An investigation by this programme has found that a paedophile at the centre of the Islington child abuse scandal went on to abuse children across three continents.
Had allegations against Bernie Bain, the former head of a children's home, been properly investigated in the 1980s countless children would have been spared.
Margaret Hodge was leader of Islington Council at the time and is now Minister of State for Children. When she was alerted to our investigation she complained to the Chairman of the BBC. In the letter she attacks the former victim as an ‘extremely disturbed person’.
He is in fact currently employed as a consultant to a Government Department. Mrs Hodge also accuses the Today programme of being unfair in its investigation. She says she was not informed about the case until after she left the council.
I spoke to the victim of abuse concerned, Demetrious Panton. You may find parts of what he has to say disturbing.
“He forced me into his bedroom, took off his dressing gown, um, I … I remember saying to him I don't want this, I don't want it, and I was 11,” Mr Panton told me. “He was a brute, he was uncontrollable and there was just no escape, and that's the best way to describe it, there was no escape and you just managed the situation as best as you could. You managed him and the situation and you protected yourself.”
Demetrious Panton was abused in care. In 1978 he fell victim to a man called Bernie Bain, the head of a children's home in the London Borough of Islington. But it was 17 years before a police investigation uncovered the true extent of the abuse. Detective Superintendent John Sweeney led the inquiry.
“I was deeply affected by taking some of the statements,” Det Supt Sweeney said. “It's quite clear that he was a habitual sexual abuser. The abuse was extremely violent and we are talking about children, seven, eight year old boys, and for those individuals there'd be no-one more sadistic. So I formed the opinion that he was gonna be someone that was probably doing it now - at that time in 1995 elsewhere - so I had to try and find him.”
1995: Bain had been at large for at least 17 years. Demetrious Panton first made allegations against him in 1979, but no other children would talk and the case was dropped. Islington Council was off the hook. As for Bernie Bain it was a close call and although he left social services he was still free to pursue an abusive career which was to span three decades and cross three continents.
The tragedy is that it should never have happened. In 1985 Demetrious - just turned 18 - wrote to Islington Social Services. He wanted to go to the police again. He wanted the council to back him.
DEMETRIOUS PANTON: “I just knew that there were loads of people out there who had been sexually abused by Bernie Bains. Because I knew he was a serial paedophile.”
STICKLER: “And he was still at large?”
PANTON: “Yeah he was very much still at large, he was out and about. So I wrote to Islington Social Services. I also made it clear that there were other young people who perhaps now would be more willing to talk about it - you know five years, six years on - than when they were 11 or 12. You had people who may need help and support.”
After four and a half years social services finally wrote to Demetrious. The two page letter, which has been described as little more than a brush off, urges him to "move on from those unhappy times".
This story was brought to our attention following a previous investigation into the London Borough of Islington. In the late 1980s our minister for children Margaret Hodge was leader of the council and she, along with colleagues, ignored warnings given by an official inquiry that the Social Services Department was a time bomb waiting to explode. The council was later described as chaotic and lambasted in another inquiry for failing to investigate allegations of child abuse.
Mrs Hodge, as the newly appointed children's minister, responded to our investigation by saying her experience at Islington had prepared her well for her new job.
“Of course we've learnt the lessons,” she told us. “I've had 12 years to think about those issues. To read about them, to talk to people about them, to learn about them. And interestingly enough I think that equips me better than most having been through that experience in thinking about how we now create a safe environment for those children at risk and really put the children at the heart of all the policies and structures that we develop.”
Demetrious Panton has had 25 years, not 12, to think about the abuse he suffered. He spent years trying to raise the alarm with Islington. He wrote to social services chiefs and spoke to politicians, all to little avail.
We thought it a matter of public interest to find out if our new minister for children had ever been told about his case. But when Mrs Hodge became aware that Demetrious was talking to this programme, she wrote a letter of complaint to the Chairman of the BBC, Gavyn Davis. It contains a thinly veiled threat of legal action, but more seriously an unprecedented personal attack by this country's minister for children against a former victim of child abuse.
I am writing to you directly about an investigation ... into a matter concerned with Islington Council ... I now understand from a number of sources that Angus Stickler of the Today programme has been investigating the case of Demetrious Panton. Mr Panton is an extremely disturbed person who suffered from child abuse in Islington homes in his youth in the 1960s, 20 years before I became leader of the Council.”
On a point of accuracy, Demetrious Panton was abused in the late 70s, not the 1960s. The letter is addressed to the BBC's Chairman, Gavyn Davis and copied to the Director General, Greg Dyke, the Director of News, Richard Sambrook, the Today programme Editor, Kevin Marsh and a firm of solicitors. It accuses the Today programme of having "scant balance" in previous broadcasts. And on the basis of conversations with her former colleagues, criticises my current investigation.
THE LETTER CONTINUED:
“His sole interest in the matter appears to be connecting me with the circumstances of Mr Panton's case ... if the position is that a news item is being developed with the intention of connecting a Government Minister to the story for the sake of sensationalism then I think it is deplorable."
Mrs Hodge asks Gavyn Davis to investigate personally. Her letter also refers to High Court Proceedings issued back in 1996 against Channel 4 News for an item about child abuse in Islington. Channel 4 apologised.
In 1992, 13 years after his original complaint, Demetrious went to talk to Margaret Hodge in person. He attended her surgery, but she wasn't there. The newly elected councillor Stephen Twigg was standing in on her behalf. He too now of course is also a Government Minister.
