Had the broadcaster Stuart Hall been in any doubt that he got off lightly after admitting 14 charges of indecent assault, he would have known better by the end of last week. The 15-month sentence he was given on Monday reflected the law, and the assumptions, of the period in the 1960s and 1970s when he began abusing children and teenagers. Four days later, Jeremy Forrest, the maths teacher found guilty of abducting an under-age girl, got five and a half years in total for that offence and five more (which he admitted) of sexual activity with a child.
Forrest targeted the girl when she was one of his pupils at a school in Eastbourne, East Sussex, and began having sex with her shortly after her 15th birthday. He was a married man of 30, perfectly able to calculate the likely consequences of the relationship. The teenager had neither the experience nor the maturity to work out the cost of an unequal relationship with an older man. Whatever she feels at the moment, she may see events in a different light when she looks back on having sex in cars and in the grounds of a crematorium with someone twice her age; I find it hard to regard an adult who exchanges explicit photos with an under-age girl and kisses her in his classroom as anything other than a shameless predator. That was the view of the judge, who said that Forrest's research into what would happen if he were caught was proof of "the deliberate nature of your behaviour".
Both Forrest and Hall were sentenced for multiple offences, committed decades apart. Although one of Hall's victims was only nine, the maximum sentence for most of his offences at the time he committed them was either two or five years in prison. Now it's 10, reflecting a shift in the way the criminal justice system regards them. His crimes came to light as a result of the investigation into Jimmy Savile, who (like Hall) used his fame and position to get access to victims. Indecent assault and sex with under-age children were crimes in those days as well, but it's clear that some men believed the law didn't apply to them. The late John Peel actually boasted in newspaper interviews about girls as young as 13 queuing up outside his studio to have sex with him.
Teachers aren't celebrities but schools can become microcosms where some individuals consciously cultivate status. Forrest's friends and family described him as a "talented and inspirational" teacher, but that kind of talent can easily be exploited. His victim's messages of continuing love suggest that he created a romantic fantasy which hasn't yet relinquished its hold, but prosecutors regard him as a narcissistic abuser. The fact that he didn't even bother to use contraception every time he had sex with the teenager speaks volumes about his character; this is a sordid story of exploitation, not love.