There is hope in how child abuse has been exposed

The process is flawed, but at least those who suffered are finally being heard
Theresa May
Theresa May has said her inquiry into child sex abuse is ‘a once in a lifetime opportunity’ to address recent scandals. Photograph: Reuters

There are two dangerous ways of looking at the attempts of Britain to come to terms with its buried history of child sex abuse: the conspiratorial and the despairing. They are not as far apart as they seem.
I can see why the victims of child abuse – of “child rape” as it is better called – are on edge. In their place I’d be losing my bearings too. Theresa May says that her inquiry into child abuse cases from 1970 on was “a once in a lifetime opportunity” to examine the scandals in Westminster, the BBC, children’s homes, churches and the NHS. If it is the last best chance to confront the past, Ms May has a funny way of taking it.
Astute readers may already be asking: why only examine abuse cases from after 1970? It might be worth knowing that 1970 was the year the Home Office transferred control of its children’s homes to the Department of Health. Whatever the inquiry finds, it cannot embarrass May’s department. No wonder admiring colleagues see her as a future leader of the Conservative party.
To the disillusioned mind, her choice of investigators to sit on the independent panel inquiry into child sex abuse is as suspicious. May appointed Elizabeth Butler-Sloss to chair it. She was a distinguished lord justice of appeal. Unfortunately, she was also the sister of Michael Havers, a Conservative attorney general in the 1980s, when victims allege the legal system was burying scandals.
Her successor, Fiona Woolf, is an equally distinguished lawyer. Unfortunately again, the British establishment is a small world, and Ms Woolf was a friend and neighbour of Leon Brittan, home secretary when the Home Office received and lost a dossier on allegedly high-profile abusers raping children.
With both women gone, the proposed inquiry now has no one to chair it. As my colleague Daniel Boffey reports, victims remain wary about two of the remaining panel members who will advise, when and if May can find a chair who will last more than five minutes.
Barbara Hearn has a conflict of interest. She is a former deputy chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, a charity that became notorious in the 1990s, after the police raided the home of its consultant, Peter Righton, and found letters between him and teachers, artists, aristocrats and clerics that discussed the abuse of hundreds of boys.
Another member, Graham Wilmer, admits having a man who was later convicted for possessing child pornography as a lodger. No one who lets out a room is accountable for their tenant’s crimes. And the admission would matter less if Mr Wilmer had not sent vaguely menacing emails to one of the victims presenting evidence to the Home Office.
The whole business appears hopeless. Accusations of child rape ensnare so many individuals and besmirch the reputations of so many institutions, it is hard to find a competent investigator whose integrity the paranoid – or perhaps not-so paranoid – cannot question. Added to that, you might continue, a few accusations they will hear will be fantasies, false allegations of satanic child abuse in the 1990s, pumped up by evangelical Christians eager to believe that the devil was stalking the streets, setting back the cause of child protection by a generation. In any event, the dismal fact that abuse has gone unexamined and unpunished for so long becomes, paradoxically, a reason for ignoring it.
Every time an old Radio 1 disc jockey is on trial for harassing women you can rely on pundits to invite us to despair. No one can know the truth, they say. It was all long, long ago. This is too hard. Forget it. They forget that social advances are always hard. The past’s ways of doing business always seems reliable for no better reason than that they have been followed for so long. Change brings causalities – for all anyone knows, Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, Fiona Woolf, Barbara Hearn and Graham Wilmer would have conducted an exemplary inquiry.
But look at the benefits. Abuse scandals have overwhelmingly hit hierarchical institutions, which elevate and protect the priest, celebrity, teacher, Socialist Worker party leader or Westminster politician. These are men who demanded and expected obedience.
The feminist campaigner Julie Bindel, who has done more to help rape victims than any writer I know, sees no difference between men who rape children and men who rape adults, and I agree. Give them the power to exploit their victims and ensure their silence and, like Jimmy Savile, they will rape both.
The failure to understand power explained the unnecessary handwringing about whether it was racist to say that the men exploiting girls in Rotherham were from Pakistani backgrounds. As Home Office investigators testified, public officials warned them off by accusing them of being racially insensitive and sending them on diversity awareness courses as a punishment.
In other places, white men with power, including power over their families, were abusing. But our warped version of multiculturalism ensured that at that place and in that time Pakistani men had the advantage. Now maybe they won’t. As you survey the wave of scandals, you might think that there are many other reasons to oppose, say, organised religion. But you should acknowledge that it was inquiries into child abuse that humbled the Catholic church, not atheist critiques. There and elsewhere, they have levelled pyramids of power, made repeat offending less likely and opened closed organisations.
However severely he is tempted, only the most stupid manager, bishop or chief constable will cover up sexual abuse today. I am not saying that such stupidity among the powerful will not continue – like the poor it is always with us – but the example of the BBC and the Catholic episcopacy will haunt the rest. The editor of Newsnight, who banned the revelation of Savile’s crimes, or the bishops, who moved priests to new parishes, thought they were protecting their institutions. They could not have done them more damage.
In cases of rape, it is glib to say that “the cover-up is worse than the crime”. But, once revealed, cover-ups attest to the truth of criminal accusations and make a reckoning inevitable Finally, and I am sorry if this is cheesy, you only have to listen to the men and women attacked by Jimmy Savile or Cyril Smith to know the exposés are worthwhile.
Their assailants may be dead, but at least the victims will never hear them praised again. They have received a kind of justice. As more get it, we will move slowly, messily and, I accept, often hysterically towards a better future.

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