What has been learnt from the recent allegations of sexual abuse and from the investigations and court cases arising from the disclosures? And what more can we learn?
We suspect that professionals have not learnt a lot. They already knew that all sorts of people abuse children. We are decades away from the image of an abuser being a stranger in a dirty old mac. We know that there are abusers in every profession and type of job, and at all levels in society, and it is no surprise that some are in high places. Some abusers may be strange people, but many are popular, good at socialising, intelligent and successful, and to find out that particular individuals have abused children can be a shock. This is partly because abusing children does not fit with their image and it seems out of character; it is also partly because there may be no specific indicators of their abusive nature until allegations are made.
That abusers can be like this was known to professionals before the recent crop of allegations, but it was not generally an accepted part of the public’s image of abusers. Jimmy Savile made a point of being individualistic, and people accepted the allegations, though their scale was a surprise. But to find that the jocular avuncular Rolf Harris was also an abuser of children came as a real shock. Accepting the fact meant a realisation that all sorts of well-known people could be abusers, without the public knowing.
It should be noted, though, that in some cases celebrities have been found not guilty by juries. This may mean that they were wrongly accused and their characters should be cleared of any blame, or that the evidence was not sufficiently persuasive, and that the victims are left to suffer further, through being disbelieved.
In our view these cases have been a milestone, and the most significant change has been in public attitudes. Broadly speaking, in the past it was unthinkable that clergy, members of parliament or celebrities would sexually abuse children and young people. Because it was unthinkable, victims felt it was pointless to report offences; they would not be believed. Indeed, some abusers have been explicit in telling their victims. So the abuse carried on.
Now, offending on the part of public figures is no longer unthinkable. The numbers of victims coming forward, often independently alleging similar patterns of behaviour on the part of the abusers, have proved compelling. All sorts of senior figures are seen to have misused the trust that was placed in them and abused children and young people under their influence. The bubble has burst. The eyes of the general public have been opened; in future parents will be more alert to the possibility of abuse, children may feel more able to speak up, and they are more likely to be believed.
There remains a high degree of suspicion on the part of the public that victims make their allegations in the hope of damages or possibly publicity, but the sheer number of people making allegations and the quality of their evidence may swing people round to believe them. Giving evidence under cross-examination and reliving the abuse can be gruelling, and by and large the public’s suspicions are unfair.
Looking to the future, it is possible, as a result of the changes in public attitudes, that abusers may not take the same degree of risk, but it would be nonsensical to think that abuse can be stopped entirely. It is reasonable, though, to think that victims may speak up sooner and that we may latch onto it sooner, and thus protect subsequent possible victims by prompt action.
The second main point which has become apparent is that sexual abuse concerns power. Some people are clearly in positions of authority, but power is often exercised more subtly. A celebrity who is trusted by the public because of his image has power, and may misuse it by abusing children who trust them – and whose parents trust them.
But once it is accepted that victims will speak up – maybe not immediately, but at some point – abusers know that there is a strong possibility that their abuse may be disclosed, and that the victims may well be believed. In this way they may lose power over the victims – that is, if they think about the possible consequences of their actions.
What has not yet sunk in on the public, we suspect, is that this misuse of power is more widespread than people like to think. It is true of people who are not celebrities, but have power at local level such as teachers, clergy, choirmasters or club leaders. It is true of older relatives who can force themselves onto younger members of the family.
For the public it may perhaps be even more shocking – and not yet accepted – that a large percentage of sexual abuse is perpetrated by peers – sometimes in gangs, sometimes with others at school, and sometimes within the family. This is not a question of consensual sexual experimentation by two young people. It is the use of power by an older or more assertive young person, sexually abusing a younger or more vulnerable child against their will.
The next area for public exposure is the extent to which there have been positive attempts to cover up the abuse by people in positions of power who may have been, but were not necessarily, involved in the abuse themselves. They were the people who dismissed complaints about Jimmy Savile, for example, or the bishops who moved abusing priests to new parishes, and we have yet to learn to what extent the police and other investigative agencies were told to back off in inquiring into other abuse.
What we will need to learn is the process by which a senior person who is not an abuser is sucked into defending and concealing something they know is against the law and which they themselves would not do.
Without minimising the impact of the abuse or dismissing the need to take action, we have to maintain a sense of proportion. There are thankfully many people in positions of power and authority who do not abuse children and who do not cover up abuse. The current spate of allegations calls for action, but not panic.
As a community we have learnt a lot, but there is more still to learn. And because human nature is fallible, abuse will continue, but if we apply the lessons learnt, it should at least be minimised.