‘Our silence permits perpetrators to continue’: one woman’s fight to expose a father’s abuse | UK child abuse inquiry

Clare Devlin’s first memory of being sadistically and sexually snared by her father was when she was seven. But she knows that wasn’t the first time it had happened. She remembers a feeling of dread of something already known, a “recognition of feelings of fear and anger and grief”. The abuse continued throughout her childhood and adolescence until she finally found a way to stop the man who was the most powerful person in her universe.

Her father, Patrick Devlin, was one of the most celebrated judges in the country. Now Clare is 81 years old and, with her family’s support, she is going public about his behaviour, lending herself to the international movement to stop child sexual abuse. As well as telling her story to the Observer, she has also made a submission to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which finishes taking evidence in October.

Patrick Devlin had money and reputation, a fine cellar, homes in London, Wiltshire and abroad, servants, and a clever wife who devoted her life to his life. He was devoutly conservative and patriarchal.

At the University of Cambridge in the 1920s, he was known for his biting eloquence and belonged to a coterie of young men who went into law and government. In the 1940s, he was one of the High Court’s youngest judges, and in the 1950s and 60s he became a household name when he led public inquiries into some epochal issues – colonial rule, massacres and mass arrests, in Nyasaland, now Malawi, and the pay and conditions of London’s 80,000 dock workers in the days when they were a permanent presence in the national news.

But his criticism of Nyasaland’s “police state” outraged Harold Macmillan’s government, and his proposed reform of the docks’ industrial relations did not endear him to its 1,000-plus employers. Much later, he asserted his intellectual and political independence by supporting the appeals of the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven.

However, it is his audacious argument that “immorality” is no less the business of criminal law than treason, that still exercises great minds in academic circles. His criminal abuse of his daughter will detonate scholarly debates about Devlin and jurisprudence, crime, sin and the state.

His six children – four boys and twin girls – lived the uniquely sequestered childhood of the establishment: they lived at West Wick House, built in 1770, on a 450-acre farm on Wiltshire’s Marlborough Downs, where Devlin would entertain the great and good. The parents were often in London and the children were looked after by maids and a “Norland nanny” – early years educator for the rich and famous.

Before the children learned how to ride a bike or tell the time, they knew about power and class. “All the women who took care of us and the house came and went, and it was made clear there were servants, and there were children, and above that there were higher beings,” says Clare.

“The people around us would address him as sir, or later your lordship, and our mother as madam and m’lady. When I was about seven, we were taken to see him on the bench. So, he had the other distinction of being the law. Everybody deferred.” This included their mother, Madeleine Oppenheimer, a daughter of the South African diamond dynasty and a student at Somerville College in Oxford when she met Devlin. “I think she decided that he was her lodestar and that what he would want, she would want.”

“I described him as ‘Our Father’ and I’d get laughed at,” recalls Clare. “It is the first line in the prayer, ‘Our father…hallowed be thy name’, and that’s in my psyche, absolutely.”

Her brothers confirm his omniscience. “He was God,” says Matthew, a prison chaplain.“My father’s word was law, that was laid down by my mother,” says Gilpatrick, a businessman. To whom, then, could a child protest?

Lord Patrick Devlin in December 1963.
Lord Patrick Devlin in December 1963. Clare Devlin says ‘everybody deferred to him’. Photograph: Bob Haswell/Getty

When he was home, they had the rare privilege of his “good night” at bed time. “There were six of us, so one-on-one time with our mainly absent parents was intensely coveted,” says Clar . But when she heard his footsteps on the landing and “the creak of the board three steps up to the top floor, I would roll on my stomach, tighten my nightgown, burrow my eyes into the pillow, put my hands tight between my legs. Useless. He untucked and stripped, disposed of my body as he wished. And he spanked me.

“It was the humiliation and powerlessness that was painful, and the contradiction – he would keep saying until I gave in, ‘tell me you love me or I will punish you’.”

When she capitulated, she felt “saved from humiliation” but not from the predatory hands. “In those moments, he was smug.” During her teens, her siblings were sent to boarding schools while she attended the elite Godolphin School in Salisbury and came home at weekends, to a new en suite bedroom downstairs that sometimes doubled as a guest room, and a new regime. “There were strict hours: 7.15pm sherry; 7.30pm dinner on the table. I have an image of my mother flying around with a very large linen apron, then whisking it off and appearing at the table in evening dress, and the meal would be served. He would be in a smoking jacket.”

Beforehand, her father would appear while she was having her compulsory bath, “watching all the time”. After dinner, he would return to her room, again he would strip her, touch her body, “and sometimes lie on top of me. The spanking had stopped. I do not remember any words.”

Where was her mother? She is reluctant to disparage this busy woman, arranging the social life of an eminent judge, managing the farm and a Jersey cream business, attending agricultural events – sometimes with her daughter – engaging in Wiltshire society and, in accordance with the aspirations of their conservative milieu, being a magistrate.

Clare Devlin as a girl.
Clare Devlin as a girl.

Her mother often sat quietly, in contemplation, “reading St John of the Cross or St Theresa of Ávila or maybe St Ignatius”. The Oppenheimers were Jews (though not observant), and Devlin had been brought up a Catholic – among his five siblings there were two nuns and a priest. He, too, seemed destined for the priesthood until he abandoned the faith after a year as a seminarian. Remarkably, in 1956, his wife adopted the faith. “What my father said was that religion was all very well for women at her time of life.”

A regular visitor to West Wick House was the conservative Catholic Archbishop – later Cardinal – John Heenan who, in the 1960s, opposed the liberalising surge of Vatican II. His mission was to recruit Devlin back into the church. (He failed, although Devlin returned to the faith in his dying months.)

