Opinion: The Savile row – why paedophile scandals continue to haunt society

The stunned response that has crystalised around the proposed inquiries into alleged abuse at public institutions following the broadcast of ITV’s Exposure investigation is perfectly understandable/

Yet after decades of scandal, alarm and outrage, controversy after controversy, following numerous inquiries and reports, and despite the best efforts of huge numbers of dedicated staff, one conclusion is inescapable: Britain has created, in the words of Nick Davies, “an elaborate and sophisticated failure, a child protection system which does not protect children.”

Jimmy Savile was a popular public figure, a man who entertained millions and raised millions for worthy causes. We need to understand not only how he could evade capture and remain undiscovered whilst hiding in plain sight, but more importantly, why did he and those like him commit and continue to commit such terrible crimes?

The BBC’s Mark Easton provides a stark answer:

From the 60s until relatively recently, there existed a pervasive attitude that unwanted sexual advances were an irritant rather than a disciplinary matter or a crime.

Indeed, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and Employment Equality (Sex Discrimination) Regulations 2005 have all advanced wider public attitudes.

David James at WalesOnline agrees. He dispels the conventional perception that the past was a safer place as a myth, suggesting that illegitimate privileges claimed by false authority (such as with the expenses of sleazy politicians, media and Police over phone hacking and bribery and now celebrity scandal, an easily augmented list stretching from bank rate fixing to bike race doping) deserve to be challenged more regularly and robustly.

Suzanne Moore also argues the Savile row is “an exemplar of wider social issues around sexual abuse” – that it is a matter of prevailing cultural attitudes. However she is less convinced that the cycles of abuse have been broken.

One simple overriding fact underscores this analysis: its scale.

According to a 2009 metastudy from the University of Barcelona published in Clinical Psychology Review, more than 1-in-4 adults globally are estimated to be victims of paedophile abuse – that’s about 20% of all women and 8% of all men suffered sexual abuse as children!

In the current population of UK children alone, this calculates as 1.5 million girls and over 500,000 boys, which is statistically consistent with the total estimate of 1.1 million offenders in the UK.

The highest recorded figure is for South Africa, with a victim prevalence rate for women of 43.7% and for men of 60.9% – a truly shocking number figure which cannot possibly be separated from the cultural history of apartheid in that nation. Other countries recording notably high levels of abuse for both males and females include Tanzania, Israel, Australia and Costa Rica, each with their own darker recent histories of social inequality and repression.

It is easy to see how, on a deeper level, public interest in the Savile case reflects not just his defamed celebrity, but that he has become an avatar for huge numbers of victims to project their own pent up experiences of suffering. The demonisation of a once-lionised disc jockey reflects the parallel disgust at our national culture which elevated him and allowed those like him to prey on so many.

Ultimately sexual abuse in society says much about the state of sexual attitudes within that society. Because sexual abuse is abuse of power, the dysfunctional relationship it represents between individuals also directly reflects the level of dysfunctionality in the relationship between the state and the individual.

So if this or any other country is to successfully address the problem of sexual abuse once and for all, it will only be possible if we are to develop more open, engaged and responsible relationships based more closely on the principle of equality.

* Oranjepan is a regular commenter and party member who can be found swinging between different branches of the organisation, albeit just above ground level.

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5 Comments

  • “According to a 2009 metastudy from the University of Barcelona published in Clinical Psychology Review, more than 1-in-4 adults globally are estimated to be victims of paedophile abuse – that’s about 20% of all women and 8% of all men suffered sexual abuse as children!”

    Maths isn’t their strong point then. Either that or the person reading the article misinterpreted their results.

    “In the current population of UK children alone, this calculates as 1.5 million girls and over 500,000 boys, which is statistically consistent with the total estimate of 1.1 million offenders in the UK.”

    Why is it consistent? Does the average paedophile abuse around two children? Where did this come from?

    “The highest recorded figure is for South Africa, with a victim prevalence rate for women of 43.7% and for men of 60.9% – a truly shocking number figure which cannot possibly be separated from the cultural history of apartheid in that nation”

    Why would apartheid create a higher incidence of child abuse? I don’t follow. You don’t state a reason for this assertion.

