After Savile, we must devote our energies to stopping child abuse taking place right now

Ongoing inquiries into decades-past events can only achieve so much

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The Independent Online

From the perspective of 2015, the very idea that a prolific sexual predator was ever free to roam pretty much every hospital in the land, but most frequently the very hospital that his money was helping to fund, quite simply beggars belief.

That this individual should also have been one of the most immediately recognisable characters in the country, thanks to his distinctive blond hair-do and his television shows, and had the freedom of the hospital estate for fully two decades, only compounds the incredulity. Rarely has the expression “hiding in plain sight” seemed more apt.

It wasn’t that people did not know. It turns out - from the reports published yesterday - that a lot of people knew, and not just those children and young women we now hover between calling “victims” and “survivors”. But two considerations stopped anyone doing anything about it.

The first was the money that Savile shovelled towards his favoured causes, prime among them the spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville hospital, which he pretty much single-handedly put on the map. “Remember, he’s a big benefactor,” seemed to be the refrain. No one with the power to do anything wanted to be responsible for sounding an alarm that might lead the source of cash and fame to run dry.

The second consideration, which was at least as significant in militating against action, was the culture of the times. Child abuse, especially sexual abuse, was not talked about. It was routinely denied at every level from the family to public institutions and private corporations. Sexual harassment, let alone abuse, is now a heinous offence.

In part, yes, those children who complained about Savile were simply not believed, presumably because of the mismatch between the “good” Savile and the “bad” Savile. Those who were believed tended to be advised to make themselves scarce or keep quiet. But Savile, like many abusers, targeted those least likely to challenge him; those who, by virtue of their age, their illness or their disability, would offer least resistance.

The latest reports - with more on the horizon - are confidently expected to coax others out of perhaps decades of silence. And with more survivors will come ever more accounts of lives blighted by sexual abuse; ever more phalanxes of lawyers to couch those accusations in official language, and ever more claims against such behemoths as the NHS and the BBC that are deemed both to have shown negligence and to be capable of paying.

 

Forgive me, but after a good few years of all this, I have lost count of how many inquiries are already in train - or the latest tally of victim/survivors. I do recall, though, that when the Home Secretary named the latest chair of what is now a statutory inquiry into historical child sexual abuse - her third attempt to find someone who was enough of an outsider to carry conviction, while being enough of an insider to possess the necessary credentials - she had had to extend her search halfway round the globe, and the latest estimate suggests the numbers of victims will go into many thousands.

Does this really make sense? Well, I am sorry, but I don’t think it does. We know now that beneath his bizarre exterior Jimmy Savile concealed debased intent. We know that he hurt many people, even as he pursued his charitable works. We also know that many more children were harmed by sexual abuse than was imagined, even a decade ago. Social mores in today’s Britain are now very different. Sexual predators are still with us, and probably ever will be, but it would be much harder for someone to combine Savile’s two identities and get away with it for anything like as long as he did.

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Saville in 2006, before the truth came out

There is still room for improvement, of course. As was said yesterday, there are still gaps in hospital security that abusers will know how to squeeze through. A senior doctor was recently convicted of paedophilia at a premier Cambridge hospital over many years. A tutor at the Guildhall School of Music was recently found guilty of raping young women in practice rooms. Where there are opportunities, the perverted will seize them - and create more, as they can.

But is it not time, perhaps, to adopt something akin to a “statute of limitation” on “historical” sexual abuse, admit that some very bad things have happened, encourage as many apologies as are needed, and concentrate instead on the sexual crimes against children that are still going on? How many lawyers will be tied up in the ... inquiry? How many police are employed to comb through statements going back 30, 40 years, and still coming in? How much money is being spent to make us feel bad about ourselves looking back, rather than trying to protect the children who are at risk today and tomorrow?

Of course, some villains will have “got away with it”. But how edifying, and how useful, is it really to see 70 and 80 year-old men go to prison? The number of children in care groomed by gangs in Rochdale, Rotherham and elsewhere illustrates the scale of the problem in the here and now. It is time to recognise that “historical abuse” reflects in large part different times. The money, the police and the lawyers should be directed to the here and now.

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