“How could nobody have known?” This question is being asked nationwide in the wake of a leaked draft of the review into the abuse of children by TV presenter Jimmy Savile. In spite of Savile having abused at least 100 boys and girls, “in every corner”, of the BBC, nobody, it seems, was aware – and those who had suspicions or hunches chose to remain silent.
And Mark Ruffalo, Oscar nominated for his role in Spotlight, which tells the story of the Boston journalists who in 2002 exposed widespread abuse of children by Catholic priests across the city, has this week described how “the whole city was complicit. It wasn’t just the police and church…Everybody at some point looked the other way”.
I can tell you from my own time as a therapist working with both adults and children who had experienced sexual abuse, that this question, “How could nobody have known?” is not just asked about high profile cases. Often it is one of the deepest and toughest sources of hurt for abuse survivors as they struggle to come to terms with their own experiences: “Why did nobody realise it was happening?” “Why did nobody make it stop?” Often this causes the other adults around the abuser – for example, the mother – to be the focus of the most sorrow and anger, rather than the abuser themselves.
So why does child sexual abuse so often go unchecked? I think that the main reason is that it is so horrifying, that the majority of us don’t even want to contemplate it. We enter a kind of collective pact of denial, for our own protection and comfort, and place even the thought of it very clearly at a distance. Child abuse is something that happens ‘over there’, to other people, from different walks of life, in different places. It is not near us, it is not happening where we are.
So it is not that the adults around the abuser ‘did not know’, so much as that they, ‘could not know’.
I can still remember the shock I experienced when starting work as part of a social services team offering therapy to children in care, in the town where I had grown up. As I began to read through the folders of case notes, I was forced to wake up. Child sexual abuse was happening in nearby, familiar streets. Then I met the children. They looked just like every other child. If I had not read their notes, I would have had no inkling of the horrors they had experienced.
As a parent now, I bring these experiences and this awful awakening to my current life as a mum. I am vigilant. I treat other adults who are involved in the care of my children in any way with gentle suspicion. I talk to my children about their bodies, about boundaries, and about not keeping secrets. I try to encourage openness. And even then, I am not naïve enough to think that abuse could not possibly visit my family.
Many parents are comfortable talking to their children about ‘Stranger Danger’, but actually, the chances of abuse by someone entirely unknown to the child are very slim in comparison to abuse by a familiar adult. Current figures from the NSPCC suggest that over 90 per cent of sexually abused children were abused by someone they knew.
As an NSPCC spokesperson explains: “We know that most sexual abuse offences are committed by someone known to the child, such as a family member or friend. Abusers often look for weak spots to gain unsupervised access to children. As well as targeting potential victims and planning abuse they will often start grooming the child and their family.”
The idea of an abused child being ‘groomed’ is familiar to most people, but less talked about is the grooming of other adults. Abusers will often go to great lengths to portray themselves as upstanding members of their community and to appear ‘beyond reproach’: they will be the nice guy who always puts the chairs away after the PTA, or the person who does a lot for charity.
Donald Findlater, Director of child sexual abuse prevention campaign Stop It Now!, elaborates: “One of the biggest myths about child sexual abuse is that it is largely perpetrated by strangers. But the reality is that it is far more likely that sexual abusers are people we know, and could well be people we care about. They are family members or friends, neighbours or babysitters – many hold responsible positions in society.
“Some people who abuse children have adult sexual relationships and are not solely, or even mainly, sexually interested in children. Abusers come from all classes, ethnic and religious backgrounds and may be homosexual or heterosexual. Most abusers are men, but some are women. You cannot pick out an abuser in a crowd.”
The NSPCC estimates that one in 20 children in the UK have been sexually abused. Some feel this is a conservative estimate: a report in November 2015 from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) found that around 85 per cent of UK child abuse cases are never reported. Based on these findings, the OCC estimated that the number of children abused in the two year period to March 2014 could be as high as 450, 000.
Even if we take the NSPCC figure of one in 20, this still ought to be a wake-up call to all parents. One in 20 means at least one in each classroom, at least a dozen in each school, double figures or more in every village, thousands in every city. If children were falling ill at such rates, we would have no hesitation in calling it an epidemic.
Perhaps it may be easier to ignore these facts, because our own horror or even our own past experiences don’t want to let us ‘go there’. But as Donald Findlater put it so clearly to me, “Currently we are failing children so much. Child sexual abuse is preventable, not inevitable.” As parents, our input is not the only aspect of abuse prevention, but we can play a vital part. If we fail to rise to this challenge, we may be protecting our own sensibilities, but we are failing to protect our children.