Maybe you better stop reading now. That is, if you’ve heard all you want to hear on the subject of sexual abuse, about which tens of thousands, maybe millions of words have been written and spoken in recent years....You still want to go on reading? Despite last night seeing that odd and sad figure, Freddie Starr, denouncing Jimmy Savile in the hope that he himself would sound more on the side of the angels?OK. It’s a free country. (Well, maybe not but you know what I mean.)
What dismays me is not so much what has been written and said about paedophilia as what’s not been said about paedophilia. Despite all the verbiage, all the screen time, several things are still unclear, or they are to me anyway. Take for example the guestion of guilt.
If the alleged crimes - as in the Jimmy Savile case - were committed some years ago, then presumably there isn’t material evidence of what happened. In which case - again I’m guessing - guilt or innocence is decided by testimony from those who say they were abused. As with all dead people, it’s impossible to say how Jimmy Savile would react to the charges against him. But let’s assume he was alive and denied them. Then it’d be his word against the word of his alleged victims - somewhere around 300, last I heard. Among the general public there’s been an outcry against the one-time hero: strip him of his knighthood, both British and papal; change the names of streets that were given his name. Burn those ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ badges. All of which clearly assumes Savile was guilty of the charges against him. But is that assumption built on the fact that so many people say they were his victim? If it is, that’s a bit worrying.. Read Arthur Miller’s great play The Crucible and you’ll see what happens when passionate but unsubstantiated charges are made against people. A witch-hunt develops.
That’s the first thing I worry about. The second is, what is sexual abuse? I know of a case of a priest who had a teenage girl come to him for advice. In the course of their private encounter, he had her on his knee and was kissing her. Was that sexual abuse? No, no, I didn’t say was it completely wrong behaviour for a priest to engage in with a teenager. I said was it sexual abuse? And if so, are there degrees of sexual abuse? Or do we just lump an unwanted kiss-and-cuddle in along with rape and classify as monsters all of those guilty of such acts?
The third thing I worry about it is, what’s to be done with those who are proven child sexual abusers? When a Catholic priest was found to be guilty of sexual abuse in the past, there was a pattern of moving him on to another parish, and this was denounced as exposing other innocent children to the predator. That’s because child sexual abusers are sick recidivists. They inevitably revert to their abuse again when afforded the opportunity. So does that mean the abuser can’t stop abusing - in other words, he’s in the grip of an illness? If that’s the case, he belongs in a psychiatric hospital, not in a prison, because you can’t be held responsible for something over which you’ve no control.
You’d hardly think it possible that questions like these would remain, given how much ink has been spilled and airtime exhausted. At the moment, the Savile case is the one hitting the headlines, and if good can come out of (alleged) evil, then this case serves one useful purpose. It shows that sexual abuse occurs outside the ranks of the Catholic clergy as well as within them. For too long the problem has been discussed as though the Catholic Church was the sole source of paedophilia. At a public forum I once voiced the possibility that clergy from other Churches and from the general public were as likely to be child abusers as Catholic priests, and was sharply reprimanded by three clergymen from the Protestant faith. No, they told me firmly: child sexual abuse was a problem centred solely on the Catholic Church and was rooted in the celibacy rule. When I asked for research evidence to support that contention, I was told there was no need for research, they knew.
I suppose in the end all my questions on the topic boil down to that: why is it, in the Savile case and all the others, so many people talk as if they know, when in fact all they’re doing is repeating what everybody else is saying?
Suggestion: let’s confine witch-hunting to Halloween.