Child abuse. It’s probably best to begin with these two words, lest they are lost in any of the analysis to follow. In fact, recent events have actually been an excellent study in how child abuse, however unwittingly, is enabled, neglected and allowed to continue. The initial revelations have been met with horror, confusion and indignation, and now the discussion has moved to whether the enabling institutions should be reformed from the roots or broken up altogether. Any institution that allows such offences within its walls should expect the most severe of inquests. However, with much investigative work to be done, I do not think that it is quite the right time or focus for this discussion. Not just yet.
Because: child abuse. One of the reasons that it continues to happen is that its existence is often too horrific to contemplate. Its details, when they emerge, make us turn away. Maybe we would rather think about something else. Perhaps that is why corporate opportunists can easily distract us by swerving the conversation into a campaign for the privatisation of the UK’s media. Meanwhile, those who suffered child abuse are rarely keen to talk about it privately, let alone publicly, and in the absence of their voices arrives a flurry of concern and denial from the individuals and institutions who surround them.
Given that the truth is coming out, it is this atmosphere of confusion that the child abuser is perhaps most content to see. I have only known of two child abusers, and both were as far from the Jimmy Savile stereotype as could be imagined. They were gregarious, smart, successful fathers; widely respected, and wholly reliant on the denial of those around them to continue doing what they were doing. They had woven themselves so effectively into community life that the only thing which would extract them was intensive scrutiny and fearless investigation. In the end, no charges were brought against them, and their victims survived – physically, at least – and went on to build lives for themselves.
Child abusers are difficult enough to identify as it is. Many of us would rather believe that their acts belong to times past – that things are different now: that the abusers are long gone, long dead. But no: they aren’t. They are still alive, and still sitting precariously at the centre of webs of deceit. Unfortunately, many of them will be not stopped from doing what they do, given the considerable resources of wealth or untruth that they have devoted to concealing themselves. But for those children whom we can help, it is worth asking the hard questions. The first place we should look to ask them, I think, is in the 300-page report into abuse at Clwyd County Council children’s homes, whose full publication has been suppressed for fear of libel. One of its main findings, though made almost two decades ago, seems appropriate to describe the scenario that now unfolds at the BBC. “There has been a conflict of interest”, it stated, “between safeguarding professional positions versus the safety of children and young people. The interests of children have almost invariably been sacrificed.”
So: here many of our institutions are again; caught between the protection of professional positions, and the safety of children and young people. It is to be hoped, in the months ahead, that this time they will make a less comfortable choice of priorities.