    Anyway, getting back to “an elaborate and sophisticated failure, a child protection system which does not protect children.”. The child protection system was put in place AFTER Savile committed at least the vast majority of his crimes, so how does it prove that it failed? Savile required the collusion of thousands of individuals who were not prepared not to raise the alarm or who were prepared to dismiss allegations against him. He found those thousands of people in the tabloids, the BBC, the police, parliament, the medical profession and the church. He carefully selected and crawled to people with power and abused those without. Savile would find it very difficult to get away with his crimes today as a result of the increased legislation and vigilence. We should be very wary of those that now attack the legislation and procedures put in place to protect children.

  • “more than 1-in-4 adults globally are estimated to be victims of paedophile abuse – that’s about 20% of all women and 8% of all men suffered sexual abuse as children!”

    You need to check your arithmetic.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Oct '12 - 10:53am

    Yes, there is a great reluctance to accept there was a period from the 1960s until not that long ago when the freedom to be more open about sex and more free in its practice had not been met by a realisation that unwanted sexual advances, particularly from people in position of power to those too young to know how to refuse them, can be very damaging psychologically. Sex with children might be put forward as something “liberating” for the children concerned, and rape dismissed as “if it is inevitable, lie back and enjoy it”. Those words I have just quoted I remember being used as a throwaway comment supposed to be humorous on a BBC television programme broadcast in mid-evening and uttered by a popular entertainer. Were this to happen now it would be end of career for the entertainer, but then it went without comment. One might consider also the “Oz trial”, held up as a great landmark for freedom, but it was about material some of which was of a paedophile nature.

    I am not saying that this sort of thing started then. In fact there is plenty of evidence that child sexual abuse was commonplace before the sexual revolution. The sexual revolution simply led to a period when some of those engaged in it felt free to be almost open about it. Jimmy Savile seems to have been part of it – we have had accounts of him openly boasting about it early in his career, in fact it seems to have been commonplace in the entertainment world. In some ways he seems to have remained stuck in the late 1960s early 1970s mentality, just as he carried in with the big cigar image long after smoking had become seen as unacceptable for anyone who wanted to promote a wholesome image, and certainly not something an entertainer oriented towards work with children would make part of his public image.

    When this sort of thing was identified as happening in the Catholic Church, we went through a big period of Catholic-bashing, with it being put around that there was something unique about the Catholic Church that led to it, and Catholic officials who did not recognise its seriousness and so just moved on offenders rather than informing the police were highlighted as particularly bad people behaving in a way that no-one else would. It is somewhat ironic that we now see a similar culture existed in the BBC when it was the BBC which took the lead in producing and broadcasting documentaries which attacked the Catholic Church for it.

    I suspect we will find that most big organisations responsible for staff who had contact with children behaved in a similar way at the time.

  • Steve & Ed,
    28% of all people suffered sexual abuse in childhood, that’s the shocking fact, and according to anyone’s maths and arithmetic does amount to ‘more than 1-in-4′.

    This is the fourth comment on this post, so the statistic implies that one of us is likely to have suffered a paedophile attack.

    Steve,
    thanks for responding – the post argues that power inequalities create abusive power relationships, specifically in regard to sexual relationships, that the scale and type of abuse is a measure of the forms of inequality promoted through that society and therefore to eliminate abuse we must eliminate inequality.

    Power inequality can manifest itself in many forms, as I hope I is implied by highlighting those very different nations with the largest problems – inequality in Australia is very different from inequality in Israel or Costa Rica.

    It is also incorrect to say that there has ever been a complete break in the UK’s system of protecting children, least of all because there is a general continuity of workforce. As the law evolves, so do practises. To say a system is ‘put in place’ is to say completely new responsibilities have been imposed out of nowhere from on high, which just isn’t how things work.

    That is a false view of society – culture rarely changes fully overnight – and it is that false cultural view which shirks responsibility that I say must change.

  • Matthew,
    the downside of sexual liberation was that it wasn’t equally liberating. As a result it was easily twisted to reinforce existing power imbalances and inequalities to justify new oppressive behaviour – the pill is a great example, instead of giving women free choice over their reproductivity and sexual activity too often it ceded that choice to men.

    Power inequality still exists across our culture, and we can see how it manifests itself in the scandals we get outraged about. Scandals continue to haunt us because inequality still exists.

    So I don’t suspect most big organisations to be able to discover they had problems, I expect it

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