Editorial: This report was shocking. But it has lessons for us all

 

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It might have been expected that the first report into Jimmy Savile's long career of sexual abuse would make for difficult reading. But there could be no adequate preparation for the details of the DJ's six decades of manipulation, assault and rape that emerged yesterday from the police and the NSPCC.

Some 450 people have so far made allegations against the entertainer; more than 200 criminal offences have been recorded; the majority of the abuse was perpetrated against girls aged between 13 and 16, but there were victims of both sexes and their ages ranged from eight to 46. Even the report's description of Savile as a "prolific, predatory sex offender" seems hardly sufficient to compass exploitation on such a scale for so long. Nor can the book be closed; in all likelihood, many more who suffered abuse at Savile's hands have still not felt able to come forward.

Turning a blind eye

More disturbing, however, than the twisted behaviour of Savile himself is that such activities were able to continue unchecked for so many years. He abused his victims in any number of supposedly "safe" institutional settings – in hospitals, schools and BBC television studios – apparently without hindrance, sometimes grooming his prospective targets, often simply capitalising on opportunities that arose. The issue, then, is not so much why Savile did what he did, but why he was never stopped. At best, questions were not asked that should have been; at worst, blind eyes were turned.

It is not enough either to fall back on "it was different then" rationalisations or to bemoan the celebrity cachet that allowed so prominent a figure to "hide in plain sight". Such excuses simply do not wash. Rape was still rape, even in the 1960s, when Savile's offences appear to have begun. And no dazzle of fame is so bright as to distract from so many incidents of abuse, over such an extensive period of time.

Institutional failings

With no fewer than 14 hospitals on the list of institutions at which crimes took place, questions will – rightly – be asked about the child protection procedures now in place. But the police and the Crown Prosecution Service have even more explaining to do. The majority of Savile's victims were too intimidated to speak out until accusations of abuse surfaced in a TV documentary after the DJ's death. But there were four complaints made against him, in 2007 and 2009 – and all of them were dropped.

The CPS report on the subject, also published yesterday, may be less immediately stomach-churning than that detailing the vast scope of Savile's predation. But it is no less concerning in its implications. Alison Levitt QC concludes that while there is no evidence of deliberate prejudice, the complaints were treated with unjustifiable caution. Worse still, greater effort to build a case might likely have led to prosecution. Coming just one day after official figures revealed a huge disparity between the number of sexual crimes committed and the number that reach court, such an insight into the failings of the system is all the more poignant.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has apologised for his organisation's shortcomings. He also acknowledges that the authorities' response to sexual abuse allegations must change, tilting the balance back towards the complainant and giving victims more support. The need for a more sophisticated and sympathetic approach to sexual crime is hardly new, though, nor are calls for sexual assault allegations to be more widely shared – the issue rose to prominence in the Soham murders in 2002.

It can only be hoped, then, that the rightful dismay at Savile's activities will now force speedier progress. And while it can only be welcome that the high profile of the Savile scandal has led to a surge in confidence that sexual abuse complaints will be taken seriously, such confidence must be proved to be justified. There is certainly a long way to go. One need look no further than last year's Rochdale "grooming" case – in which nine men were jailed for serial abuse of girls as young as 13 – for evidence of the extent to which archaic attitudes to sexual offences persist. Although police and social services were alerted to the crimes being committed, they concluded the victims were "making their own choices".

A shock to the system

There is a broader point here, too. That such behaviour as Savile's could persist, voracious and unimpeded, for an entire lifetime has significance beyond even the nuts and bolts of child protection and law enforcement. It is also a further shock to Britain's long-held view of itself as a squeaky-clean model of "fair play" liberality. After MPs' expenses, phone hacking, the repeated scandals of police corruption and bad practice, and – now – a "national treasure" exposed as serial rapist and child abuser, such complacency has been left in tatters.

The Savile scandal is a lesson in child protection failure; it is a lesson in institutional inadequacy; it is a lesson in the malign power of social pressure. The only remotely adequate response is to ensure it could never happen again.

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