If you’ve ever had even the slightest contact with child abuse survivors, you will know the effect that abuse has on them. It might have caused you nightmares. It might have made you sick. It might have led to you having some kind of trauma yourself. I can say, as someone who has had the barest second-hand contact with survivors – and has had the privilege (yes, privilege) of working with some survivors too – that it is not something that you forget, when you hear about it. The stories bear into your brain. They don’t quietly go away. You don’t forget the things you have seen and heard. For some people, for example the dedicated, highly trained and overworked staff in social services, it’s something that can be parsed without trauma or at least with a professional distance; for the rest of us, it’s harrowing.
Behind every abuse story there is an imbalance of power. The status of the abuser is always superior. They might be older; they might be an adult where the victim is a child; they might be a family member – a parent perhaps. They might be someone more important socially, or more trusted. They enter into positions of trust for the express purpose of being a predator. It’s this power relationship that leads the victim to think they won’t be believed. Why would anyone take my word for what happened? Everyone is going to believe them instead.
All survivors will have been through that feeling – that they won’t be believed, that there’s no point in disclosing anything, that it will only lead to more problems. Abusers bank on it. They reinforce it through everything they say and do, to emphasise that they are the ones with the power, while the victim is powerless. The circle continues, and gets worse.
In relation to historic abuse, it might be tempting to blame the decades of the 1970s or 1980s, that somehow monsters like the celebrities currently being investigated – or who have been convicted – were a product of their times, and we are so much wiser now. But I think that’s dangerous to assume. The same ideas persist. Good men don’t tell lies, and they should be believed above the word of a mere child, or someone who is beneath them. The higher the status of the abuser, the more chance they still have of getting away with it.
You can see this quite clearly with some of the reaction to the Ted Heath allegations this week. Oh, it couldn’t possibly be him. Neighbours and friends explain that the Ted Heath they knew couldn’t possibly have done the things he is supposed to have done, just as the neighbours and friends of Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris, Max Clifford and the rest said the same things, back before it all came out. Maybe this time it’s different; maybe it isn’t. But there is an assumption that someone so powerful couldn’t have been up to no good, that somehow his status is something that needs protecting from rumour and suspicion, and nasty little witch hunts. Let dead men rot, and leave them in peace.
I’ve seen the argument a couple of times this week, by proper writers who get paid and everything, that any allegations about Ted Heath are false. The writers have decided this because, well, they just have. They don’t know how many accusers there are, or what the accusations are, or what the details might be, although they’re more than happy to put the word victims into quotation marks – “victims” – to make it clear what they think.
Journalists, particularly columnists and thinkpiece producers, like to make out they challenge the status quo, but they are the upholders of the establishment. They often have an unhealthy deference to powerful people and powerful sources. It challenges their whole worldview to imagine that good men could be monsters, so it simply won’t do, and they simply will not accept it. Why are we bothering to investigate long-dead men, or people who are closer to death? Why can’t we just leave reputations alone?
But that’s the whole point. It’s precisely because of the status of these men that they should be looked at so closely. And even if the alleged perpetrators are long since dead, it doesn’t matter, because if it happened, it still happened, and those who were marked by it and left behind by it are still around, still forever changed by what happened – if it happened. Of course it’s not a call to automatically believe every claim that’s ever made, but to look at them seriously, and take each one seriously, no matter who it is who is being accused. Don’t simply dismiss any claim because of the status of the alleged perpetrator – that is a very, very dangerous place to go to, and emphasises why abusers get away with it, not just the celebrity ones, but all abusers, everywhere.
Maybe it helps people to think of child abuse as something that happened in the past, but doesn’t happen anymore. Maybe it’s comforting to think that it’s not really a problem. Maybe we don’t like to think that human beings are capable of the things they’re capable of, particularly those people we elevate to the highest levels in society – because what then does that say about us? But it does happen, and it keeps happening, and it will always keep happening.
One thing that came out of the whole Savile affair was that survivors felt emboldened. Perhaps they would be believed, after all, no matter if their abuser was a high-status man, someone famous, someone with wonderful charity work, someone who was trusted and admired by everyone else, everyone who didn’t know their dirty little secrets. To imagine, based on nothing other than your own suspicions, that victims aren’t victims and this is all some kind of grimy witch-hunt, is the very worst kind of wilful ignorance, completely inexcusable. It’s not true, it’s not right and it does a huge disservice to those brave people who have battled against demons only they know in order to come forward and take a stand against the people who hurt them.
Let’s have no special status for anyone who’s accused, no sweeping clearing of all blame for those people we decide are particularly worthy or above reproach. And it’s time to educate those who cheerfully think that men in positions of power must be trusted, just because they are who they are. Or were.