One year ago, a group of financial and political journalists put their heads together to tackle a very onerous task: raise awareness about what is happening on the highly influential island of Jersey – the largest of the Channel Islands, a global tax shelter of some stature and a so-called “peculiar possession” of the British Crown known for its sailing and golfing, as well as hiding money and committing unspeakable crimes against children.
The goal was threefold: restore my U.K. visa, eliminate a travel ban initiated by Jersey to keep me off the island and, most importantly, see to it that the children who were victimized for decades at the Jersey children’s home Haut de la Garenne – nearly 200 of whom are still alive to tell their tale – were no longer willfully ignored.
Today, I am very happy to report that all three of those objectives have been reached, thanks to a group of intrepid journalists whom I am honored to call colleagues.
Journalists from The Guardian, BBC, Sunday Express and VICE magazine, in addition to Jersey’s Team Voice, led by citizen journalist-cum-bloggers, Neil McMurray and Rico Sorda, contributed to my pieces on this blog and in CNN/Fortune, paving the way for the first glimmer of real hope for Jersey’s victims and the start of what may soon be some palpable changes on this idyllic island – a place that, while living in London, was my home away from home.
Right after arriving in London on my visit, I was able to meet and personally thank the Member of Parliament most responsible for restoring my visa, John Hemming. Because of him, I received the first “writer visa” to be issued by Great Britain in years.
While the reasons for my travel ban remain under investigation (this is rather awkward, as it consists of the U.K. government effectively investigating itself) the MP and I had a chance to catch up at the Palace of Westminster, sit out on the back terrace overlooking the Thames and film this.
My trip to Jersey brought me a still warmer welcome. Many of the islanders stopped to ask questions, the politicians had news to share and, dining out, some of the restaurant owners came by my table to shake my hand. It was a truly humbling experience.
Hope For Jersey
As for the promising changes on the island of Jersey: this week, members of Jersey’s parliament voted unanimously for a senior U.K. judge to lead a £6 million Committee of Inquiry into the island’s legacy of atrocities against children. The significance of this cannot be overstated. One year ago, it looked as though the inquiry would never get off the ground. The fact that Jersey’s legislators were unanimous in casting their votes after years of infighting and objections means they finally realize the island must give this matter a proper airing.
The reason the inquiry has taken some time is somewhat understandable. Jersey’s economic position is delicate…The island is almost completely dependent on inflows of private wealth. As a tax shelter, the buttoned-down image the island presents to the world is of utmost importance. If Jersey is seen in an unflattering light, it runs the risk of driving its persnickety, white-shoe clients away. And that would be devastating for all who live there.
While on the island, I worked closely with a team of journalists from the U.K., interviewing victims, meeting with various officials and piecing together not only how the island became synonymous with private wealth, but also how it became a destination for those seeking to prey on children. A culture of concealment among some of the island’s top bureaucrats, with assists from the U.K. mainland, appears to have acted as a buffer against bringing many of the major offenders to justice.
Predators Over Children?
To this day, high-ranking officials in Jersey’s government, judiciary, church and police force stand accused of participating in, abetting, or ignoring instances of appalling crimes against children and the island’s most vulnerable. Some of the worst offenders still walk the streets in plain sight of their victims. What happened in Jersey happened quietly and it happened to its most defenseless, but that does not make it any less deserving of redress.
I purposely refrain from using the term “child abuse” here, because it does not even begin to describe what happened to these children. These children were subjected to acts unimaginable, on par with the war crimes of the Balkans, Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust. These children were not merely raped; they were subjected to horrendous torture on a daily basis, their bones crushed, skulls cracked, bodies burned, souls broken. If they lived through it, they were sorry to have lived, because it only brought more of the same. For many, suicide was the only escape – and a welcome one.
The Committee of Inquiry has been given unprecedented powers to question what took place on the island and why. The judge approved by Jersey’s parliament this Tuesday, Sally Bradley, has 35 years of experience in family law and has worked on cases involving severe harm to children for the past 12 years. Bradley was chosen in consultation with a prominent victims’ group on the island, which observers in Jersey take to be a good sign.
That victims’ group, the Jersey Care Leavers’ Association*, is led by Carrie Modral, probably the greatest single asset to the plight of Jersey’s hundreds of victims – and a victim of years of abuse on the island herself. Carrie’s herculean efforts to rise above her own crippling pain to embrace the cause of all the victims is a testament to the strength of the human spirit. One person wrote to me of Carrie, “[Her] work for the abuse survivors has been tireless and unending.”
(*NOTE. The term “care leavers” is a reference to people who grew up in care homes, usually as children, and have now left the system. In Jersey, it is worth noting that the “care leavers” association doubles as a victims’ group. In other words, if you went to a Jersey government-run care home, you likely suffered at the hands of child abusers. Not a minor point, really.)
Jersey’s Opportunity To Heal
Jersey now faces an important moment in its history. Until now, it has been buffeted by scandal, fearing permanent damage to its reputation and the livelihood of its people if the truth should come out. In 2011, the year of my banning, the island’s top power broker and de facto foreign minister, Sir Philip Bailhache, openly lamented on his blog in a piece entitled My Manifesto: ”The reputation of the states in the Island has seldom been lower.”
That fear was reflected in the statements of the victims we interviewed, who wondered if they would ever wake up to an island home capable of hearing them, believing them and not covering its ears to their suffering. “If they could only acknowledge that it happened, it happened and apologize, I could be free,” one said.
For the better part of a century, the island has weathered wars, heartbreak and strife. It is not in need of more battle anguish and bullying. It is in need of healing and relief. For the islanders to use this moment as a way to inflict more pain on one another would be to squander an opportunity to bravely face what has happened, forgive each other and themselves.
The Committee of Inquiry affords the island a chance to do so.
Jersey cannot undo what has been done. But it can draw a line in the sand that puts its dark past behind it so it can reach out a conciliatory hand to the victims and lay the groundwork for redemption and rebirth.