Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond.

2632 words

Dirty big secrets

6 April 2015

A spate of disclosures of child sexual abuse sets a challenging test for British society, writes David Hayes in London

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Long, challenging and complex inquiry: New Zealand High Court judge Lowell Goddard will investigate child sexual abuse allegations in Britain. Jack Taylor/AFP Photo

Long, challenging and complex inquiry: New Zealand High Court judge Lowell Goddard will investigate child sexual abuse allegations in Britain. Jack Taylor/AFP Photo


Each family has a secret, the wry dramatist Alan Bennett once wrote, and the secret is that it’s not like any other family. It’s the sort of observation, particularly when enunciated in Bennett’s gentle, knowing west Yorkshire accent in the context of one of his lightly melancholy yet benign and comforting memoirs, that has critics reaching instinctively for the phrase “quintessentially English.” Even its nod to Tolstoy’s famous remark about every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way adds a confiding twist of domestication.

The singular, private, interior world that nurtures us also connects us, the aphorism suggests. The English may be divided by class and politics – Bennett’s forceful views on both appear regularly in the London Review of Books – but family life, with its very eccentricities and embarrassments, is a human canvas and shared route to civic belonging.

It’s a seductive pitch, and one with a growing social and even political charge. Family memoirs and sagas, on TV and in the bookshops, are all the rage. The Guardian devotes a weekend supplement to nothing else. The BBC’s hit series Who Do You Think You Are?, where actors and comedians track down an elusive ancestor and emote at a key moment of discovery, has many imitators. Much of the Great War centenary is built around the same template. Families and their secrets are, more than ever, a big thing.

Every powerful cultural trend comes to seem a good match for the times, and this one is no exception. Many resist the accompanying mawkishness, tracing its origin to “Dianafication,” the outpouring of sentiment in 1997 following the princess’s death. But for a country increasingly networked, self-referential, emotionally open and sexually frank, lifting the covers – especially on the past – more often than not feels like progress.

In the background, however, another note, both discordant and disturbing, has been growing louder in recent years, in the wake of cumulative revelations of sexual abuse of children in diverse areas of British society since the 1970s. Discordant, because it exercises the broader cultural shift towards transparency on behalf of hitherto unheard people whose own secrets are exceptionally painful and hard to communicate. Disturbing, because prominent among those charged have been BBC notables and pop chart regulars familiar to (if not always popular with) millions of Britons.

The BBC’s defensive response was to bury the tainted past deep underground: broadcasts wiped, schedules cleansed, repeats banned, names erased. The people quietly made their own psychic readjustment. Editorial skills having done their job, all the abuse scandals that had emerged around the same time – social, institutional, elite, celebrity – were woven into the rolling 24/7 agenda.

Along the way, though, a new awareness of child sexual abuse had hit home. The monstrous predator Jimmy Savile, long-term host of a classic Saturday tea-time “family” show, was at the heart of it. A retrospective shadow had been cast over the formative years of a generation, and would not easily fade. This time, after all, the family secrets of Britain itself were being revealed.


But once these covers were taken off, what exactly could be done? The problem was accentuated by the vastness of the abuse that had evidently occurred, and its disparate nature. It seemed impractical, even arbitrary, to link such cases as the abuse of young people by their guardians and teachers, establishment figures, prominent entertainers, and men working in the marginal economy of English towns – even more, when the timeframe spans four decades. Justice is always particular, after all. Surely each crime, and each individual’s experience, had to be treated on its own merits?

A mixture of contingency and public horror found answers. In 2012–13, the arrest of a handful of former celebrities and the mushrooming reports about the recently deceased Savile encouraged hundreds of women to come forward with testimony of past abuse. Dormant allegations against former high politicians resurfaced, and gained new traction. So did detailed reports by the feminist writer Julie Bindel, and the Times’s Andrew Norfolk, from Rotherham and other English towns. These had exposed long-term exploitation of white girls, some from troubled families or formally supervised by welfare agencies, by networks of men, many of Pakistani descent, the incidence on a scale of thousands. A child protection expert told Bindel in 2010 that perpetrators “are aware that the police do not want to be accused of racism in today’s climate.”

By 2014, as legal cases unfolded, accusations swirled, and the sheer extent of Savile’s and the urban gangs’ crimes was glimpsed, a shocked public moved towards something-must-be-done mode. Clearly, a one-by-one procedural investigation of every incident had to continue. But the past itself was on trial. Numerous reviews – by parliamentary committees, health bodies, regional police forces, and the BBC – were already under way. But something inclusive was required. In Britain, that can only mean a full-scale public inquiry.

