We need a consistent and effective response to child abuse. But, writes Christine Bird, that means thinking the issues through, and rejecting racism and hypocrisy.
It is important to say from the outset that all children have a right to be protected from abuse. This should surely be the starting point for any discussion of Professor Jay’s report into the sexual exploitation of 1400 children in Rotherham. How will children be kept safe, from this point forwards? And how will those who have been violated be supported to heal?
There have been several scandals involving sexual violence against children recently – celebrities such as Gary Glitter and Jimmy Savile, a range of politicians and now organised groups of men in Rotherham. Why, we might ask, is the ethnicity of the perpetrators only mentioned in the case of Rotherham? By contrast, when five men were found guilty of grooming and sexually exploiting (read ‘raping’) girls in Derby in 2012, their ethnic origins and religion were barely mentioned .
One of the most dominant news angles on this case has been that councillors in Rotherham didn’t dare mention the abusers’ ethnicity for fear of being seen as racist. Presumably, this makes the BBC very brave for constantly referring to it as it broke the story. Other news providers, predictably, followed suit. The media should be aware that they are playing with fire. The English Defence League (EDL) has called a protest in Rotherham on the 13th September, with the tagline “1400 children were raped, abused and groomed… Call us racist if you dare!” Twitter carries a storm of righteous indignation from supporters of a range of right-wing organisations.
Whilst revelling in the Pakistani origins of the Rotherham abusers, such coverage pays scant attention to the child victims, many of whom are girls of Pakistani origin. This matters. The guiding question must always be: “How is this response helping the victims of abuse?” There is, no doubt, a place for targeted interventions, such as such as the training on safeguarding which Rotherham imams and mosque goers have recently undertaken, or the work of organisations which specifically support Muslim women and children in escaping abuse. However, racist mudslinging detracts attention from the fact that abusers come from all backgrounds, in terms of both class and ethnicity. In her report, Professor Jay points out that “there is no simple link between race and child sexual exploitation, and across the UK the greatest numbers of perpetrators of CSE [child sexual exploitation] are white men”.
It’s remarkable that Jay felt the need to make such a statement. It suggests that some may believe that there exists a crude link between the colour of a person’s skin, or their religion, and the likelihood of them perpetrating child abuse. If things were so simple, we’d be able to identify and lock up criminals just by looking at them. This is reminiscent of IQ tests in years gone by to see if black people were more stupid than white people, or of experiments to find whether men were more clever than women because they had bigger brains. How will the EDL protest in Rotherham help Asian, or any other women and children to speak out?
We might note, in passing, the absence of high-profile backers for the Rotherham men. In contrast, when Rolf Harris was accused of sexual offences, Bill Oddie asked people to support him because all he did was “cuddle his secretary”. Within hours of him being accused of sexual assault, thousands of Cliff Richard’s fans had taken to Facebook to express their belief in his innocence. Cilla Black has stated publicly that the allegations against Richards are “without foundation” (how can she know this?). And after rubber-stamping his appointment to a Broadmoor governance taskforce in 1988, former Tory Health Minister, Edwina Currie, said of Jimmy Savile, “He is an amazing man and has my full confidence.”
The notion of equivalence comes to mind. Is child rape better or worse when the perpetrator is white? Should we focus on the political allegiance of the perpetrator – considering that Tories, Lib Dems, Labour and Sinn Fein MPs have all been recently implicated in the organised abuse cases (are they, too, a “gang”?) And yes, a quick internet search reveals that even the EDL has members of its own under investigation for child sex allegations. Does distance make the same offence better or worse? Does a Thai child have less right to protection than a British child? Does the amount of time that has passed make a crime more excusable? And if so, how far back must we go? Child prostitution was wide-spread and tacitly accepted in Victorian Britain. More recently, children were allowed to be abused in Glasgow council’s Larchgrove borstal from the 1950s to the 1990s. (Has anyone been brave enough to mention that the perpetrators were mainly white Scottish/English?) The Rotherham abuse itself “continues to this day”.
It seems evident that the establishment figures involved in child abuse are in a category of their own. In terms of hypocrisy, it is hard to beat Jimmy Savile, for example, supporting the charity Children In Need. However, it is the power which some individuals wield which makes them particularly dangerous. Paedophile Peter Righton contributed to a government report on child care in 1970, which led to major reforms of 1970s children’s homes. Righton’s “expert” role gave him access to children’s homes across the country, where he is implicated in networking and abuse throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Sadly, any child can be a victim of abuse. However, it increasingly feels like children with the lowest social status, particularly those in care are open to abuse from all comers. They may be abused by those who are supposed to protect them. They can certainly expect to be disbelieved when they report their abuse. As things stand, they have received little by way of redress or even basic emotional support. Do our most vulnerable children have more or less of a need to be heard, to be listened to by people who actually care? Is their right to justice greater or lesser than the desire of our police and politicians to cover their own backs?