Sexual abuse in Rotherham…one small corner of a much larger canvas

Sexual abuse in Rotherham…one small corner of a much larger canvas

Just after the 1 July issue of The Project was published with an initial response to the Rolf Harris guilty verdict, reports began to be circulated in the press about Elm House, a former children’s home in south west London, and accusations of senior Tories both dead and alive being implicated in child abuse over a number of years.

In early August, Susie Henderson waived her right to anonymity to talk about the regular sexual abuse she says she suffered from the age of four at the hands of her father, Robert Henderson QC and Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, a Tory MP who was solicitor general in Scotland under Margaret Thatcher.

Both men are now dead, Fairbairn died in 1995 aged 61 and her father in 2012 aged 75. Susie Henderson says she reported the abuse to the police in 2000, aged 34, but they decided to take no action. She has now decided to repeat her claims because Fairbairn has been implicated in the Elm House scandal.  She wants her case re-opened.

Shortly after the Henderson story broke the case of Peter Righton was revisited by the BBC news. Righton was a senior academic and practitioner in the care of children and young people, a regular writer for the key magazine of the profession Social Work Today and an advisor to the National Children’s Bureau in the 1970s. It later transpired that he was part of a paedophile network that sexually abused children and young people in the care system as well as being a founder of the Paedophile Information Exchange.

In fact, Righton had been exposed years before but the new angle was that ‘recently discovered’ papers revealed that Righton had also been a senior adviser to government during Thatcher’s time in office. It was perhaps no accident that the BBC ran this story just as it was coming under pressure about its coverage of the police entry of Cliff Richard’s home.

Rotherham in context

Now we have Rotherham – a case that follows dozens of similar cases over the years where organised groups of men have sexually exploited and abused young girls, a large proportion of whom came from the care system and from very poor backgrounds.

The group of men at the centre of the Rotherham abuse scandal were of Pakistani heritage. This has led the right wing press in particular to suggest that there is an ‘ethnic dimension’ to Rotherham with ‘Asian men’ (whatever that may mean) having a proclivity for grooming white girls.  As has been pointed out elsewhere, this ignores a few facts. In Rotherham girls with Indian sub-continent heritage were also victimised. If you focus your gaze on Rotherham, and only Rotherham, it might appear that there is an ‘ethnic dimension’; however, if you zoom out and focus on the country as a whole it becomes obvious that organised sexual grooming, exploitation and sexual abuse of children and young people is a cross class and cross ethnicity phenomena and there is no evidence of a particular ethnicity being over-represented.

Moreover, if the criminal justice system has one marker, it is that it disproportionately criminalises minority ethnic groups; it would be a remarkable inversion of everything that is known about British society to suggest being from a minority ethnic background is a protective factor from state intervention.  What might have been in play in Rotherham are local specific features, that involved a catastrophic lack of action from those in power, but itself forms only a tiny corner of a much larger canvas.

Inconvenient truths

Perhaps the focus on ethnicity, and tabloid headlines about ‘political correctness’, are ways of not addressing some inconvenient truths about the inequalities and power hierarchies that exist in contemporary capitalist society.

Across Britain there are children and young people who are in or on the edge of the care system are at the hub of sexual abuse rings because they are vulnerable to it, many having no adult to rely on and being treated as a ‘social problem’ rather than in need of support and protection. Those who courageously report the abuse consistently testify when they complain that nobody in power seems to be able or to want to do much about it whatever the ethnicity of the abuser. In addition, there are hundreds of children who go missing from care every year never to re-appear – they simply disappear and no-one has responsibility for finding out where they are.

Many of the people who work in children’s home are massively under-qualified to meet the complex needs of many of the young people in their care. The lack of qualifications is linked to the staggeringly low pay, a decade’s long phenomenon which has significantly worsened since the privatisation introduced by the Labour Party and made wholesale by the present Coalition. The lack of resources is magnified in the field social work force who have unmanageable case loads and for the most part can only deal with a child or young person when a crisis appears and that is often far too late to prevent harm. Many have been reduced to brokers for private services.