Clare asked Heenan to intervene. “I told him that my father was coming into my room and touching me. He asked enough questions to establish what happened. ‘It could be much worse,’ he commented, then he said, ‘better you than a mistress’. He said he was very sad for me, he was very loving and absolutely believed me, but he did not call my father to account. He said ‘you have to tell him to stop’.”

So, she presented a line: a teenage girl expecting to have her own life. “It was deceitful. I said, ‘I will have boyfriends and it is time for you to stop coming to my room’. The visits stopped. He said, ‘It’s all over between us’.” As she says this, she looks away, shaking her head. “I wondered if I’d still have a home, a roof over my head.”

She did, and “that was that”. But for years, he’d make sexualised comments, even asking about her sex life with her husband. One time, Clare said, they met in New York. “On our way into a hotel, with a preposterous turn of his head, he said, ‘people will think you are my mistress’.”

Clare was a teenager in an era of sulphurous debates about faith morality, sex, birth control, abortion, blasphemy, morality, the BBC and the limits of the law. This was before women’s liberation, when girls were to blame – for being wayward, promiscuous, pregnant or frigid and unfathomable. At dinner parties, her father would show off and occasionally reiterate his view that “men were not suited to monogamy”.

This was a time when Devlin pitched himself into what he called the conflict between “old and new moralities”. The occasion was the 1957 Wolfenden Committee report, which recommended that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be considered a criminal offence” (decriminalisation took another decade.) Wolfenden’s rationale was that “there must remain a realm of private morality and immorality which is, in brief and crude terms, not the law’s business”.

Devlin supported the recommendation but not the rationale. “It is no more possible to define a sphere of private morality than it is to define one of private subversive activity.” In a lecture at the British Academy in 1959, he argued that breach of criminal law was not only an offence against an individual “but against society as a whole”. Just as there were “no theoretical limits to the power of the state to legislate against treason and sedition” there were no limits to laws “against immorality”.

This prompted a savage intellectual duel over several years with the philosopher HLA Hart, known as the Hart-Devlin Debate. Hart argued that England had been seized by a revival of “legal moralism” exemplified by Devlin’s credo. He invoked the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s doctrine: “The only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any other member of a civilised community against his will is to prevent harm to others.” Why enforce a law, Hart asked, “where there is no harm to be prevented and no potential victim to be protected?”

Hart’s concern with “harm” and “suffering” did not disturb Devlin’s essays or his behaviour. “My father didn’t have a concept of the damage,” comments Matthew.

How did he square his own criminal behaviour with his suggestion to the Wolfenden Committee, that “indecent assault and gross indecency should be abolished unless the acts were committed on youths?”.

Gilpatrick remembers asking his father about the debate: he was more concerned with jurisprudence, “the process of interpreting and applying the law”; it had to meet the moral code, intolerance and disgust of the “reasonable man”. However, his father acknowledged that once people no longer regarded homosexuality or abortion, for example, as a sin, “it ceased to be a safe area for legislation”.

Devlin’s seemingly hard line was more slippery than it appeared, masking a dare at the end of his book The Enforcement of Morals: why stop at homosexuality, he challenged Hart, why not include “other immoralities” that can be done “in private and without offence to others”, and need not involve the “corruption or exploitation of others”– namely incest, abortion, suicide pacts, euthanasia, bestiality?

Devlin did not disclose his own opinion. There is a clue, however, in an odd gesture, decades later, when he gave his daughter a book inscribed, “this book belongs to P. Devlin, May 1926”. It was Lysistrata or Woman’s Future and Future Woman, an anti-feminist diatribe by Anthony M Ludovici, a notorious advocate of eugenics, aristocracy, anti-feminism, anti-democracy and not least of incest. It was practised, he wrote, among “the peoples principally responsible for civilisation”, and should be endorsed among elites to preserve racial purity and patriarchy.

Clare had settled in Canada in the 1960s, married, had babies and returned every couple of years to see her parents. “I never stopped loving them all their lives, and that is still true.” But her strategy “to not think about what had happened” did not release her from depression. “I’d go to ∑counsellors and psychologists and psychiatrists and sit there in tears and total silence.”

In the outside world in the 1970s, however, another sensibility changed her life: political optimism, volunteering at a women’s shelter and finding support at a rape crisis centre. “Feminism began describing what child sexual abuse consists of” and “the feelings of terror and nothingness, not knowing where or who I am, no peace, total chaos” had a cause.

A great journey began. She was not alone, millions of women were “fellow travellers”, talking, reading, researching, resisting. She was a changed woman. She’d been to college, worked in women’s adult education, and in the 1980s in government equalities programmes. Devlin chose this time to give her Ludovici’s Lysistrata. It seemed like political retaliation: “I read it as a backlash book.”

After her father’s death in 1992, tributes were written about the great man by other great men, and “I decided to write to my mother, to tell her what had happened. I expected a letter in return – the letter I got I had to destroy. It said that if he had strayed it was because I must have tempted him. I couldn’t live with that around me.”

It was Donald Trump’s election as US president that interrupted the equilibrium of retirement grounded in local activism and her large, fond family of siblings, children, grand and great grandchildren. Trump’s insouciant sexism provoked her to make a statement about Cardinal Heenan’s inaction to the confidential Truth Project launched by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. She told her family and she was believed, and they backed her up.

Her sister, Virginia, remembers that, during her teens, “I enjoyed being away at school” and coming home, too, “it was lovely having Clare as a twin”, and now she had decided to share her story, “we all want to support her”. Her brother, Matthew, had been shocked but not surprised about the sexual abuse. “Something of my father’s evil was tangible. I wish, now, I had challenged him. One of the lessons for families is: be alert and find the right way of bringing things into the open.”

What made Clare decide to go public about this very public man’s crimes? “It is our silence that permits perpetrators to continue,” she says.