Last July, the home secretary Theresa May announced a wide-ranging “independent panel inquiry into child sexual abuse.” Its terms of reference, beginning with “the extent to which State and non-State institutions have failed in their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation,” cover England and Wales, and liaise with parallel inquiries in Scotland (whose details will be announced by the end of April) and Northern Ireland.

The process, however, proved messy. In part this reflected Britain’s disaffected political atmosphere. Leading institutions – parliament, police, local councils, and now the BBC – were already held in widespread distrust on account of derelictions and bloated rewards, a sentiment channelled and amplified by hostile press coverage. Backbench MPs saw a chance, as over phone-hacking, to grandstand on an electric issue. Social media was accentuating the routinely febrile tone of public debate. And over child sexual abuse, as with other systemic failures, spokespersons for victims and survivors claimed an active role both in any formal proceedings and in the media.

Almost instantly, these factors kicked in to besiege the inquiry plan. May – who had won rare respect in handling a tough portfolio that includes security, immigration and justice – initially appointed a retired senior judge, Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, as chair. The decision was immediately contested on the grounds that her late brother, Michael Havers, had served as attorney-general in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet in the 1980s, a period associated with lurid rumours of abuse of children around Westminster, by judges, civil servants, senior military and churchmen as well as politicians.

Butler-Sloss lasted six days. It took seven weeks to choose her replacement: Fiona Woolf, a lawyer who was nearing the end of a year’s term as lord mayor of London (the historic core and financial hub known as “the City,” that is, quite separate from Boris Johnson’s fiefdom). She came under fire after admitting a neighbourly acquaintance with Leon Brittan, also a cabinet minister in the 1980s and himself the target of hearsay. After eight weeks, Woolf too was out.

Suspicion of a close-knit elite with a penchant for cover-ups or stitch-ups was now extended to the inquiry’s top-down format. Pressure to rethink led, by February 2015, to a makeover. The inquiry was made statutory, enabling it to access classified documents and examine witnesses under oath, and given a new set of expert advisers. The profile of the chair, Lowell Goddard – a judge on New Zealand’s High Court and former head of the national body monitoring police conduct – also met any “insiderish” concerns.

Goddard’s declaration of intent for a “long, challenging and complex” inquiry is encouraging:

The many, many survivors of child sexual abuse, committed over decades, deserve a robust and thorough investigation of the appalling crimes perpetrated upon them. It is vitally important that their voices are now being heard.

I am committed to leading a robust and independent inquiry that will act on these matters without fear or favour and will hold those responsible to account.

A trusted chair, informed expertise, buy-in from survivors, rigorous power to call to account – all these are crucial if the inquiry is to be effective. Above all, this will mean having a real impact on the society that has allowed child sexual abuse to occur at all levels of society for many years. In its procedures, in the information it brings to light, and in its eventual findings – an interim report is scheduled for the end of 2018 – the inquiry promises to be a landmark event.

In this respect the far-reaching scope of the statutory inquiry is both opportunity and danger. An ability to map institutional failure and wrongdoing over these decades – insofar as its referrals to police and “findings of fact” begin to measure these – will prove vital. So will public education about sexual abuse of children, incorporating comparative national experience and evolving global awareness of the phenomenon. And finding appropriate ways to offer recognition, apology and reparation to survivors is pivotal.

But there are many landmines, all the trickier to navigate as they are strewn across the same terrain that has allowed abuse to go on in the shadows for so long. Some are technical: vaporised computer files and paper trails, for instance. Several are to do with the worst aspects of Britain’s organisational culture: a pass-the-parcel attitude to accountability, mediocre leadership, instincts of collusion and self-protection. To back its formal powers, the inquiry will need strong political backing to bear down on these. Will it be available, especially after the astringent Theresa May leaves the scene?

Other obstacles are to do with social power. A harrowing report on the Rotherham scandal by Alexis Jay, a leading childcare and social work professor, highlights the indifference of officials and police to the prolonged, vicious abuse inflicted on the south Yorkshire town’s lost girls (they numbered at least 1400 between 1997 and 2013). In most cases vulnerable and with few resources before the abuse, those who sought help were fobbed off after it. Many earlier low-status victims seeking justice for violation in penal or care institutions run by local authorities have been similarly disregarded.