Those supposedly empowered to tackle child sexual abuse, the police, seem to view the children and young people abused as law breakers and a form of underclass scum first and vulnerable to harm second. There is also a pervasive attitude in the police that views the young girls as promiscuous. Consider this: in Rotherham one 12 year old girl had sex with five adults (i.e. was raped and abused), then repeatedly went missing and a detective said she had been “100 percent consensual in every incident”.  If the murder of Steven Lawrence raised the issue of institutional racism then surely the question has to be asked what kind of institutional mindset is at large in the police force with regard to these abused girls?

Whatever debate may take place about who is most engaged in the sexual abuse the one common feature that does hold is that the abusers are almost always men who exploit positions of power, or their power as men in society, to sexually abuse.

All of the issues raised above are much more difficult facts to deal with – so let’s just talk about an ‘ethnic dimension’ instead in the hope that no one notices the real scale of the problem.

The scale of the problem

The charity Banardos alone has worked with 10,000 children in the last six years who report having been sexually exploited. That is one charity working with those who have managed to make their way to the local office or the telephone help line.

There can be no doubt children’s homes, churches bodies and private schools, and other institutions have been the sites of significant amounts of sexual abuse over the decades; or that very rich and powerful men have sexually abused children and young people in a variety of settings and using their fame, power and connections to prevent this abuse coming to light.

We should also not doubt the sexual exploitation and abuse of children and young people by non-family members is ongoing in many towns and cities across the country. Then there is the child sexual abuse that takes place in the privacy of the family and goes mostly untalked about, unrecognised and unreported.

For many the scale of the child sexual abuse that takes place in our society may be so awful as to be unimaginable and perhaps for some unbelievable, preferring to think of most of it as what is often referred to as ‘kiddie fiddling’; for others, however, it is an all too real traumatic individual experience that becomes unmentionable for fear of disbelief.

In the scale of events there is nothing peculiar about Britain. Over the last two decades Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Australia to name but a few have had to come to terms with this widespread horror in their midst. I use the term ‘widespread’ because that is what the data tells us. The figure that Banardos report is the tip of the ice-berg.

The most recent surveys we have to hand are the NSPCC’s child maltreatment studies published in 2000 and 2011 that interviewed thousands of adults, young people and children.  The 2000 study asked adults aged 18 to 24 about their experience of sexual abuse as a child or a young person thus reviewing prevalence from the late 1970s to the late 1990s.  The 2011 study adds findings from the first decade of the twenty first century.

While it might be thought that the NSPCC has a material interest in exaggeration, the research is of the highest of standards using robust methods, with independent verification, and can be relied upon to give us statistically significant findings over a thirty year period.

Of the 2,800 adults were interviewed in the late 1990s 6.8 per cent reported coerced sexual acts under the age of 16. By the 2011 survey this had fallen to 5 per cent. What this is telling us, apart from the fact things might be improving, is that between late 1970s and 2008 one adult in 20 aged 18 to 24 reported experiencing sexually coercive behaviour while under 16.

Here, it is worth keeping in mind that what might be thought of as the scale or range of abuse experienced is not co-terminus with the impact on the individual. What some people report as a fleeting act of abuse soon put behind them others experience as a life-changing event but, crucially, neither individual experience should be measured against the other.

There are few reasons to believe that earlier generations than those covered by the surveys experienced more or less sexual abuse, so taking 5 per cent as an average suggests around 3 million people in Britain have experienced sexual abuse as a child or young person, making it a common phenomena.  If you are finding that figure difficult to metabolise then you are not alone. It is the extent, and the implications of the extent of the problem, that make it so difficult for even those who want a society based on equality and justice to come to terms with.

An uncomfortable truth that socialists have to address before reaching for a class analysis cure-all is that we are looking at a social harm that, as the NSPCC data indicates, is mainly committed by men, and exists across society and classes as a whole, both in and beyond the household environment.  It is the way some men of all classes are able to abuse power that needs to be acknowledged as part of establishing what a socialist strategy to combat it might be.

This is not to say that the hierarchy and inequality that class society entrenches does not play a crucial role in maintaining the abuse of power and sexual exploitation but to acknowledge that it is part of a nexus that also features other embedded power hierarchies of gender, sexual and generational inequalities. Indeed, a social uprooting of the power structures that maintain the sexual abuse of children would stand society on its head: it would produce a social revolution.

