Joan Smith: We can't blame a Nazi link for our own abuse case

Sunday 30 November 2008 01:00
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Earlier this year, an Austrian woman told astonished officials that her father had imprisoned her in a cellar for 24 years, repeatedly raped her and made her pregnant with eight children. As many older Austrians were enthusiastic Nazis, commentators were quick to assume that Josef Fritzl's behaviour shone fresh light on wounds in the national psyche.

Fritzl himself seized on this explanation, as did the international media. The Sun reported that Hitler "had been given a rapturous welcome in Fritzl's home town of Amstetten when he visited in 1938, around the time of the cellar fiend's third birthday".

It's not hard to see why the theory caught the imagination of journalists, especially in a country where another young woman, Natascha Kampusch, was kidnapped and held prisoner for years. But such cases are not unique to Austria, as a series of dreadful paedophiles crimes in Belgium has shown.

And last week, a trial ended in Sheffield which not only had parallels with the Fritzl case but was arguably worse: the perpetrator raped two of his daughters over a period of 25 years, making them pregnant on 19 occasions. He didn't even bother locking them up to conceal his crimes.

An inquiry is under way to establish why the authorities failed to establish that the man was raping and torturing his daughters. They arrived at school with visible evidence of abuse; their brother says he told police about the incest; one of the women phoned a helpline; doctors noticed genetic defects suggesting the children were being fathered by a close relative.

British newspapers have been incredulous in their reaction, with the Daily Mail assuming its customary role as scourge of the authorities. It is right in one respect: the failure to protect vulnerable women over such a long period is a scandal of monstrous proportions. But there's no convenient Nazi link to explain the man's behaviour, and it's not immediately obvious that the case tells us anything about the British psyche.

What I do know is that it took place against a background of denial about the crime of rape which has been enthusiastically promoted by popular newspapers in this country. The Daily Mail is the cheerleader in a campaign to persuade us that there's an epidemic of false rape claims, sympathetically interviewing men who have been acquitted and creating the perverse impression that they are the principal victims of our rape laws.

The truth is the exact opposite: 19 out of 20 rapes reported to the police fail to result in a conviction, despite the absence of any evidence for high rates of false reporting. In such a climate, who in authority is going to risk a career by insisting that an apparently respectable father appears to be raping his daughters?

The Soham murderer, Ian Huntley, was another beneficiary of this culture of disbelief, raping women with impunity even though an alert police officer recognised him as "a serial sex attacker". Huntley was never tried for rape, got a job as a school caretaker and went on to kill two girls.

The UK's record of prosecuting and punishing rapists is much worse than that of most European countries, with the exception of Ireland. In Finland, Germany, Hungary and Iceland, most recent rape prosecutions resulted in convictions; even in Austria, the prosecution rate is considerably higher.

There are two lessons here. One is about the danger of succumbing to national stereotypes. The other is that rapists in Britain will go unpunished as long as the media promote the myth that women who say they have been raped are liars.

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