At the heart of the Hampstead hoax is the fact that two children were forced by their mother and her boyfriend to make multiple false allegations: against their father, their school, their teachers, their friends’ parents, and members of their extended community. Even though these people have all been definitively cleared of any wrongdoing, their names have continued to be bandied about on the internet by those who believe the hoax to be true.
But what’s it really like to wake up one morning and discover that you’ve been accused of some of the most horrific crimes imaginable—murder, child sexual abuse, cannibalism, child trafficking—all on an industrial scale?
Yesterday one of our commentators reminded us of the 1993 Shieldfield nursery scandal, another alleged ‘paedophile ring’ which turned out to be a complete fabrication, but which had a profound, lifelong impact upon the lives of those accused.
In brief, a mother whose child attended a nursery in Shieldfield, Newcastle, became spooked by reports of child sex abuse at another Newcastle nursery, and set off a panic that eventually resulted in 53 children being subjected to medical examinations by one Dr Camille de San Lazaro, who interpreted minor inconsequential findings as evidence of abuse, and suggested to children that they had been ‘hurt’ by someone, even though they had never alleged such a thing.
Arguably, those children were victims of false allegation, but so were two adults: Dawn Reed and Chris Lillie, both of whom were accused of running a paedophile ring. They were cleared in court, and ultimately won maximum payouts in their libel action to clear their names, but as of 11 years after the fact, the emotional scars remained.
In a 2005 article in The Telegraph, Ms Reed said, “Whenever I am reminded of it, I get flashbacks of absolute panic”.
In 1993, Reed was 22 years old, and enjoying her work at the Shieldfield nursery. But a mother, who had read that a worker at another Newcastle nursery had pleaded guilty to abuse, became concerned about her child. In the panic that ensued, 53 children were subjected to examinations that led to the court case, although charges against Reed and Lillie were dropped for lack of evidence.
None the less, Newcastle City Council held an inquiry and the four-member panel, briefed by Lazaro, concluded in 1998 that paedophile activity of a lurid nature had taken place in nearby flats, with rapists dressed as clowns or animals and so on. The Sun invited readers to ring in if they sighted “these fiends”.
Throughout those years, Reed – and Lillie – led the life of the hunted. In prison, on remand for her own safety, she was persecuted. “Someone thrust a lighted cigarette in my face and mop water was thrown in my bath.” She lost her home, her job and her marriage. At one point, she drove to the top of a cliff and contemplated suicide. “It was awful for my family. Can you imagine what it is like for a mother to see her daughter’s face all over the front page?”
For the past year, to a greater or lesser extent, the victims of the Hampstead hoax have lived with the fallout from false allegations—death threats, fears for their children’s safety, online and in-person harassment, and the pervasive sense of dread that comes from not knowing when or where the next attack will occur.
In the Kafkaesque world of the falsely accused, the sense of helplessness that comes from feeling under constant scrutiny for a crime not committed can be overwhelming. In fact, we know that at least one of the accused in Hampstead suffered a complete breakdown, while many others have been fearful of going out in public.
Those who’ve promoted Hoaxtead claim they do so ‘for the children’, despite all the evidence that’s shown the children were victims of their emotionally dead mother and her sadistic boyfriend. While the vast majority of Hoaxtead pushers have quietly drifted away, a small but determined core group of online vigilantes continues to scapegoat their victims, whom they see as ‘over-privileged’ and therefore fair game for attack.
Ultimately, though, those who’ve been attacked will recover and carry on with their lives. And those who continue to attack will have to live with whatever inner demons—envy, paranoia, greed, a compulsive need for attention—motivated them to want to destroy other people’s lives in the first place.