PANTON: “I had to be honest, I was reluctant to talk to him, he wasn't big enough, he wasn't, you know he'd only just come on board. But I did, because he assured me that whatever I said to him he would action. And when I explained to him what happened to me in care, he actually was shocked.”
STICKLER: “What did Stephen Twigg say to you, what did he say he would do?”
PANTON: “He was very clear, he was a young inexperienced junior backbencher at the time and what authority would he have with Islington Social Services, what could Stephen Twigg do, so he was aware that I'd come to see Margaret Hodge, he was aware that this matter should be referred to Margaret Hodge.”
Stephen Twigg says he cannot recall any specific undertaking to tell Councillor Hodge about the abuse, but with hindsight he regrets he did not do so. Margaret Hodge maintains that as leader of the council, she was never told.
This was a high-profile case. Social services chiefs, the council's legal department, even it's insurers had been alerted. In the absence of any documents naming Margaret Hodge I asked the council's former Chief Executive and Chair of Social Services if they told her. They simply cannot remember.
In 1995 Demetrious finally decided to go to the police himself. Detective Superintendent John Sweeney launched a full and thorough investigation.
“When we approached individuals they made allegations themselves,” Det Supt Sweeney said. “It was just ‘were you in care at the time?’, and they would come forward and say ‘You're on about Mr Bain aren't you?’ And then our inquiries which looked into Mr Bain after he'd left Islington revealed another two witnesses who made statements, so there were a total of seven people that were willing to go to court and give evidence against Mr Bain.”
And that is just in this country. In 1995 police found out that Bain was living abroad. He was still abusing children.
“We made inquiries with the Moroccan authorities because he was in Morocco at that time, he used to visit there quite often,” Sweeney told me. “Subsequently I was told he'd been arrested. The police had found photographs of children and him in the same photographs which they considered indecent and he was in prison over there.”
After serving his sentence, Bain was deported to Holland. The police along with the CPS prepared extradition papers, but it failed because of a technical loophole. They'd missed their chance. Despite an international warrant for his arrest Bain disappeared until the 27th of May 2000. He committed suicide in Thailand. The police believe he was still abusing children up until his death.
“I have no doubt in my mind that Mr Bain was a threat to children wherever he was,” states Det Supt Sweeney. “And so I would be very concerned for those children.”
Children were needlessly abused up until three years ago, more than 20 years after Demetrious Panton's first complaint.
“It's not so much the abuse that hurts, it's the fact that he was never forced to say sorry,” insists Demetrious. “It's the fact that he was never bought to justice. I mean the whole thing about our society is that we know that sometimes bad thing happens, but we passionately believe in our justice systems, and we passionately believe in our democratic systems, and we hope that the two work together hand in hand. Unfortunately I never had justice because of the democratic system in Islington and that will rankle with me until the day that I die.”
Margaret Hodge maintains she knew nothing of this case until after she left Islington, and that may well be the case - she was the leader of a council in chaos. In her defence she said her officers misled her over a number of different allegations. She left Islington Council in 1992. In 1994 she was elected as MP for Barking. Her career since then has flourished. In 1996 Demetrious wrote to her directly, hoping for answers.
“And what did she do - I wrote a six page letter. She wrote a four line response saying to me that she would refer me to Islington Council,” Demetrious told me. “And I hear her saying that she has spent since 1992 listening to young people who were abused. I find that an amazing statement. We could have actually had Bernie Bain arrested.”
Margaret Hodge describes our investigation as deplorable sensationalism. We however believe it to be a matter of public interest. Whether she was personally informed about this case is beside the point. She was leader of a council that was in chaos, it failed to investigate allegations of child abuse, including those of Demetrious Panton. But rather than commending him for his efforts our minister for children writes him off as an extremely disturbed person. A view not shared by Detective Superintendent John Sweeney.
SWEENEY: “I found Demetrious to be very articulate and very measured about what could be done and what couldn't be done. So I'd have had no doubt that if it had gone to court it would have been a very very strong case.”
STICKLER: “Would you describe Demetrious as a very disturbed person?”
SWEENEY: “I wouldn't say he was disturbed at all. He certainly wanted justice and wanted to see Mr Bain in a dock in a British court and go to prison for what he had done, I mean that's what his if you like his quest was for, and that's totally understandable. I wouldn't call that disturbed in any way.”
Demetrious Panton left care to gain a degree in philosophy. He is currently completing an MBA, and is employed as a consultant advising on the Government's New Deal for Communities. His client list is impressive and includes, amongst others, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
STATEMENT FROM MARGARET HODGE:
"Everybody would agree that Mr Panton’s experiences in the 1970’s were dreadful and it is a tribute to him that he continued to pursue his case until the mid 1990’s when the police finally agreed to look into the details.
I was the political leader of the council between 1982 and 1992 and whilst I did not have day to day contact with social services, I have on many occasions, including on the Today Programme, expressed deep regret for those children who were abused in Islington homes over many decades.
Since becoming children’s Minister in June, Angus Stickler and the Today Programme have been constantly telephoning friends and colleagues to dig up details of events which happened between 10 and 20 years ago. The Today programme have failed to interview any of these people who give a contemporary account of events, they have tried and failed to substantiate my involvement in this case when I was leader.
I felt this was becoming a concerted campaign against me, which is why I wrote a letter, I did not publish, to the BBC in September. I am taken aback that the Today programme has chosen to make a letter which was not for publication, public.
I have decided not to appear on the Today Programme today as there is nothing new to say and nothing more that I can add. I am getting on with the important job I have been given, to create a better future for all our children and I have been encouraged by the support and commitment of the professionals with whom I work."
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