RUMOURS of devil worship, children snatched from their parents at dawn and lives cursed for ever… It sounds like a horror B-movie.
But for those families caught up in the Rochdale satanic abuse scandal, which rocked the nation in 1990, it is all too real.
Silenced for 16 years by the courts, Caroline Shirley and her parents, John and Lynda, can now finally reveal the shocking toll it took on their family.
It all started when over-zealous social workers became convinced that families on the Langley council estate had been “satanically abusing” their kids, harming them both sexually and emotionally.
Their probe started after a local six-year-old, told teachers he’d had nightmares. Influenced by rumours that a US-based cult had come to Britain, things soon reached fever pitch.
In all, 20 kids from six families in the Lancashire town were placed into care during an inquiry. Eleven months later, all the cases were dropped and the families finally reunited. But this was far from the end of the story.
“I was robbed of my childhood and my parents were made to look like criminals,” says Caroline, 27, now a mum-of-two. “I can’t believe so many were made to suffer over accusations that were completely unfounded.
“Our family has been through hell and we’re still paying the price now.”
It was September 1990 when two police officers and a social worker visited their home.
“There’d been vague reports in the local press,” recalls Caroline’s dad, John, 72. “We didn’t know what was going on but we were terrified when they came round.”
He had every right to be. Because Caroline, then 11, sister Michelle, eight, and brother, six-year-old Steven, were bundled into a police car with mum, Lynda.
“The officers saw a couple of horror films on our shelf and told us there was something ‘not quite right’ about our family,” says Lynda, 50. “We’d never even let the kids watch them but on those grounds they decided to investigate us. As we were driven away I felt powerless and guilty. I’d tried so hard to be a good mother.”
First, Lynda was questioned, leaving the kids alone. “Michelle and Steven were crying,” Caroline recalls. “I tried to stay strong but I was so confused.
“We all had such a happy childhood. Mum and Dad made us feel loved and protected. The idea they could do anything to harm us was the completely alien.”
When Lynda returned, it was the children’s turn to be quizzed. “Mum told me to tell the truth,” says Caroline.
“Then she warned me, with tears in her eyes, that we might be separated. That was the last I saw of her for four months.
“All the social workers really asked that day was if we were happy at home. We said yes but they didn’t listen. It was as if our answers weren’t right for them.”
LATER that day, they were taken to a foster family in nearby Prestwych. And Caroline was suddenly forced to grow up.
“Michelle and Steven were looking for reassurance,” she explains. “I put my arms around them and told them that we weren’t allowed to go home. I didn’t sleep that night. I was just willing the nightmare to be over.” But it had only just begun…
Lynda and John were going through their own hell back at home. “Lynda couldn’t stop crying and I was in a daze,” says John. “We were desperate to get our babies back. We couldn’t even call them.”
Ironically, police dropped their inquiries days later, saying there wasn’t enough evidence. But the social workers, led by Jill France, now 50, and Susan Hammersley, 43, were determined to prove something dangerous was going on, and continued their campaign through Rochdale Family Court.
They believed up to 20 children had been subjected to “devil worship”, including blood letting, graveyard trips and the removal of foetuses. In a bid to get the children to reveal their “suffering”, the youngsters underwent often upsetting interviews.
And all were asked about sex. “A few weeks into our ordeal, I was given a book with naked bodies in it and asked if I knew how genitals worked,” says Caroline.
“I had no idea why.” All three siblings also had to endure a physical examination for signs of sexual abuse. “I refused three times but they told me I had to do it,” she says.
“I was petrified.”
A month after their forced removal the children were split up with Michelle and Steven taken to another foster home 50 miles away. “I couldn’t stop crying. I felt like I’d let them down,” says Caroline. “I prayed we’d be returned to Mum and Dad.
“I started a new school in the area but didn’t tell anyone what was happening. I felt ashamed, frightened and alone.”
It was Boxing Day before the three were allowed an overnight visit with their parents. “We just all clung to each other,” says Caroline. “Mum and Dad had been accused of doing bad things to us but I knew it was all nonsense. Being torn away from them the next day was awful.”
From then on, they were allowed twice weekly, supervised visits. “I called our solicitor every day for news,” says John. “No one would look at us in town. We felt like freaks.”
It was March 1991 before they got their breakthrough. The Family Court judge ruled there was no evidence to support the social workers’ claims. The case was thrown out and the kids allowed home.
But the ordeal wasn’t over. As the years passed, Caroline and her parents couldn’t put the nightmare behind them.
“I was convinced I was going to be taken away again,” says Caroline. “I became depressed and introverted. I couldn’t trust anyone or form any relationships. Luckily, my parents have been a continued support. This has made us even stronger as a family.”
WHEN she was 17, she met Jason, a porter. The pair fell in love but it took them 18 months to have sex. “I was too scared after the examination,” says Caroline.
The couple now have two children – Jason, seven, and six-year-old Elizabeth. “Being a mum brought back my old fears,” she admits. “If they even scrape a knee I’m convinced I’ll be accused of abusing them.”
Caroline is now training to be a teacher, to help future generations avoid what she went through.
For its part, Rochdale council says it recognises the families’ painful and traumatic experience.
But for Caroline, and the other victims, that’s not enough. They’re starting civil action against the council in a bid to get compensation and an apology from the social workers involved.
“Our lives have been ruined by their mistake,” she says. “The least they can do is say sorry.”
We were told Mum and Dad had done bad things to us but it was just rubbish
They even examined us for signs of sexual abuse.. I was so petrified source