“Focus on celebrity cases must not detract from advances in tackling child sexual abuse – and in persuading victims that, if they speak up, they will be heard”

Three years ago we were suddenly plunged into a world of celebrity and VIP sex offenders following revelations of the deeply disturbing crimes committed by Jimmy Savile.

Since then the British public has been deluged with lurid accusations – some specific, some suggestive, against high-profile people. Rolf Harris, Max Clifford and Stuart Hall are among those who have been jailed as a consequence despite their persistent protestations of innocence.

While VIP-related allegations dominate the headlines, a significant shift in confidence and understanding of child sexual abuse has been taking place in our society. For too long victims remained quiet, fearful of the consequences of speaking up, lacking the belief that anything positive would come of it if they did. Now they can be a little more confident that not only will they be heard but that also no one is above the law.

High-profile cases have helped keep child abuse under a spotlight and at the forefront of people’s minds but we must not allow it to distract from the reality that VIP child abuse is not typical. Around 90% of sex offences against children are committed by someone they know – a relative, family friend, an acquaintance of some sort. And the vast majority of these offenders are from what you might term “ordinary” backgrounds.

Their horrendous crimes might make them notorious, if uncovered, but celebrities they certainly aren’t. If we look at just a handful of recent court cases we can see that the offenders come from all walks of life:

• A retired college principal convicted of dozens of offences against young boys;

• A former town planning officer who attempted to rape a 13-year-old girl;

• A middle-aged couple found guilty of inciting their own children to perform sex acts before taking pictures of them;

• A publican and a shopkeeper who were part of a paedophile ring.

And then of course there is the grotesque case involving seven men who conspired to abuse very young children, even raping a baby and filming the sickening event so others could watch it happening live. These extreme paedophiles included an IT contractor, a businessman, a hospital worker, and a football coach and father of two. People you could encounter on the street or at the school gates without having an inkling of their sordid backgrounds.

So while the media focus is, understandably, trained on particularly high-profile allegations we have to ensure nothing is done to reverse the progress we have made and slide back to the dark days of the 1980s, where child abuse existed in the shadows. There is a very real danger that children could be put at risk if we concentrate solely on celebrity offenders.

Child sexual abuse is not a thing of the past. Recently the NSPCC obtained figures which showed the number of sex offences against children reported to the 43 police forces in England and Wales last year had increased by more than a third. Over 31,000 crimes – 85 a day – including rape, sexual assault and grooming were recorded. And while the majority of victims were aged 12-16, there were still nearly 3,000 aged five and under. Today, like any other, our ChildLine counsellors will be talking to young people who have experienced it. Our duty and responsibility is to help them know that if they speak up they will be listened to, supported, helped to get the justice they seek and given every chance to move beyond the horror of the crimes committed against them.

If they fall silent it could well send us back to those terrible times when child sexual abuse was something few people dared even whisper let alone tried to tackle.

Peter Wanless

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