So the strand of Operation Yewtree investigating abuse by Jimmy Savile has been completed, with the number of alleged victims believed to be over 500. One thing is clear from this saga: if the legacy of the scandal is worth anything at all, it must lead us to a multi-lateral commitment to bring those responsible for past and current child abuse cases to justice - and to do what we can to prevent them from occurring in the future. And to do this it will be necessary to pool the findings of Yewtree and the various other ongoing public inquiries to inform change at every level of society.
In my role as a claims lawyer for child abuse victims, who is used to confronting such issues every day, even I could not have foreseen the tidal wave of potential cases that have come to light in recent weeks, since public awareness of the scandal surrounding the late Jimmy Savile first took hold. In the space of one month, our firm has seen approaches from child abuse claimants increase three-fold, and we are not alone. Charities such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) have been inundated with calls from people who had long since given up believing that their suffering would ever be known or listened to.
As a supporter of the Stop Church Child Abuse campaign, it is good to report that heightened public awareness of child abuse is already having a positive effect.
But to succeed in turning Savile’s legacy into a force for good, despite the negative experiences of the many survivors, society as a whole needs to start listening to some home truths. Much as we may like to view Savile’s actions as those of a twisted and peculiar individual who happens to be a paedophile, we must make sure that child abuse is treated as a mainstream issue that needs to be addressed by professionals in all relevant oragnisations, from those looking after children in care homes to the police force.
The cases at Broadmoor Hospital and Stoke Mandeville, which the second ITV Savile documentary focused on, demonstrate this. One of the most distressing elements of the whole scandal is that many people had opportunities to expose Savile for who he really was. Instead, they dismissed any suspicions, allowing him to continue his abuse. If, as has tragically been discovered from the Savile revelations, it is subsequently shown that those leading some of our most influential organisations were guilty of turning a blind eye to claims of real suffering in order to protect reputations, they must be held to account.
Above all, It is vital that learnings from all branches of the investigation are properly recognised and acted upon in order to stamp out child abuse. One of the best places to start is to step up resources for children in care to ensure they are protected from abuse in the future and their needs are met by well-trained, professional staff. We also need to increase training for judges, lawyers, police officers and teachers to ensure they are equipped to handle these sensitive cases appropriately and fairly.
Public awareness is one thing, but Savile’s legacy must count for much more than this if we are going to stop abuse from happening in the future.
Jonathan Wheeler is a personal injury partner at Bolt Burdon Kemp and acts on behalf of victims of child abuse.