A generation ago the ideal typical child sexual abuser was the lonely ‘dirty old man’ who roamed the streets trying to entice unwary children with sweets. In 2000, the tabloid pictures of a dishevelled and apparently manic Roy Whiting, the man whose murder of Sarah Payne sparked a series of demonstrations on working-class estates against paedophilia (to some sociologists the very definition of a ‘moral panic’) served to keep this image front and centre.
No so now. The conviction of Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall and Jimmy Savile, not to mention the early indicator, Gary ‘do you want to be in my gang’ Glitter, have begun to reshape who and what is possible in the mind of the public. They were neither lonely nor old when they began what now appears to have been prolific careers of sexual abuse of children and young people – although for Savile the description ‘prolific’ does not even begin to capture the density of his activities.
Having been re-assured for decades that such behaviour was the province of lonely and old men, society is now faced with the spectacle of some of its most well known past entertainers from a claimed golden age of television being brought to court, manicured and svelte, to be convicted of sexual abuse across decades. For someone with a conventional view of the world the image must be jarring.
There is a danger of a symmetry re-inforcing a previous prejudice. What unifies such diverse images is their apparent exceptionalism. Whoever they are, either lonely or famous, they are not us and not part of the society in which we live. This, however, would be to miss the point.
Coming into view over the horizon over the last quarter of a century has been the true reach and scale of the sexual abuse of children and young people in post war Britain.
The first discordant note to break through the wall of silence were adults who lived in state children’s homes from 1945 onwards. In the 1980s and 1990s thousands of people came forward across the whole of Britain describing how they were sexually abused in children’s homes. Investigations in North Wales, Staffordshire and Islington hit the headlines; underneath there was not a single police force in Britain that did not find itself impelled to investigate similar claims of sexual abuse. Even the police force of Jersey found itself mired in an investigation of child sexual abuse in the island’s children’s homes in the mid 2000s that went back decades.
Soon after followed the growing realisation that the Catholic Church across the world had provided haven to thousands of child sexual abusers. Despite corporate lawyers fighting a global rearguard action it has become evident that the Vatican has covered up for the accused, accused the victims of making up stories to seek compensation and has yet to come clean about the harm done in Britain. In Ireland, as the bodies of mothers and babies are brought out of a pit, the Church is surely set to retire from the public realm.
The Church of England too is in a state of denial failing to carry out a proper investigation into the children’s homes it was responsible for in the post war period. Gather together a group of adults who experienced the care of the Church of England and sooner rather than later some will described the sexual abuse they experienced at the hands of church officials. What principally explains the Church of England reluctance to meet this challenge is the fear of legal costs and the enormous compensation payments to follow that would bring the church and its pension scheme to its knees; not to mention its place in the governance of British life.
Beyond the care of the state, the ‘pastoral duties’ of various denominations and the activities of the famous we reach the private boarding schools and more latterly the schools of music. In Britain there are only two types of household whose children end up in the permanent care of others – the poor and the wealthy. There is now a steady head of steam building up by a variety of ex-residents groups of private boarding schools and students at some music schools for a proper accounting of what has taken place in recent decades. Rather than regale the reader with further detail a suggestion is to search any internet news aggregator with the terms ‘private’ ‘boarding’ ‘school’ and ‘sexual abuse’ to reveal the approaching storm.
Much of the above focuses on the institutional context and is in a sense itself exceptional. Today It is surely not news that some adults have sexually exploited children in a variety of institutional settings but it is when piecing together the range of institutions that what may have been thought of a rare a generation ago should now be counted as common place.
It is this common place quality that requires a national inquiry to bring all the different strands together. It is doubtful that there is either the political will nor the public appetite for such a step as it would pose the threat of not only focusing on the famous or the isolated but also on the everyday. While institutions are to a degree cut off from wider society they are nested within it and there can be little doubt that any meaningful inquiry about the institutions in such a context would inevitably open the gateway to a proper audit of child sexual abuse in wider society and the domestic environment. In such circumstances a state of denial may be felt preferable by some to facing up to true scale of truth that would be revealed. For those interested in justice, such a state of a denial cannot be allowed to stand.
Will McMahon is an Ambassador for the Care Leavers’ Association. See http://www.careleavers.com