As a thousand new stories appear each day regarding Jimmy Savile, and the papers increasingly try to find someone else to blame in light of Savile’s being dead, one specific, sad fact is being ignored: It’s usual for others to know about a paedophile’s actions.
It’s a horrific fact, but the reason many paedophiles are able to abuse is because family members, friends, and of course victims*, don’t report it to anyone. For all manner of reasons, whether through fear, having been abused themselves, or for perhaps the most insidious – to “keep it in the family” – these abusers go to their graves with many knowing what they did. Lots of people know that Uncle X shouldn’t be left alone with the kids, but would far prefer not to have the lives of their whole families exposed. So they opt for not reporting it, for dealing with it themselves. It’s tragic, and it’s horribly commonplace. And in finding out that so many knew that Savile shouldn’t be let near the young teenagers, we’re not exposing a cover-up by hospitals or the BBC – we’re exposing an enculturated cover-up by the whole of society that allows so very many paedophiles to abuse.
And people don’t want to think about that.
I don’t want to think about how when I worked at a radio station, I heard stories about one former employee who was supposed to like to take the younger work experience boys home with him. He was well-liked, but I was told people would warn boys not to go for a drink with him. I was 21, knew little of the world, and found it far easier to dismiss it as gossip. What I should have done, I’ve no idea. I was hearing gossip in a radio station, and anyone who’s ever worked in a radio station knows that’s almost exclusively what all off-air conversation consists of. I was hearing hearsay from a guy, about someone who didn’t work there, and I had never met – nor likely would ever meet – that may well have been a complete lie. But should I have reported it to the police? What would I be reporting? Etc. The boys may have all been over 16, or maybe it never happened at all? So should his name ever come out as an exposed paedophile, you can add my name to the list of people who heard something about it and didn’t say anything.
However, in my teenage years there used to be all sorts of gossip about a games developer from the same town who too was supposed to like the company of teenager work experience boys. But from all reports since it was a wild rumour not based in any truth. Should he have been reported to the police based on what seems strongly to have been all lies?
My point being, it’s incredibly easy to see how many people would have heard second-hand and third-hand reports about Savile and not done or said anything. Not that it was necessarily okay, but it was perhaps in a way understandable. (Please note I don’t include those who witnessed first-hand his crimes, unless they were the victims – to not report that is deeply troubling.)
In Savile’s case, the rumours that swirled around him when he was alive seemed too gruesome to take seriously. I remember hearing fifteenth-hand stories of his private trips to morgues, and dismissing them as too grotesque to be true. As the curtain pulls back further and further on his life, and even these grotesque extremes seem to be part of the story, what once seemed like a parody of the ghoulish television figure might well have been all real. Again, when the claims were quite so outrageous, you can see how things would be left dismissed by those who could have interceded.
The lesson we should be learning from this story, alongside how to change infrastructures to make such abuse less possible, is that people often don’t report paedophiles they know about. Here it’s happened in a high-profile case, and I think the wider press reaction of pretending they’re horrified that this unique case was possible is disingenuous, and possibly extremely dangerous. While the BBC absolutely should investigate how it was possible for abuse to take place on their premises, and the various hospitals should certainly do the same, pinning all the blame to the hospitals and the BBC is a way of scapegoating attention away from, well, the entire population.
And in that need to find someone to blame, we really need to remember the obvious – it was Jimmy Savile. It’s terrible that his crimes were possible, and horrific that they were perhaps even tolerated, but it was him. The cultures of tolerance of abuse should be unearthed, exposed and educated, such that they can no longer be sustained. This is essential. And it’s abysmal that they were ever so. But it was Savile who took advantage of those weaknesses to carry out his abuse. We don’t get to punish him, no. But I’m not sure that means we should transfer that punishment onto others, unless they were directly complicit.
There’s no doubt that Savile’s being famous played a massive part in what he was able to get away with. And it’s important that we understand this, and take it on board. But it doesn’t make it exceptional, or unique. The real horror here is the normality of the tolerance or ignoring of abuse, and trying to make these case seem extra-special, a one-of-a-kind horror show, is to fail to learn the most important lesson available. And in doing so, we allow the patterns to repeat.
*I want to absolutely stress that I don’t group a victim not reporting abuse with a relative not reporting an abuser.