Monday, 25 February 2013

Time After Time

As both the Catholic Church and the Liberal Democrats reel before fresh allegations about abuse an institutional failures to investigate abuse allegations, I have to ask, didn't we go through all this just a couple of months ago with the Savile scandal? Whilst I never seriously expected the revolution in attitudes that many people talked about then, even I have been astounded by quite how quickly important lessons have been forgotten.

There is – quite rightly – hesitation about discussing some of these issues just now. The accusations against Cardinal O'Brien and Lord Rennard have thus far been untested in a court of law and we should always give people the benefit of the doubt in such cases. But hiding behind this is another issue with much wider-reaching potential consequences, and that's something that isn't being discussed aggressively enough. Why do we tolerate, again and again, the failure to investigate? Why is so much airtime devoted to people saying “He was a very nice man who wouldn't do that sort of thing,” and so little attention given to the other side of the story?

Being generous, we might say that there re some things so horrific people don't want to talk about them, or don't know how to do so; or we might suggest that these discussions are avoided in order to reduce the stress caused to those who have been abused. The balance of reporting and comment by some institutions, however, suggests something else. Several people have already noted that Nick Clegg's vague statements about having heard something but not having evidence is already reminiscent of that hideous line from the Savile scandal “We had no evidence – only the women.” Similarly Newsnight, so superficially contrite after its failures in the Savile case, couldn't be apologist enough when discussing the Pope's resignation, doing nothing to challenge guests who dismissed allegations about the concealment of child abuse as some sort of mild unpleasantness. Everybody loved the Pope, they said, showing again that footage of people running after his car in Edinburgh which had the sound cut out if it to suggest said people were fans, when they were actually shouting in protest. Literally silencing voices of dissent.

The BBC's initial line on Cardinal O'Brien was similar. There was a huge emphasis on his good work and a focus on how unfortunate it was that he should be accused of unpleasantness (which it certainly is, if the allegations are untrue, but hardly in proportion to the suffering of others if they are not). But the worst came from the Cardinal himself, dismissing historic child abuse with the line “It was a different time,” as if there were, at some point in our recent past, a time when somebody might have inadvertently assumed it was okay to rape a child. In fact, the time when those alleged (and some proven) incidents occurred was much like our own, right down to the preference for covering it up, making it look as if it has all gone away.

It doesn't go away.

Last month I was told by a specialist doctor that I may very well be correct in identifying the abuse I experienced as a child as a factor in triggering the illness which keeps me housebound today. Autoimmune diseases are significantly more common in child abuse victims. So are more obvious things like PTSD which can, in some cases, be equally crippling. So are anger issues that often lead to the breakdown of relationships in adult life. So are difficulties in communicating that make it difficult for survivors to find steady employment, make them vulnerable to prejudice like that displayed in the Daily Mail's hatchet job on poor Steve Mesham – and make it difficult for them to pursue those responsible. For some, it gets better. For others, the damage never goes away. The pain never stops. Why, then, did Cardinal O'Brien think it was okay to talk about things happening “long ago” as if that means we should forget about it?

Simon Wiesenthal said that we should not dismiss historic crimes because that sends a damaging message – not simply that if one evades justice for long enough one can get away with them, but that we, as a society, are prepared to tolerate all kinds of horrors once the pursuit of justice become socially or politically inconvenient. This was true in the 1940s when he began his work and it's true today. It is a different thing from saying that we should not forgive. Forgiveness has its value, but we cannot forgive when there is no repentance – we cannot simply sit back and pretend it never happened and look away as it happens again.

Cardinal O'Brien, whether inspired by contrition or convenience, has at least had the wit to resign. Indeed, there are many who argue that the Pope's surprise exit was similarly motivated. Nick Clegg, meanwhile, won't let go of the shovel, digging himself a deeper hole with every utterance. He doesn't seem to understand that this isn't about the principle of habeas corpus – it's about whether or not those lower down on the social ladder have access to justice at all. The proper thing to do now is to stop trying to explain what happened and support an independent investigation, which must be conducted in as transparent a manner as possible.

I hesitate to single out the LibDems for this kind of criticism because, though they are the ones under the spotlight just now, they are hardly the only political party to have had difficulties around such issues. I have written here before of the problematic attitude of some Conservatives towards rape and sexual harassment. I don't know what the Labour Party is like these days but twenty years ago, when I was a member, I encountered individuals there who were notorious for their wandering hands, a problem routinely ignored by those higher up. It would surprise me if any major party were exempt from such problems. Abusive individuals will always be there. The issue is what organisations – and society at large – do about them. When I talk to other people who have experienced abuse, they frequently tell me that they told someone at the time, or that people advised them later that they'd had suspicions. By and large, abusers don't operate completely unseen. They get away with it because other people choose not to look. We need to start challenging that.

The media has a very particular role to play here. Institutions like the BBC need to stop cosying up to establishment figures, acting as if they couldn't possibly do bad things. One of the ways abusers escape justice comes down to people refusing to believe bad things about their friends. Friendship means giving people the benefit of the doubt. It can mean supporting them emotionally if they are distressed to find themselves the target of allegations. It should not mean assuming that they are beyond reproach. The simple fact of the matter is that anybody can hurt others, and the ability to achieve a respectable position in politics or to become a religious leader is meaningless.

Justice, if it is to have any meaning, must apply universally. The assumption of innocence must apply to everyone – not just the accused, but also their accusers. It is not acceptable to write off confirmed institutional abuse as a little late unpleasantness. Those who have done harm, whether directly or through concealment, have a duty to put it right, not least by approaching it with honesty – and until they do so, they don't deserve anybody's respect. They certainly don't deserve to be accorded moral authority.

Joseph Butler argued that God created the conscience so that we can tell for ourselves whether something is right or wrong. It is time certain people stopped hiding behind rulebooks or fellow politicians and started analysing theirs.


  1. I have experienced "wandering hands syndrome" much more outside of politics than within it. But, as any conference goer (of any organisation) will tell you, a range of sexual and pre-sexual behaviours will occur when people get together. This makes a "zero tolerance" approach based on monitoring invasive, illiberal and impractical. The general public probably do not appreciate what a shoestring, volunteer-dependent organisation a political party can be. There probably are structures which can and should be put in place to make reporting easier; but no one individual in a democratic organisation can create these structures ex nihilo nor be held personally liable for not chasing up every *potentially unfounded and defamatory* rumour if no specifics have been brought to his/her attention.

  2. Ah, I'm familiar with shoestring budgets, so yes, I appreciate that point, and it's a fair thing to point out here. My concern, though, is not so much about random individuals as about those individuals within a hierarchy of authority which is exactly where people should be able to turn for support. In neither of the cases here am I talking about one-off rumours; rather, these are instances in which multiple allegations of a similar nature have occurred. The possibility that allegations are unfounded should itself, if they are persistent, constitute a reason for investigating (as either way, there's a problem).