Not policing the crisis

On a more modest but not insignificant scale, Tom Watson MP, the admirable scourge of the Murdoch clan, has for some time been leading the line on bringing some of the allegations of Tory malfeasance in Elm House into public view. Part of the narrative involves files ‘lost’ by civil servants and police after being handed by Tory MP Geoffrey Dickinson MP to then Home Secretary Leon Brittan; it is claimed the file revealed the names of senior figures in the Tory Party and others in an abuse ring at Elm House.

As Watson’s claims were getting more media attention over the last year it was also becoming evident that the former Liberal MP Cyril Smith was guilty of sexually abusing boys from children’s homes in the Rochdale area and that local senior police officers had prevented inquiries being followed through (facts pointed out as early as 1979 by the Rochdale Alternative Press). In Lambeth it is claimed that senior police officers led a cover up in the late 1990s when known politicians came into the frame, removing a more persistent and honest investigating officer from the investigation. The initial inquiry into Peter Righton unearthed five suitcases of letters in his home that, according to reports by a serving police officer at the time, had definite leads to those in powerful positions on society.

So, worthy of an investigation itself is the role of some police in suppressing and failing to investigate over the decades, in particular what favours were given and received for no further action being taken.  Eventually, the fact will surface that numerous local police officers across the country have been involved in the abuse, others have looked the other way for pragmatic purposes or simply could not be bothered because they believed the girls and boys assaulted and raped to be promiscuous social rubbish. The role of the Special Branch and very senior police officials over the decades should also come under the spotlight.

Framing the inquiry

The response of the government has been to try and close the story down by announcing the inquiry into institutional abuse headed by the ‘safe pair of hands’ Lady Butler-Sloss. Butler-Sloss was then rapidly relieved of her post because many abuse survivors knew that she was the sister of the Tory 1980s Attorney General Sir Michael Havers who is widely regarded as having taken no action about reports of abuse in high places, and herself had hidden claims of sex abuse against Bishop Bell (of Lewes and Gloucester) who was charged in 2014 indecent assault.

One of the key demands of those who want a comprehensive inquiry was that the chair should not be and establishment figure. The next proposed chair is Fiona Woolf, Lord Mayor of London and a specialist in privatising public services. It was clear that Woolf was an establishment figure and within 48 hours the Mail on Sunday revealed that not only does Woolf sit on the board of a City of London conference with Lord Brittan, who is accused of overseeing an establishment cover-up when he was Home Secretary, but judges an annual City award scheme alongside Lord Brittan’s wife, Diana who she gave a £50 donation and a friendly good-luck message when she took part in a charity fun run last year – Woolf has been a near neighbours of the Brittan’s for the last decade.  In addition, and just as significant, the Mail revealed that Woolf is a governor of the elite Guildhall School of Music where pupils are said to have been abused.

The plan was (because it is unlikely that Woolf will remain in post for long) for Woolf to be assisted by, among others, Barbara Hearn former deputy chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau who has been awarded an OBE by the establishment, and Graham Wilmer, a sexual abuse survivor, and head of a small local sexual abuse survivors charity in Merseyside, that has been funded by the government Cabinet Office and whose Twitter profile has a picture of Mr Wilmer receiving his MBE from Prince Charles.

It is difficult to know what to make of the Woolf selection, or indeed the other two. Either someone in Teresa May’s office was simply not concentrating, or the selection panel are so removed from the concerns of abuse survivors they thought Woolf would do the trick or there is a deliberate attempt in play to undermine the whole process.

Even if a standalone inquiry does get off the ground into what will undoubtedly be mis-titled as ‘historical’ abuse in institutions, alongside an investigation into the depravations of highly placed and mostly dead politicians based on personal testimony and files now lost to the MI5 shredder, will shunt what could be a significant engine of social change down the branch lines of ‘the past’ and ‘the once powerful’ and into an effective dead-end. The terms of any inquiry need to recognise this and to call for evidence irrespective of time and place.

