Claire Fox: Can we calm down about child abuse?

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The Independent Online

Jimmy Savile was a repulsive individual who indulged in vile, abusive acts. On that we can all agree. But what is less a matter of consensus is how we should respond to the scandal. When I argued on Newsnight this week that we need some calm reflection and that the whole of society should not be reorganised around child protection, I was accused of everything from being a BBC stooge to a callous apologist for paedophilia.

While I am fair game, more worrying is the way, when it comes to difficult issues, especially involving children, opposition to a prevailing and escalating panic is stifled.

Surely only a monster could oppose policies designed to protect children from abuse? Yet the highly emotive issue of child abuse has, over recent years, led to unhealthy and draconian laws, the inflation of risk in society and the creation of intergenerational mistrust.

We should be wary of rushing headlong into more of the same.

We might want to take a deep breath before endorsing calls for mandatory reporting or David Cameron's announcement that authorities be alerted where there are "concerns" (but not enough proof to prosecute), under the auspices of "something must be done". This could result in a dangerous abuse of the rule of law and an invitation to the criminal justice system to treat rumour as fact.

If we insist, as some do in the wake of Savile, that all allegations have to be acted on because all victims must be believed, how then to distinguish between malevolent false accusations from those which can stand the test of evidence and jury? As many teachers know to their cost, the threat of "I'll say you touched me" can have a chilling effect. In truth, many child protection instruments actually fuel mistrust, and add to already over-burdened services. Reorganising services around a heightened sense of child protection has already proven damaging over recent years. The state's response to the tragic murder of 8-year-old Victoria Climbie was the total reorganisation of Child Protection from a targeted service aimed at a small group of children "at risk of significant harm", to making ALL services relating to ALL children adopt child safety as a central concern. Not only has state-vetting of adults been recognised as undermining and demonising volunteers, teachers, lollipop ladies, sports coaches etc, as well as being a bureaucratic nightmare, they are also unhelpful in stopping abuse.

After all, they would have been ineffective in highlighting Ian Huntley or indeed Jimmy Savile.

The argument that Savile was typical; that child-abuse if rife; that your friendly family entertainer or hospital charity worker could well be a predator is profoundly problematic.

Let us avoid deepening this atmosphere of suspicion with endless fear-fuelled inquires and regulations which can only encourage paranoia, often at the children's expense. Surely it is tragic for children that adults feel impotent when they see a child in trouble?

Savile is dead, but we risk using his ghost to magnify fears out of all proportion. We owe it to the young, and each other, to challenge this particular "panic attack" before it does any more damage.