David Pilgrim is Professor of Health and Social Policy at the University of Liverpool
“Most of the media attention about the recent case of Jimmy Savile has understandably dwelt on his personality, and the plight of his alleged victims. Generally, cases of child abuse discussed publicly hold that focus for us. The sinister perpetrator and the wronged and distressed victim loom large.
This is understandable because it is the immediate ‘human face’ of a form of abuse, which is also a crime. However, looking at the bigger picture, we can find factors which are more important to consider if we want to learn lessons, and protect children in the future.
We know quite a lot now about that bigger picture of child abuse. Physical abuse is commoner in poor families but this is not the case with sexual abuse. And so if we are to look beyond poverty as a single explanation for child abuse, we can see why personal factors – especially about the perverted character of perpetrators – are so hypnotic.
Most child abuse (and murder) occurs in families. ‘Stranger danger’ of both sorts is statistically rare. What is less rare though is abuse at the hands of adults in authority, who groom children outside of the home. CRB checks have been one response to the fact that paedophiles will and do seek situations to exploit.
The narrow focus on the character of the sexual predator was obvious, when revelations about child abuse in the Catholic Church began to appear all over the world. ‘Paedophile priests’ became the main theme in public debates and media reporting. But there were problems with this single focus. For a start, the abuse of girls in Catholic settings overwhelmingly was at the hands of nuns, not priests.
The first lesson about the bigger picture then was that segregating children by gender was going to affect who was victimised by whom. Moreover, the great bulk of this abuse, of both boys and girls, took place in isolated settings. Within that physical isolation, further privacy was a necessary condition for abuse.
And when we look at the culture of Catholic settings, the authority of priests and nuns was considered to be beyond reproach by families and the police. Catholic families venerated religious staff and were not likely to suspect them of bad deeds. (Celibacy in particular signals purity not danger.) For the children themselves, priests and nuns were God’s representatives on earth and so this placed a particular pressure on victims to accept their lot.
Another lesson to transfer from the case of religious abuse to other settings is about cultural isolation. Many religious abusers had never been exposed to wider social settings. Some of them had joined holy orders themselves when teenagers and so they knew no other adult life. The power relationship between adults and children was taken for granted and victim blaming was easy.
When cultures become isolated, then offensive habits can emerge, which are simply accepted as normal in daily life. And finally, many of the children abused were already considered to be ‘moral dirt’ by those in authority – wayward delinquent boys and pregnant girls. Some had learning or sensory disabilities. Their credibility was already in doubt and reports of mistreatment could be readily dismissed.
We can see then, that beyond Jimmy Savile and his victims, there were parallels about context. Some of the girls were in an Approved School setting. The culture of professional light entertainment was (apparently until quite recently) lax and lewd, with women staff, not just visiting children, being treated with contempt by senior males.
Ordinary young fans would be in awe of celebrities, who were just one step removed from adored pop artists. Parents trusted that their children were safe in the settings of large respectable institutions like the BBC. The rabbit warren of dressing rooms allowed privacy for star presenters and their invited guests.
Context of abuse
Thus, if we are to reduce the risks to children of abuse outside of the home, it would be unwise just to focus on the personal dishonesty and malevolence of perpetrators. Sadly, we may need to accept that a small number of men in society will always criminally abuse women and children, without remorse or guilt.
Dealing with them after the dreadful has happened is important, in order to deliver justice for victims. But it will not prevent new cases of abuse. It is only by looking to change the context of abuse that we will find new ways of reducing risk.
The different forms of isolation noted above should be warning signs for policy makers. Physical and cultural isolation, and the expectation that some people with power will always try to exploit the powerless, should be our starting point for that policy debate.”