September has been a cruel month for susceptible and impressionable British children. Well, all months are, but as some truly bad news accreted just after kids in fresh uniforms trotted off back to school, it felt more poignant. Court judgments, an independent report and some interim findings by the Children’s Commissioner revealed serious child abuse, across regions, across all classes and across races.
At Derby Crown Court, eight (mostly white) men were jailed for a total of 52 years for finding, drugging and raping young girls. Presiding Judge John Gosling said the offenders had gone for children to “satisfy middle-aged desires”. Another Crown Court in Reading convicted a gang which lured young girls to “sex-parties”, hotels and backs of cars, to be defiled and filmed. The men were also white and included an HSBC bank manager, Scout leader and soldier in the Household Cavalry. The bank manager was handed a girl of 10 by her own father. This lot went down for an aggregate of 25 years. Then came a report on the Asian men in Rochdale who had picked up, groomed and used white girls, many from troubled or impoverished homes. The children were not believed or protected at all by social workers or the police. Grim stuff. Contrary to current prejudices, we can see that sex predators are not all Asian, but we should not allow that fact to mitigate the sex crimes of Asian rings.
Now out from behind a thicket, come three women who allege that the late Sir Jimmy Savile, he of the twinkling eyes and strange proclivities, sexually despoiled them in his BBC dressing room when they were minors. One of them claims Savile also watched as other celebs molested her. The BBC and police did nothing even as rumours spread of what he was up to.
Let’s be clear, child sex abuse is not the same as child abduction. And it is a child-abduction case that has also gripped us this week: 15-year-old Megan Stammer’s “elopement” to France with Jeremy Forrest, 30, a maths tutor at the Bishop Bell Church of England School in Eastbourne, East Sussex. She is back now and he is being questioned on suspicion of child abduction, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of seven years. But I am troubled by the linkage of what Forrest did with the cases above. We have such a wide range of dissimilar offences against minors, all of which are lumped together in the popular imagination.
A spokesperson for the NSPCC, sounding dejected, recently warned that children were in danger all over the isles and that violations “took different forms and are part of a much bigger picture”. Yes, I understand that, but not that the “different forms” are so many that the definition is crushed through overloading. Grooming, sadistic rings, family sexual terror and paedophile preying are not always the same as cases involving abduction of minors.
Of course, I am not excusing Forrest and his ilk. I think they are wicked and twisted for toying with the minds and hearts of adolescents, inbetweeners, who are trying to find and know themselves as their adult identity emerges. Such cases of teachers are more common than anyone wants to believe; public and state schools skilfully keep the scandals from public scrutiny. The educators betray the trust placed in them by parents and get unacceptably close to boys and girls. Age cannot wither them. In some cases they are excited by dependency, being there as untrained counsellors for self-harmers, suggesting hairdos and clothes, making them the one among hundreds.
We don’t know what happened with Megan. But these risky liaisons are not new. Several adults this week have spoken about relationships with teachers – some even married the men. But the problem is more common and serious today. Victims of business imperatives, cultural shifts and careless politicians, our young ones are sexualised earlier and earlier – and biology seems to conspire with these forces, bringing puberty, for some, at the age of eight. One evening recently at the Victoria & Albert Museum, I came across a crowd of women dressed as Lolitas, a fab new fetish apparently, which I found deeply disturbing. Teen girls advertise alluring images of themselves on Facebook, seemingly beg for it. And adults don’t feel they must retrain themselves.
In the past, educationalists were expected to exercise “moral rectitude” even at university. That has gone. We need to bring back old moral boundaries between teacher and learner. Instead of being protected by schools, the staff room Lotharios should be exposed, put on a register, never be employed in those positions again. However, they are not dangerous in the same way as the sadistic gangs above.
Using children, who sometimes don’t even know what’s going on, is mental and physical brutality; young people willingly drawn into relationships with adults are victims of individual manipulation. We should distinguish the two, talk about them precisely, and come up with more appropriate sanctions.