happens then because my second cousin twice removed knows so-and-so, who will make sure that you never get a job ever again.

BARKER: The scandal has split the island's government and its people. Many here wonder just how wide and how high police will end up casting their net. Investigators have confirmed a politician who died in the 1970s is among those accused of sexual abuse. Of some 40 living suspects, only one has been named and charged.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM BELL)

BARKER: Inside Haut de la Garenne, the investigators ignore an alarm tripped by drills biting into concrete floors. The evidence uncovered so far fits the witnesses' descriptions of secret cellar dungeons, including a trap door and, reportedly, manacles. And the senior officer leading the investigation, Lenny Harper, says he believes the victims.

D: I have to say that it would appear from the evidence that there have been periods when the abuse in here was systematic and prevalent.

BARKER: More than 160 people have now said they saw or experienced physical or sexual abuse at Haut de la Garenne. What islanders don't yet know is just how many of the abused and how many of the abusers might still be living among them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

BARKER: Behind the police cordon at Haut de la Garenne, the forensic archeologists continue to peel away layers of rubble in bricked-up, long-dark cellar rooms.

For NPR News, Vicki Barker on the British isle of Jersey.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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