‘In the past, the Church used graphic, sometimes pornographic images of the devil as an enemy against which everyone could unite, and as a way of quelling dissent. Today we have lost the devil. The devil disappeared from public culture in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, and what replaces it? At the moment, child abusers are the new devil we all can rail against.’ That is why, he says, paedophile panics often come across like ‘religious crusades’, where those who ask critical questions about the facts can be denounced as ‘unbelievers’ and ‘deniers’.
Most strikingly, the Jersey bone episode reveals an essential truth about paedophile panics: they come from above rather than below. In recent years, it has become fashionable in intelligent, liberal circles to fret about the ‘anti-paedophile lynch mob’, who, triggered by a News of the World headline, might go out and burn down people’s homes or beat individuals to a pulp. In truth, it takes people with clout to trigger a moral panic – and in the case of the dark, secretive, murderous Jersey home scare, the panic was triggered by top policemen and the metropolitan, latte-drinking media elite in London. As Webster wrote in The Secret of Bryn Estyn: ‘Of all the misconceptions about historical witch hunts, perhaps the most important is the notion that they were driven forward by the common people – that they were based on the untutored instincts of the mob. This is the very opposite of the truth.’ And so it remains today.
‘Jersey shows that it is not ordinary people who start this off’, he tells me. ‘Witch hunts don’t happen without an educated elite behind them. In the past, bishops and priests let panics loose. Today it is the police, social workers and broadsheet journalists.’