By the time allegations of child sex abuse surface in the media, it’s obvious that someone, somewhere, knew all along.
In the United Kingdom, Operation Yewtree – labelled a “witch hunt” by those who ought to know better – was set up in October 2012 in the wake of the scandalous and horrifying revelations about Jimmy Savile. Since then, victims of alleged sex abuse have identified 1,433 men, of whom 216 are dead and the remainder very much alive and possibly continuing their vile practices and practiced deceits.
Among the alleged offenders are 76 politicians, both national and local figures, 43 people from the music industry, 135 from TV, film or radio, and seven from the world of sport. In short, 185 people in public life whose perversions – like those of Jimmy Savile – have been allowed to damage the lives of children and adolescents.
The statistic of 1,433 men conceals a similar number of people – probably far more and likely to be family or friends – who must have suspected or were fully aware that abuse was taking place. “Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son” as Gordon Hunt titled his book about Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper. But here it may be somebody’s wife, daughter, brother, sister, or best friend. In most cases they said nothing.
Victims have identified the institutions where abuse takes place. Some 154 schools, 75 children’s homes, 40 religious institutions, 14 medical establishments, 11 community groups, nine prisons or young offender institutions, nine sports venues and 28 other places including military establishments are on the list.
Clearly it is right that the names of each of the current suspects have been put into a crime database, which is cross-referenced to ensure that enquiries are not being duplicated and in order to coordinate information about suspects whose offences take place under different jurisdictions. So far, 30 individuals have been named in one or more of the investigations.
Yet who is actively identifying the people who looked the other way, undoubtedly including high-ranking public officials and low-ranking functionaries, church leaders and police officers? Who is looking into policy-making failures at the level of health and community-care providers? Who is investigating what really goes on in prisons and youth detention centres? It is clear that gross derelictions are concealed behind the closed doors of government and public institutions and many people in positions of responsibility have turned a deaf ear and a blind eye. The issue is serious enough for a Public Inquiry – hopefully not chaired by a retired judge who later turns out to be a closet paedophile.
The UK government must act forthrightly and firmly in the light of what is clearly the tip of the iceberg. Waiting for a string of convictions followed by a public wringing of hands is out of the question. What is required is coordinated oversight and investigation by an independent body that can be trusted to delve into the depths of depravity and delusion: a Truth Commission whose goal is public enlightenment rather than vengeance. It will still be for the courts to punish offenders, but in many cases public disgrace carries its own retribution.
Public awareness of child sexual abuse increases when the media have a sensationalist story to tell. But the media can play a more constructive role by highlighting abuse in all its forms and by coming to the aid of those dedicated to overcoming the harm it does. Teaching institutions should also be empowered to make children and young people more aware of real rather than contrived dangers. “Don’t accept sweets from strangers” is well meaning, but not when abuse is carried out by a member of the family or by someone in a position of trust like a doctor or a priest.
Ultimately, it is ordinary people who must voice their suspicions – not as vigilantes or in witch hunts, but in ways that alert those in authority to the potential threat. Unfortunately, the risk of a mistake has to outweigh the need for caution.
A black cloud of unknowing surrounds child sex abuse and its greatest obstacle is silence. By overcoming natural abhorrence and making this taboo part of public dialogue, everyone can help to tackle it and to cast light on those who remain in the shadows.