Update: Father Tony McSweeney was sentenced to three years in prison for his crimes on March 27.
While the latest horrors over Jimmy Savile dominated the headlines,a Roman Catholic priest became the first person to be convicted as a paedophile under the Met Police’s Operation Fernbridge.
The investigation into both the notorious Elm Guest House and a Richmond Council children’s home, Grafton Close, saw Father Tony McSweeney convicted on a specimen charge of indecent assault and three charges of making indecent images of children on his computer. He was cleared of three other charges of indecent assault.
The trial would have been much bigger if not for the death of his co-accused John Stingemore had not died just before facing prosecution. Stingemore,as my colleague Tim Wood who reported the trial for Exaro shows, was portrayed by McSweeney as a paedophile. and it emerged in court that Stingemore had already been convicted as paedophile for the sexual assault of Peter Bornshin, a resident of Grafton Close home.
The trial reveals two shocking facts. First it shows that yet another paedophile Roman Catholic priest has escaped justice for some 35 years and been able to work as a pillar of the community across the East of England. He has even gathered a bit of celebrity stardust- marrying the boxer Frank Bruno – and when caught with child sex abuse images he made on his computer he was a member of the scouting movement and worked with the Norwich City youth football team.
Second is the shame it has heaped on Richmond Council which failed to act at the time to halt these crimes and has been in denial ever since this investigation began. It is quite clear from the court proceedings that Stingemore when in charge of Grafton Close was able unchecked to take boys out of the children’s home to his Bexhill flat where they were abused and employ his paedophile friend McSweeney – who also accompanied boys to his flat – without anyone taking much notice. One might be tempted not to heap blame on the authority if it was not for the attitudes of leading political figures and officials to recent events. Sir David Williams, the former Liberal Dem leader in the wake of this scandal told me he did not believe there was any child sexual abuse in Richmond and it had all been got up by the press. Tell that to the jury at Southwark Crown Court.
Two other prominent Liberal Democrats councillors at the time now peers Tim Razzall and Jenny Tonge appeared to be in denial or did not want to talk about it. And Louis Minister, then Richmond’s director of social services, now retired in Malta, denied he had ever heard of Elm Guest House and said he knew nothing of what happened at Grafton Close. Only with a trial imminent did he recover his memory loss. A
nd there are leading Richmond Tories who knew at the time- an issue I am still investigating. Contrast the last 35 years. These ambitious councillors, a number of whom I have met as a lobby journalist in Parliament, have led comfortable, prosperous lives heaped with honours and public recognition. While the survivors – the people unfortunate to be sent to be protected at Grafton Close – whom I have met as an investigative reporter at Exaro, have in the main led fractured, impoverished lives. Many have difficulty coping, relying often on benefits only to be hounded by the DWP. One,Peter Borshin, the worst case scenario, sadly committed suicide after his experiences which went on to him being committed to Broadmoor. No peerages or honours for them.
I would hope after this tragic saga Richmond will have the grace to review its procedures to ensure that there is not a current repetition of those events 35 years ago. Perhaps the judge who in this case has indicated that ,McSweeney will get a custodial sentence will instruct them to do so.
There is a full report in the Daily Mail into the background of McSweeney’s career and the questions it raised about the Roman Catholic Church. The link is here.
Richmond Council issued this statement after the trial:
Gillian Norton, Chief Executive of Richmond Council, said:
“The Council is sorry that a child in its care was indecently assaulted. The assault happened 35 years ago and clearly the service leadership and management laid bare in court were totally unacceptable.
“The situation today is completely different. Most looked after children are in foster homes. Only those children needing very specialist services are placed in children’s homes. All placements are subject to rigorous checks and controls within a statutory regulatory framework and this includes senior social workers who are independent of the child’s worker.
“The system today puts much greater emphasis on the views of children and staff are employed specifically to help children to give their views.
“Sadly experience has shown us of the horrors adults continue to inflict on children and it is difficult to say it can never happen here. But I am confident that services now are well led and managed, that officers are held to account by elected Members and the Local Children’s Safeguarding Board so that children in Richmond are as safe and well looked after as possible.”
The release is here.