Thursday, 2 July 2015


Prior to 1987 child sex abuse did not exist. At least in the minds of the general public, successive governments and the medical profession, it didn't exist. In reality of course it was widespread. Also in reality great efforts were made to ignore it and suppress any mention of it. In his autobiography “This time next week” the author Leslie Thomas, orphaned during the war, describes how widespread it was in Barnardo's homes. It was ignored. When cases come to light now about child sex abuse prior to 1987, featuring various individuals, it is extraordinary how many people knew what was going on. Also extraordinary were the efforts made to keep it all brushed under the carpet. This enabled predators such as Saville to act, unimpeded, for years. And it allowed institutions such as the catholic church to facilitate the actions of the numerous paedophiles within it's ranks.

In 1987 all this changed. In that year two paediatricians at a Middlesborough hospital, Dr Marietta Higgs, and Dr Geoffrey Wyatt, reported 121 cases of child sex abuse to social services over a period of 4 months. Now, in retrospect, it is clear that the diagnosis was correct in the majority of cases. But at the time it was something society just didn't want to hear. There was a huge outcry. The two doctors were widely vilified, especially in the Daily Mail. Like other whistleblowers before and since they were turned on and viciously attacked. A government report, published a year later was a whitewash. Many abused children were returned to abusive households.

But the genie was out of the bottle. Society had now been forced to address an issue it would prefer to have ignored.

In 1994 Dr Higgs' employers found themselves in a dilemma. Due to the adverse publicity they felt that Dr Higgs position in Middlesborough was untenable, and that they could no longer allow her to work there. However she had actually done nothing wrong, so could not be dismissed. Their solution was to move her to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead, to take up a position as a neonatologist, with no duties related to child sex abuse. Dr Higgs was well respected within paediatric circles in the area, and the paediatric consultants in Gateshead were unanimous in welcoming her.

The rest of the Consultant body at Gateshead were not so welcoming. There was an immediate outcry among them, and strong opposition to the appointment expressed. At a bad tempered meeting of the senior staff committee the Paediatricians were openly berated and abused, in a shameful and disgusting display of mob mentality, led by a consultant general surgeon, coincidentally also called Higgs, though not related to Marietta. All they lacked at the meeting was pitchforks. A motion was proposed to demand of management that Ms. Higgs not be allowed to work at Gateshead. In a secret ballot on the motion only one non paediatric consultant voted with the paediatricians and against the mob. The appointment went ahead anyway.

Not just the medical profession but the whole of society owes Marietta Higgs a debt of gratitude that has never been acknowledged. She forced a society that didn't want to know to accept that child sex abuse did not just exist, but was common.. She prised open the unwilling eyes of society to an evil that it did not want to see. As a result of this the Children's Act was passed in 1998. Once the problem was acknowledged, only then could it be addressed, and to this day historic child sex abuse cases continue to be unearthed, often involving high profile individuals. Children in the UK, and arguably beyond, are safer today because Drs Higgs and Wyatt had the courage of their convictions.

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