Former senior Edinburgh council officials criticised in report into handling of Sean Bell sex abuse allegations
Two former senior council officials were guilty of a “dereliction of duty” in failing to investigate allegations against social worker Sean Bell and report them to the police, an inquiry has found.
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Former education director Alastair Gaw, who resigned last year, and Andy Jeffries, a senior manager in the children and families department who quit in August, are both criticised in the report of senior QC Susanne Tanner’s investigation into the council’s handling of allegations against Mr Bell, who was found dead at the foot of Salisbury Crags in August 2020 while he was awaiting trial on charges of historic sexual assault, domestic abuse and rape. The report says: “It is understood that SB committed suicide.”
The inquiry team took evidence from a host of former and current council employees.
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The report says: “The inquiry team is satisfied on the evidence that SB was a serial abuser. That abuse took many forms; for some, it was simply verbal, but for others it was both physical and sexual.
“At least three witnesses were repeatedly sexually assaulted by SB and there is no reason to suspect that those individuals are the only survivors of such abuse.
"One witness suggested that, after an incident involving SB, they had lived in ‘terror’ and with ‘daily anxiety’ until they heard of SB’s death. Clearly, many of the survivors of SB’s abuse – whether it was verbal, physical or sexual – are still suffering and, for the majority, it is a pain they will continue to bear for the rest of their lives.”
The report says that over the years there were several occasions when serious acts of impropriety by Mr Bell were reported to officials.
And it says his inappropriate behaviour and potentially also his abuse seemed to be an “open secret” in the children and families department.
In one case, where the inquiry team says it believes Mr Bell seriously assaulted a fellow colleague in the 2010s, the survivor reported the incident to their line manager, who in turn reported it to Andy Jeffries, who subsequently informed Alastair Gaw, then head of support to children and young people.
The report says an investigation should have been launched and the police informed, but Mr Jeffries and Mr Gaw decided to take no further action.
It goes on: “It was a dereliction of duty on their part, compounded by the fact that, as vastly experienced social workers themselves, they really should have known better. Indeed, they should have been considering the risks posed by SB to both his alleged victims, as well as other council employees and service users."
The report says the failure to take action was “completely unacceptable” and a breach of the council’s own policies.
One witness told the inquiry team that complaining about Mr Bell’s conduct was futile because he was protected by “the old boys’ network”.
The report says: “Several witnesses spoke of a culture at the council in which they felt that, if they complained about SB’s behaviour, they would either not be believed or, worse still, there would be some form of retribution for coming forward. They suggested that SB was the ‘golden boy’ and that, in the eyes of his fellow managers, he could do no wrong.”
The report talks of there being widespread knowledge among colleagues of Mr Bell’s inappropriate behaviour.
And it notes: “Social workers working within the children and families are supposed to be experts at spotting signs of abuse, experts at preventing abuse and experts at investigating and resolving incredibly sensitive cases involving abuse. That SB’s behaviour was allowed to continue unchecked over an extended period of time, and that he was protected from investigation of this alleged behaviour, is worthy of strong criticism and it must not be allowed to happen again in respect of other victims of abuse.”
It adds that the council and the department should have had a heightened sensitivity and awareness of abuse-related issues, yet Mr Bell had been allowed to become “untouchable”.
It said: “When his behaviours were challenged, the inquiry team was told that he would work to discredit the source of that information.”
The report makes a series of recommendations, including a reform of the council’s system of investigation of sexual allegations, domestic abuse, physical violence, stalking or harassment, to make sure it is independent and impartial; and mandatory training for all managers on domestic abuse, coercive control and dealing with individuals making complaints of a potentially criminal nature.
Andrew Kerr, council chief executive, issued a statement expressing sympathy to those who suffered abuse at Mr Bell’s hands.
He continued: “Regrettably, it is clear from the evidence gathered that senior officers of the council did not act on extremely serious disclosures by survivors, and others.
“Councillors will now carefully consider the findings outlined in the open report and how best to adopt its recommendations. We will do everything in our power to ensure this can never happen again.”
A parallel investigation led by Ms Tanner into the wider organisational culture of the council is continuing.