WHY do notorious child sexual abuse cases from decades ago remain important? And why should establishing the truth about them still matter?

Those questions were brought into sharp focus by Jean Rafferty’s powerful, outspoken piece in The National on the Orkney and Ayrshire sexual abuse cases, and on the censorship of open discussion about them (When evil visited Orkney, February 27). It was published on the 25th anniversary of the day nine children, from four middle-class families, were taken into care on South Ronaldsay, Orkney, in 1991. This happened after children from a large, disadvantaged family spoke of an organised sex abuse ring there.

Just like the eight Ayrshire children removed into care in 1990, they were returned home: in Ayrshire, after a judge reversed an earlier judge’s decision, and in Orkney by a sheriff before the evidence was even tested. It never has been tested. In both cases, allegations included sadistic ritual and occult practices against children, allegations much-ridiculed ever since.

The cases remain important, and I believe the evidence now needs to be reassessed, for at least three reasons. First, a stream of shocking failures to protect children from sexual abuse, in the Churches, in care homes, in private home cellars, through sexual exploitation gangs, by media celebrities and the powerful, has recently been exposed and continues to be. This has increased Government and public concern for abused children and commitment to protect them; and has made society less inclined to dismiss forms of abuse they previously found unbelievable.

Secondly, like Rafferty I and others have over 25 years tried to publicise suggestive evidence that children were indeed in danger. Particularly over the Orkney case, we have tried to correct untruths – in print, on the BBC, in documentaries and online – and point up the flaws in the endlessly recycled and invented theories by supporters of accused adults, who allege it was just “satanic panic”. We were repeatedly unsuccessful.

The time is surely overdue to end a silencing and misrepresentation which sees, for example, not a single neutral, factual report of either case anywhere publicly available on the internet. By publishing Rafferty’s article, The National has stood out for its courage and independence.

Thirdly – and I believe most important – the verdicts and the myth-making after these cases have for decades negatively influenced public attitudes, professional child protection behaviour, and child protection law.

They have fuelled suspicion of social workers and paediatricians, increased stress in child protection work, ruled out investigation of possible ritual organised abuse, strengthened beliefs that children fantasise about abuse, openly tightened legislation and practice to make it harder to protect children at serious risk, and eaten into professional courage. That encourages timidity, a professional watch-my-back mentality, and nervousness about investigating sexual abuse.

Child sexual abuse cases have increasingly disappeared off the statutory child protection radar.Teachers, youth workers, children’s panel members and social workers still mention Orkney as a reason not to ask a child if anyone has harmed them sexually, however disturbing or suggestive signs and behaviours may be. “The Orkney report said we mustn’t – didn’t it?” (Actually: no it did not.)

An outspoken Social Work Inspection Agency inquiry report in 2005, into the scandalous failure to act over many years in Western Isles (Eilean Saar) despite 222 expressions of concern and numerous case conferences about three abused and seriously maltreated girls, made this comment. “New legislation (the Children (Scotland) Act 1995) was designed to protect children within the context of partnership with their parents. This, together with the aftermath of the Orkney inquiry (1992) may have contributed to the prolonged attempts to engage with the family: rather than to try to remove all three children”.

Did the authorities behave wisely in the ways they pursued their suspicions in Orkney? On several counts, no – and today they would surely be less precipitate, collecting evidence for longer, less obtrusively and in ways less reliant on the children themselves. Do official mistakes mean that there was no abuse? Absolutely not: the two issues are separate, yet they are always conflated.

Was there suggestive, alarming evidence of organised sexual abuse? Yes, in both Orkney and Ayrshire. And if the assumed outcomes of the Orkney or Ayrshire cases are incorrect, then the future lessons drawn from them – like caution and timidity against sexual abuse, deference and apology to articulate adults – need revising too.

In this I do not think we should get tied into angry arguments of great endlessness, about whether these two cases “really” involved satanist abuse, and if satanist abuse “really” exists. (It does, but as a cult of human beings – not evil spirits flying over our homes.) The more important, wider question is whether there were seriously abused children in these two places who were failed, who were never protected. And whether there have been many more children, ever since child protection authorities had their fingers so badly burned.

Finally, like the Cleveland Report in 1989, the Orkney Inquiry was commissioned to examine the conduct of the authorities: not to examine risks to children. I believe that any future inquiries following high-profile cases can neither benefit nor protect children at risk, nor be truly child-centred, unless they include this question in their remit: were the actual children at the heart of this case abused or not?

How could that not be the most important question to ask?

Sarah Nelson is a research specialist on child sexual abuse issues, based at Edinburgh University