spotlight on abuse: the past on trial

There are two things you can guarantee when sexual abuse of children surfaces as an issue. The first is that certain media commentators start talking about mob hysteria and witchhunts (Iain Martin – Telegraph, Matthew Parris – Times, Charles Moore – Telegraph, David Aaronovitch – Times). The second is they smear the messenger.
Prosecuting celebrity offenders was a witchhunt they told us. Until Stuart Hall, Max Clifford and Rolf Harris were exposed in all their unloveliness. Now they are turning their denial laser on suggestions there may have been a paedophile cover up in Westminster. All based – they suggest – on the unreliable testimony of one oddball MP Geoffrey Dickens.
Picking off whistleblowers is an old tactic and easy to do. As American child abuse expert Roland Summit said “It takes an eccentric, potentially alienated personality style to override the shared reassurances of more comfortably socialized peers”…… the eccentric, unsocialized outsider ….. pursues the nagging suspicion that the authorities could be wrong.”
When I wrote in the early 1990s to an ex-University colleague, an ultra-respectable MP, asking for help with exposing child abuse injustices I had a sniffy response indicating he would not touch such matters and directing me to Geoffrey Dickens. Dickens was the go-to guy for child sexual abuse because everyone else regarded it as toxic and non-career friendly. How right (and cowardly) they were. His house was broken into, he was threatened and smeared, his suspicions discounted, buried, deleted. He had the guts to stick to his guns despite the personal cost
The difference now thirty years on is that it isn’t just Dickens’ voice we hear. We have former child protection officers, former policemen, customs officials, all of whom were told to forget what they had found. We have Norman Tebbit and other politicos admitting there was a cover up. We know about Cyril Smith who was outed in 1979 and zero happened as a result. And others like Morrison and Hayman; and daily more creep into the headlines. We know the Welsh Care Home Inquiry did not itemise names because criminal prosecutions might follow. That was in 2000. No prosecutions transpired.
So why do commentators rattle on about witchhunts? Reasons will vary between:
1. They need to stand out as different in a media saturated internet so taking the contrarian line makes them more visible.
2. They have not done their research so cling firmly to the old more comfortable narrative – child sexual abuse is largely a fiction brewed up by misguided doctors, social workers, feminists. See Charles Moore (Telegraph: Thatcher’s biographer) on Cleveland as being an example of false diagnosis of abuse. 70 to 75% accurate is the true picture.
3. They are being prodded by or are part of the old ‘chumocracy’ who think it best to let sleeping dogs lie.
Andrew Rawnsley has a much more measured piece in today’s Guardian commenting on VIP paedophiles in Westminster “ we can’t put it all down to over-fevered imaginations”. Rawnsley puts his finger on one reason the whole present scenario is so unnerving is that it chips away yet another foundation stone of public trust. For some it is a step too far. They would rather prop up the rotten house of cards than face the truth lest the entire edifice tumbles down.
But attitudes out in society at large have changed and ordinary people now have a voice. One reader’s comment below a witchhunt commentary piece said what a pity there had not been more hysteria before and we might have stopped Savile, Smith etc.
A society having to come to terms with unpleasant truths such as child sexual abuse does not follow a straightforward path. The pendulum swings wildly between the new knowledge and denial. Those who whistleblow threaten the status quo and need to be destroyed. Not only will they undermine great institutions, they also undermine the peace of mind of those individuals living in a delusional bubble where abuse does not exist.
Conspiracy theories and hysteria flourish where there is secrecy. The one sure-fire way to sort out fact from fiction is to drag the truth into the open. False allegations are a tiny problem in this area but they will also benefit from an atmosphere of transparency. Where genuine abuse has been denied and discounted, then the truly innocent stand much less chance of being believed.
Two final thoughts. Ross Cheit has written a meticulously researched book “The Witchhunt Narrative” looking at why this very effective smear, turning child abuse into a fiction, became such a driving social force in the 1980s and 1990s.
The other is my paper: “The Vital Lie”. Why Society Blanks Abuse.
Marjorie Orr
Accuracy About Abuse

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