AN HISTORIAN and former resident of a children's home in Shirley has questioned claims it was exploited by a paedophile ring. Author Alex Wheatle, 51, alleged this week that he was sexually abused while living at Shirley Oaks Children's Home in Wickham Road, where he lived between 1966 until 1978. The father of three, appointed made an MBE in 1998, said he was "convinced" a network of paedophiles were operating in the home and that "the authorities knew about it at the time but did nothing". His account of life in Shirley Oaks, which was run by Lambeth Council and closed in 1983, has made headlines in several national newspapers and been covered by the BBC. But, according to a man who lived at the home during the same period, his claims have deeply distressed some former residents and staff. Gerry Coll, 53, who co-authored a history of Shirley Oaks, told the Advertiser: "Some of the things he has said are disrespectful to the people who passed through [the home], the vast majority of whom had good experiences there. "I agree with some of Alex's account, but what I cannot accept is that Shirley Oaks was rampant with sexual abuse. In no way was it. "I lived there from 18 months to 13 years old and the staff were very good. I've had phone calls from people who are shocked and taken aback. They think what Alex has said is quite scandalous." Mr Wheatle arrived at Shirley Oaks aged three in 1966. His account includes how he was sexually assaulted by a doctor within the grounds of the children's home. He wrote in the Mirror: "The first thing he told me to do was to strip naked. I stood there traumatised, unable to utter a sound as he sexually assaulted me. "I wanted to ask my friends if they had suffered something similar but couldn't bring myself to do it." Mr Wheatle, who would later go on to wrote Brixton Rock, said "strange, unnamed men" would regularly visit Shirley Oaks. One, a swimming instructor, "manipulated himself" into the cottage where boys lived some of the boys were housed in, "sleeping overnight in the sofa bed within the office". He explained: "He targeted boys in our cottage but also facilitated swimming lessons for other lads in the pool within the grounds as well as private clients. At these sessions he was the only adult present. There were no CRB checks in those days. "It was only decades later that he was jailed for his disgusting crimes. I'm still unsure whether all of his victims came forward." After Shirley Oaks closed, the police and Lambeth Council launched a joint investigation into abuse at homes run by the authority. Three people were jailed as a result of Operation Middleton, which found 16 alleged abusers had died and 19 others "could not be identified". Shirley Oaks is one of three Lambeth-run children's homes the Mirror has linked to an alleged paedophile ring thought to involve an unnamed MP in Tony Blair's government. Those allegations include claims that the politician took boys out of South Vale children's home in West Norwood in the 1980s. Mr Wheatle told the paper: "I'm convinced there was a paedophile ring operating in both South Vale and Shirley Oaks and that the authorities knew about it at the time but did nothing." Mr Coll, who lived at Shirley Oaks during the same period as Mr Wheatle, said: "I don't believe there was a conspiracy. "Hundreds, if of not thousands, of children lived at Shirley Oaks and the vast majority were not abused. "Where bad things happened they did so because people weren't properly vetted. There was a police investigation 20 years ago and those responsible were caught. "I don't understand why it's been dragged up again. We feel dirtied by it. Purley Oaks was a proud institution."'Questionable behaviour was overlooked' THE co-author of the history of Shirley Oaks says "questionable behaviour" of staff was overlooked because they were difficult to replace. Jad Adams, chairman of homeless charity Nightwatch, told the Advertiser: "It was very, very likely there was abuse there. "It was so easy for people who were potential abusers to get jobs because there weren't the sort of checks that are now. "The staff also lived closely with the children so the potential abuser would hit on a place like that. "People who are inclined to commit these crimes find places where there are a lot of victims and they inveigle their way in. "Children in care were certainly potential victims as we've seen from other cases." Mr Adams' book, written alongside Gerry Coll, did not mention specific cases of abuse, but highlighted the potential for it due to the practices at the home. It makes particular reference to staff difficulties in 1970s. "Hours were long, wages low and staff difficult to recruit," he told the Advertiser. "The management was keen to retain the staff they had as they were difficult to replace. "This meant staff were allowed to get away with being less vigilant than they should have been – people just weren't checking on them, or if they were, questionable behaviour was overlooked. "I don't think there were enough staff to secure that large a site either." Shirley Oaks was one of six homes built by Poor Law Guardians towards the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. They were later transferred to the London County Council and then to London boroughs.'Police inquiry a failure' ALEX Wheatle described the police investigation into abuse at children's homes including Shirley Oaks as a "failure" because more needed to be done to explore why perpetrators had access. His account follows the announcement of an independent inquiry to investigate the way public bodies handled sex abuse claims and a separate review by the Home Office into how it dealt with written allegations about powerful paedophiles in the 1980s. Mr Wheatle called on Home Secretary Theresa May to ensure "all aspects of child abuse including violent, neglect and emotional abuse" are taken into account. "Victims have their lives ruined by sexual assault," he said. "Some even take their own lives because of it. "I really hope my testimony will prompt others who have suffered to come forward and bear witness to the horrific crimes inflicted against them." Lambeth Council said it would co-operate fully with the reviews announced by the Home Office.
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