When Liberal MP for Rochdale Sir Cyril Smith died in 2010, Nick Clegg described him as “one of the most likeable politicians of his day”.
The children whom Smith sexually abused over 40 years at homes and schools are unlikely to have agreed.
As publicist Max Clifford wrote in his autobiography, “Many paedophiles are rich and powerful, which sometimes wrongly helps them get away with it.”
Clifford was convicted this week of eight counts of sexual assault. One of his victims was 12 at the time of the abuse.
And so the carousel of prominent figures goes on. But there is more to this than whether a vaguely familiar name from the past is or isn’t innocent.
Cyril Smith’s life as a child abuser re-emerged in the past week due to a new book co-authored by Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale. The most powerful parts of the account are from victims who have come forward.
John Walker broke the story of the abuse 35 years ago in a magazine called Rochdale's Alternative Paper. The magazine published an account in 1979 based on sworn statements.
It told how Smith repeatedly administered beatings on teenage boys and fondled their genitals during bogus “medical examinations” at Cambridge House boys’ hostel in Rochdale.
Smith had been chief whip of the Liberals’ very small parliamentary presence in the 1970s. Walker contacted the office of David Steel, then Liberal leader.
A spokesman had replied, “All [Smith] seems to have done is spanked a few bare bottoms.”
Paul Foot and Francis Wheen reported Walker’s findings. But many journalists didn’t. Some were too scared to do so. Others didn’t want to estrange a useful and prominent contact, a politician who was always good for a quote.
Smith was knighted in 1988 and retired as an MP in 1992. He continued to abuse children at a school in Rochdale during the 1990s.
Since Smith’s death, the Crown Prosecution Service has admitted culpability in failing to prosecute him.
The police—and later MI5—knew all about this. The police received at least 144 accusations of sexual misconduct against Cyril Smith.
But attempts to bring charges always foundered. The spooks took away the police files when it looked like they might destabilise coalition negotiations between the Liberals and other parties in the 1970s.
Special Branch and the security services thought it would cause more trouble to have his crimes made public—other prominent people were involved too. So the abuse went on, and on. Now the police say they have ten new suspects in the Cyril Smith case.
That story is repeated across the child abuse scandals. From Wales to Northern Ireland, from Rochdale to Richmond a similar tale emerges. The abuse was known about but the abused didn’t matter and the abuser did.
In the case of Angell Road home in South London police were taken off an investigation and social workers ignored. As far as it is possible to tell this was because a cabinet minister in the last Labour government was involved in abuse at the home.
There are scandals re-emerging in Islington and there is the ongoing pain of the inquiries into the South Wales and Kincora children’s homes.
Perhaps most significantly, ongoing investigations into Richmond’s Elm Guest House may finally give up some secrets of just what the powerful did to children.
Child abuse reflects children’s lack of power. This hierarchy is entrenched in the family. Most children who suffer abuse are abused by someone in their family.
But state-run institutions and care homes replicate the hierarchies of the family. Report after report finds institutionalised abuse within them.
The latest scandals shine a light on some of the power relationships at the heart of the system. That’s why those at the top are desperate to cover them up.