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The UK news this week has been dominated by the story of Jimmy Savile, the television presenter and media personality currently under investigation for a string of sex offences. It’s emerging that Savile, who died in October 2011, abused a series of young people – the exact number is yet to be established – over a showbiz career that spanned several decades. Our reaction: shock, horror, sadness even, but surprise? Not really, because, we sort of knew, didn’t we?

We sort of know. We have uneasy feelings, gut reactions, hunches, intuitions, sixth senses. The hairs stand up, very slightly, on the backs of our necks. We don’t know how we know. But we do. No one could capture this better than poet Simon Armitage, a former social worker, in his poem, The Guilty:

They look us dead in the eye
and deny it. They turn out their pockets –
nothing but biscuits and shreds of a tissue.
They will undress their children this very minute.

Suggest their names, they are astonished.
Push them further, they remember date and places. Push them
further, they come up with blood groups, postcodes,
distinguishing features. Their curtains twitch

when we call round in the car, or we hear them
leaving like rabbits through the back door.

They take on habits, the guilty; throw us
from the scent. Analogue watches worn to the inside,
the buttering of bread before the slicing.
They let out their belts, one notch,

before eating; salt their supper before they taste it
and flush it twice if they flush the toilet.
Shake their hands, their hands are like putty.
Their children agree with them, absolutely.

So when shall we birch these people?
And how do we know these things?

When I worked as a therapist with adults and children who had experienced abuse, often feelings of anger would be directed, not so much towards the abusers themselves, but to to those around them who seemed not to notice what was happening. Right now, this is being acted out in the UK on a national scale, as the Press and others try to point the finger of blame at everyone from the BBC to hospitals to individuals. How could nobody have noticed? Worse still, did somebody notice, and turn a blind eye?
This calling into question the actions of everyone but the abuser himself is partly a symptom of our individual, or in this case, collective denial. It diverts attention away from the real horror of the situation, and allows us to express our feelings in a more manageable and safe area. It’s easier for us to discuss the role that Newsnight played in all of this, than to contemplate the full extent of Savile’s actions. All of us – whether we have personally been abused or not – wishes that child sexual abuse didn’t happen, and that we did not have to think about it.
But it’s also quite a genuine question: how could we not have noticed? Why did we not look more carefully at the situation and protect those who were most vulnerable? Often, for a survivor of child abuse, these questions are directed to one person in particular: the mother. Did she really have no idea what was going on? Or was it so hard for her to confront – and in doing so, break every aspect of her life into pieces – that she kept it a secret, even from herself?
Of course, child abusers themselves play a big part in the cover up. They make it their business not to be discovered, and often go to great lengths to make sure that they are liked and respected in their community. They do not just ‘groom’ their victims, they groom everyone around them, so that, should a hunch or a doubt or suspicion flash briefly across someones mind, it is quickly dismissed. “Oh no, not him – only last week he put away all the chairs after the parents evening / gave me a lift to the doctors / donated money to our charity” etc. Savile’s case was somewhat unusual in that he was quite openly ‘weird’, and seems to have created a sort of elaborate double bluff, as if his strangeness was all ‘just showbiz’, and he was really just a charitable eccentric. Many many other abusers present themselves as quite ‘normal’, and even as pillars of their community. But still, we sort of know.
We sort of know, but often, we still look away, preferring to think of child sexual abuse as something that happens to other people, not us. Here are some denial busting statistics from the NSPCC commissioned research:

Experience of some form of sexual abuse:

  • Nearly a quarter of young adults (24.1%) experienced sexual abuse (including contact and non-contact), by an adult or by a peer during childhood.
  • One in six children aged 11-17 (16.5%) have experienced sexual abuse.
  • Almost one in 10 children aged 11-17 (9.4%) have experienced sexual abuse in the past year. Teenage girls aged between 15 and 17 years reported the highest past year rates of sexual abuse.

Experience of contact sexual abuse:

  • One in nine young adults (11.3%) experienced contact sexual abuse during childhood.
  • One in 20 children aged 11-17 (4.8%) have experienced contact sexual abuse.
  • Two thirds (65.9%) of contact sexual abuse experienced by children aged 0-17 was perpetrated by someone aged under 18.
We often have concerns about ‘stranger danger’, but unfortunately, it is those we know and trust and who have daily access to our children, who we most need to ‘listen to our hunches’ about. According to the NSPCC, seven out of ten cases of child sexual abuse involve a relative, friend, or someone else close to the child.
As parents, we need to wake up to reality now, even if we have chosen to remain ignorant in the past. This is not to suggest that we should live in paranoia and fear, or indeed, pass these concerns on to our children and taint the wonderful innocence of their childhood. We should, however, be realistic, and be vigilant. We should make it our business to protect our children, even if this means an uncomfortable loss of denial. And we should follow our hunches, our intuitions, our uneasy feelings, that tell us – something is not quite right. Because sometimes, you just sort of know.
If you are concerned about the safety or welfare of a child, please contact the police or, in the UK, you can speak to an NSPCC counsellor – more details on their website.
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