While we are taking the necessary time to debate the issue through cognisance needs to be taken of streams of thinking that will re-emerge and need to be confronted carefully. There will be claims that those who come forward are merely seeking compensation on the back of social concern; mixed in with this will be claims of false memory, revenge allegations and a reviving of allegations of ‘satanic abuse’ rings and other conspiracies.

To be succinct, a tiny number might try to make some money, some might be mistaken about identity and a few might be seeking revenge, but paedophiles being organised is a documented phenomena and dressing up in pointy hats should not surprise – after all that is what Bishops do. But all of this should be understood as flack or a few spots on a sun that is throwing a glaring light on the infinitely greater prevalence of child abuse in contemporary society.

Those harmed by child sexual abuse deserve more than to have to fend off accusations of being fraudulent, money grabbing and revenge seeking or to be falsely associated with the crank conspiracy theorists that inhabit the web.

Social justice and socialist principles

What is needed in response to the harm caused is a form of social justice grounded in socialist principles that recognises the harm done, offers reparation for the damage done, attempts to hold those responsible to account, and gives those abused the confidence to actively challenge what is being done to them.

What might this social justice look like?  This is something that socialists need to discuss so that we are able to offer a concrete alternative to the present state of affairs. I offer initial ideas and would welcome, through debate and discussion, others clarifying and adding to these points.

Society has to be able to hear what it is being told; the conversation has mostly been kept among the professions concerned or private discussions involving those impacted; the rest of society seems to have been, and continues to be, in a state of denial and refusing to hear while occasionally being transfixed by lurid headlines.

The establishment of a commission that can hear the truth as victims see it would go some way to normalising in the public mind the idea that society has a serious social harm in its midst and radical steps need to be taken to address it. For the avoidance of doubt this does not mean a ‘truth and reconciliation’ approach which, in my view, implies at heart maintenance of the current social order.  A socialist response would aim to transform the power relations in society that would make it possible for those abused to take action and for those committing the abuse to know that. How this might be achieved is a complex matter and worth debate that would go much further than the liberal ‘rights’ agenda that currently predominates.

So breaking through the silence to challenge the social inequalities that reproduce child sexual abuse is essential. Part of the stigma that child sexual abuse carries with it is the social silence about it. Because it seems unbelievable victims feel that they will not be believed. Susan Henderson repeats what is now a ritual incantation of someone who was abused when she says about Nicholas Fairbairn ‘Who would believe the solicitor general and other top lawyers would be abusing children?’ (my italics) It should be remembered that when The Sun published on its website a picture of Jimmy Savile with children at the now notorious Haute De la Garenne children’s’ home in Jersey. Savile sued and forced The Sun to take the picture down – silencing the most powerful tabloid in Britain.

Alongside a right for victims to be properly heard, is the right to be accepted as innocent until proven guilty. A society based on social justice must be able to hold the possibility that whatever the accusation a person has the right to a defence in law. One key feature that surely distinguishes socialism from Stalinism is that a public accusation does not constitute proof – no matter how hard this may be to take for victims and their allies.

In any case, irrespective of legal process, a socially just response would include a comprehensive range of services for those abused to draw on to help overcome, as far as possible, the harms experienced. Some victims of abuse have no desire to go to law to seek redress but need support, others have to face the fact that they may never be able to hold their abuser to account (they may be dead, remain unknown or their identities blanked out by trauma) and some may resort to the law but not have proof enough to convince a jury despite their own knowledge that the abuse occurred: all deserve a resourced social justice to help them live their lives.

Beyond, being heard, being believed and receiving justice and redress there is the small matter of the need to completely restructure the social services on offer and for them to be properly financed by the state to meet the need as is stands. The profiteers need to be driven out of the system and proper accountability restored.

A socialist response to child sexual abuse is needed, one that both offers a practical way forward in the here and now and implies undermining the structures that generate this form of social harm. Clearly, class and gender inequalities lay at the heart of the problem, yet my reading of the socialist response since the Savile revelations is that it is going to take more than a recitation of Engels to construct both a convincing explanation and an alternative social policy.


I would like to thank my friend Sheila Quaid for discussing an earlier draft of this article and making suggestions about how it might be strengthened.

There are 4 comments Join the conversation

Join the conversation

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *