It’s easy, with the allegations now surfacing about Jimmy Savile, to rage against the culture of complicity that appears to have allowed a serial abuser to assault teenage girls with impunity for years, perhaps decades.
We like to believe that we – I know I like to believe that I – would have the courage and determination to act on suspicions, to risk the anger of the powerful, the embarrassment of being wrong in front of our peers, in the interests of protecting a child or children from harm.
And yet – as recent press coverage of other abuse allegations has shown – some of us (including sometimes those with a specific child-protection responsibility) are often all too ready to create excuses for adults who exploit children. We do this sometimes by disbelieving what we are told, or even what we see; by attributing agency to children; by suggesting that children deliberately or willingly attract sexual attention and engage in consensual sexual activity, even when we know that they are under the age of consent.
If you’re thinking “speak for yourself!”; if you’re thinking that the word “we” couldn’t ever, possibly, include you, I urge you to read the Plymouth and North Somerset serious case reviews.
Here they are:
(read especially paras 6.9 and 6.10) and
(read especially paras 24 to 42)
This Nursery and First School respectively were staffed by people who cared about children, wanted to keep them safe, understood what abuse was and knew enough to make them feel uncomfortable when they encountered practice that seemed risky or potentially dangerous. But they lacked the professional confidence to take action and were working within cultures which inhibited their willingness to express their concerns.
And these were settings where the children hadn’t yet reached puberty, an age where some adults start to conveniently equivocate about whether children are ‘responsible’ for making their own sexual choices.
If you take one phrase away from the North Somerset SCR, make it the concept of ‘respectful uncertainty’ and use it to help you create a culture where unsafe behaviour towards children can always be challenged. And where that challenge is accepted and welcomed.
Let’s not waste time being surprised or angry that it was possible to abuse with impunity at the BBC in the 1970s. It’s easier than we might like to think for such a culture to persist. Let’s just make sure we are not part of such a culture in our own workplace in the here and now.