At the same time, the suffering of those of middle-class background – abused in, for example, boarding schools, music colleges or religious institutions – can impose its own type of voiceless agony, and lead to lifelong shame or suicide. Class prejudice, or just the vagaries of public concern, can act as a silencer in different directions. Catherine Deveney’s investigations of abuse within the Catholic church and the musicologist Ian Pace’s blog are among efforts to draw attention to this aspect.

Political and conspiracist agendas, now rampant, will also complicate the inquiry’s work. Most media attention so far is on elite and celebrity abuse: properly so in the case of Savile, whose status as TV benefactor and court jester, the guest of royals and of Thatcher, allowed him unfettered access to hospitals and children, an odyssey tracked by Dan Davies’s chilling In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile. A few lesser stars from the same era are now in prison. But how and why they and he got away with it for decades will, when the story is fully told, reveal much about post-1960s Britain.

The new big hunt is for grandee perpetrators of sexual crime in the 1980s. There is strong evidence against a few dead or aged men, and grounds for suspicion against others. But hacking a path to the truth through growing conspiracist thickets will be hard. Each new headline naming a politically convenient target from the Thatcher era as a likely abuser plants murmurs of a witchhunt and seeds of wider doubt.

Culture wars are a final trap for the inquiry. In 2003, Ann Cryer, Labour MP for Keighley, northwest of Bradford and Rotherham, tried to engage police and welfare agencies in dealing with “grooming” by “young Asian lads” of underage white girls, and hit a wall. When she went public there was more evasion and scorn than support, though the campaign helped tighten the law on sexual offences. Today’s responses are often equally reductive and in bad faith (Islam is to blame; most abusers are white men), and greatly inflated by sectarian media.

There may also, however, be extra willingness to look at what has actually happened, not least in light of Julie Bindel and Andrew Norfolk’s in-depth research. The latter found the Rotherham pattern replicated in a dozen locations: of girls primed, transported, tortured and traded with impunity over lengthy periods by networks of men of mainly Pakistani origin. Years and lives have been lost, and big gaps in society’s knowledge remain. But this exceptional journalism – in Norfolk’s case resourced initially by the Times’s editor, who gave him six months’ leave to follow the trail – has set a long overdue challenge: to tackle child sexual abuse and related crimes without prejudice or fear of offence, and free of conformist pieties from any quarter.


Just clearing the landmines will be a huge job for the inquiry. It also has to think laterally. Relevant data come from economic and social contexts. For example, the sociologist Dick Hobbs, now at the University of Western Sydney, has studied the “night-time economy” of England’s urban centres, a floating world where street kids mingle among low-qualified immigrants operating around fast-food outlets and alcohol joints, taxi ranks and drug deals. Such encounters, and the forces that shape them, belong to the deeper backstory of modern child sexual abuse in one of its dimensions.

So does a wider British history of exporting, using or disciplining its young. The Victorian era’s sexual underworld, with its many thousands of child prostitutes, is one point of reference. Another is the mass removal of children to Australia, Canada and elsewhere that lasted until the 1960s, for which prime minister Gordon Brown apologised in 2010 (following Kevin Rudd’s example). The historian Lucy Delap and colleagues, studying official responses to child sexual abuse, note rising concern in the early 1920s, which led in 1925 to a departmental committee on sexual offences against young people. Its report “challenged institutions to respond to child sexual abuse with something better than ‘ignorance, carelessness and indifference.’” But, the scholars warn:

“Ignorance, carelessness and indifference” remained characteristic of twentieth-century attitudes towards child sex abuse. This was not for lack of concern – earlier generations did condemn child sexual abuse, and periodically, tried to strengthen safeguards. However, history shows that for change to happen, firm leadership and transparent management across government and the voluntary sector is vital. A robust investigative press is also essential. Without these, potentially pivotal moments, like 1925 and 2015, may become missed opportunities.

A formidable task, then, even more when responsibility is so widely shared. Yet that might also prove an asset. Child sexual abuse is modern Britain’s heart of darkness, but the country is now emotionally readier than ever to face it – and to reach out to victims and survivors. Every possible protection in place, a “never again” moment, and a catharsis whose outward form is some blend of national recognition, apology, substantial payment and “sorry day”? Any such outcome is a long way off. But the new family secrets are out there and are not going away. For everyone’s sake, this inquiry has to deliver. •

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Wrong lessons: John Howard responds to favourable opinion polls in early September 2001 amid the Tampa refugee controversy. Julian Smith/AAP Image

Wrong lessons: John Howard responds to favourable opinion polls in early September 2001 amid the Tampa refugee controversy. Julian Smith/AAP Image