Child abuse: Tackling collusion and silence

Abusers must be named, shamed, and punished. Only then will children be a little safer.

One of the worst aspects of the Peter Ball case – as with Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith – is the collusion and silence of others. The recently published full report of the independent enquiry into the Church’s handling of the Peter Ball case, “An Abuse of Faith”, makes for deeply disturbing reading. Not for the first (or last) time we learn of people in power refusing to act on their suspicions or even to recognise child abuse for what it is: an assault on the dignity and integrity of defenceless minors.

Over the past decades, stories have emerged about the Residential Schools and the Lost Generations in Canada, the Stolen Generations in Australia, and most recently the United Kingdom’s Home Children scheme, under which more than 100,000 girls and boys were forcibly deported to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. Many (not all) faced great privation in their new “homes” and in Western Australia and Queensland they faced sexual torment in certain Roman Catholic institutions such as the Christian Brothers.

It is absolutely right that these appalling stories continue to be investigated by journalists and government officials and that documentary and film makers recount them in the best way they can. But there is a danger of complacency. Logic tells us that this is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg and that many more incidents and people must be investigated. A great deal of deeply embedded collusion remains to be uncovered and it is likely that every country has more accounts of neglect, abuse, and denial to be revealed.

Der-kommer-en-dagDenmark is a case in point. Der kommer en dag (The Day Will Come) is a 2016 drama directed by Jesper W. Nielsen. It tells of a school for orphans and “difficult” children where violence and ritual humiliation were part of everyday life. The story is based on a real-life boys’ home called Godhavn, overseen by a sadistic headmaster, a teacher who sexually abused the boys, a doctor who colluded with the headmaster, and a staff who looked the other way.

The Godhavn Inquiry was the first Danish inquiry into child abuse and neglect, the results of which were only made public in May 2011. Financed by the Ministry of Social Affairs, it was an independent investigation of complaints made against Godhavn’s Boys’ Home and 18 other Danish children’s homes. It was one of the first inquiries to investigate the use of psychopharmacological drugs on children. A television documentary triggered the investigation and Der kommer en dag is a dramatization of what happened at one of the boys’ homes.

After the damning Godhavn Report was released, the Danish minister of social affairs refused to offer an apology to the boys, claiming that, according to the legislation of the time and current social policy, nothing illegal had taken place. She stuck to that view even though the Godhavn Report provided clear evidence of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, as well as failures in state supervision.

It is difficult to discover if anyone responsible for what took place at Godhavn was ever brought to court. What seems to have happened is that the headmaster and other staff were discreetly retired to avoid a criminal investigation. In Britain, Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith died before their actions were revealed. Disgraced former bishop and convicted paedophile Peter Ball was briefly imprisoned, but others who colluded with him have escaped censure.

In recent years, significant efforts have been made to improve the safeguarding of children. Both the Catholic church in England and Wales and the Church of England have introduced child protection measures. In Rome, Pope Francis set up the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, although is has been mired in controversy with victims appointed as commissioners resigning their membership.

But as long as there is silence, children will suffer abuse. People must voice their suspicions. Journalists must investigate. The corrupting culture of privilege, power, and make-believe (in high places, the church, education, social services, and the entertainment industry) must be revealed, child abusers identified and called to account. The perpetrators must be named, shamed, and punished. Only that way will children be a little safer.

Day-will come

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