NOT even in their darkest thoughts could most people conjure up the horrors endured by victims of child sexual abuse.

Against all odds, Esther Willsher survived to tell the tale.

In 1987, long before the island of South Ronaldsay in Orkney became synonymous with satanic ritual, Esther's father was imprisoned for offences against his 15 children, known as the W family. He attacked them with weapons, kicked them with steel-capped boots, stuffed nettles inside their underwear and sexually abused the eight girls.

Monster doesn't come close.

With her father safely behind bars, Esther was taken into care. Just as she began to believe her life could begin at last, she was raped by a member of the home's staff. She attempted suicide then told a friend she trusted about the attack. Her friend betrayed that trust and informed social workers, who assumed her older siblings had been responsible. Eight of the W children were taken into care, separated then notoriously questioned by the Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (RSSPCC).

If only Esther had told.

Four years later, on February 27, 1991, Scotland awoke to the chilling news that nine children had been removed from four other families in Orkney. Social workers claimed three of the W children had made allegations of sadistic ritual abuse in therapy sessions. Within five weeks, this case had collapsed and the children, aged between eight and 15, were returned home. Sheriff David Kelbie, who gave a ruling at a proof hearing on the allegations, said repeated cross-examination of the children – designed to coerce them into admitting abuse had taken place – left them much more at risk.

Esther said: "The head of the RSSPCC was fresh from America, where she'd studied ritual abuse. She insisted satanic abuse was everywhere. Her favourite expression was: "You just have to know what to look for."

Now 39, Esther is no longer a victim. Rather she is proud to describe herself as "normal, probably boringly normal".

She lives in the West Midlands with her partner and two sons, aged seven and three. Typically, she left the care system with no academic qualifications but she now has a BA in design and has just written a brave, angry and painful memoir, If Only I Had Told. It is a shocking account of how two evil men and a flawed system let down not just her but a whole community.

Showing a courage and determination that at times defy belief, Esther has flatly refused to allow that system to grind her down. The fact she went on to have children of her own is proof of that. However, beneath the calm surface lurks an ongoing unease. "I lost everything," she said, "my siblings, my home, my childhood, and my community was torn apart."

She wishes now she had reported the sexual abuse she suffered in care, but added: "Looking back, I think it was because I had never met an adult I could trust. I just knew I wouldn't be believed."

In fact it took Esther 20 years, including counselling and childbirth, to find the courage to speak out.

"After giving birth, I had terrible flashbacks," she recalled. "They tormented me, made me doubt my ability as a mother. It was post-natal depression. I knew that my dysfunctional background would have consequences if I had children, but I became obsessed with being a good parent.

"I imagined having a baby would give me closure, yet I was terrified I would ruin my son's life. My counsellor suggested I wrote everything down, so my book in fact started out as therapy."

Esther feels strongly about the lack of help for children in care: "There is an assumption they will fail at everything they do in life," she said. "It's a cycle of despair; you are beyond help.

"Books on parenting weren't written for people like me," she said. "I wanted to help others; show them they were not alone". As a result, Esther started her blog,

Despite everything, Esther bears no ill-will towards social workers: "I don't hate them," she said. "They're damned if they do and damned if they don't. There are bad people in every profession.

"It's just that such vulnerable children depend on them for survival."

There has never been any satisfactory ending for the W family. A £6 million inquiry followed in 1992, led by Lord Clyde. His 363-page report was heavily critical of the way Orkney's social work department handled the allegations and made 194 recommendations.

The children of the W family remained in care without any explanation yet, in March 1996, the four other families accepted a full apology from the council as well as compensation. The W children have received neither. "We were treated like criminals when none of us had done anything wrong," Esther said. "And it ripped us apart."

She is gradually forgiving her mother for having turned a blind eye to her husband's violence. The dedication in her book says: "For my two boys, thank you for teaching me how to be a mother.

"And to my own mother, who realised too late what being a mother means."

A survivor indeed.

If Only I Had Told by Esther W (Ebury £6-99)