We have to support those who speak out on child abuse
If we're serious about protecting children, we need sanctions in place for those who don't report abusers.
Published 06/07/2014 | 02:30
I recall, years ago, listening to some friends reminiscing about their not so pleasant school days. One mentioned an infamous teacher who had earned the soubriquet "Feeler".
"Why?" I asked rather naively. They rolled their eyes at me. "Why do you think?" The man in question had disappeared suddenly when a brave father had arrived at the principal's office to complain; he was later discovered to have been sent to a so-called Third World country where parents don't have quick access to solicitors.
I was reminded of this conversation last week when I heard that Rolf Harris had earned himself the nickname "The Octopus". Why? Well, as those boys said so many years ago, "Why do you think?"
As with so many other cases of child abuse, the evidence was there all along, in front of our eyes, hiding in broad daylight. Harris had a penchant for "playing" with young girls. We now know that he visited websites on his computer with names like "My little nieces" and "Tiny teen girlfriends".
As the mother of a young teen girl, it's horrible to think (like the parents of Harris's daughter's friend) that I could be putting my child at risk by ignoring signals from friendly adults who are overly interested in hanging out with them. Is there anything, I must ask myself, I am not seeing? Is there anything, that I am refusing to see?
And I'm not overly paranoid, because it happens. How many mothers were only delighted when the local priest or brother took an interest in their little Johnny? How many would have refused men of power and celebrity access to their children when society was telling them how privileged they were to have been selected for such attention? How many are now devastated because the trusted person betrayed them so horribly? We're just starting to get our heads around the idea that "stranger danger" is not the problem that we always told our children it was. Yet "Don't talk to strangers" is still what I automatically tell my children when they leave the house. "But what if it isn't a stranger?," asks my 10-year-old, perceptively, "will I talk to him them?"
And he's right. In most cases of abuse we know the perpetrator, in some cases we love and trust them. And in far, far too many instances, we have an inkling of what is going on but we turn our eyes away, not wanting to face the facts because reality will cost us dearly.
A recent report by the National Rape Crisis Network showed that children under the age of 13 are most vulnerable to sexual assault by males in their own home. Children over the age of 13 are most vulnerable to abuse by a male, non-family member, usually a friend, neighbour or acquaintance, in locations outside the home. In quite a lot of these cases, people other than the perpetrator and victim, know, or at least suspect, what is going on.
But is it a crime if you don't report your suspicions?
I believe it should be. Otherwise, you are complicit in the abuse. I know, it's harsh but either we put 'Children First' or we don't. We can't have it both ways. And yet some people already think the investigations into child abuses have gone too far. There are claims that the recent investigations into child sexual abuse in institutions such as the church and the BBC has reached hysterical proportions. Some commentators criticise the aim to introduce "mandatory reporting" of abuse, claiming that it leads to suspicion, mistrust and possibly innocent people losing their good names.
The implication is clear: the protection of adults - even when there is considerable evidence to indicate criminal wrong-doing against children - is more important than the protection of the child. And this is particularly evident when the adult has the status of, say, a priest or a celebrity.
Here in Ireland, the new Children First Bill will make it mandatory for certain professionals and post-holders to report harm and risk of harm to the Child and Family Agency. Certainly, this is a very welcome development but it fails to mention any sanctions for not reporting abuse, whereas the heads of the Bill published two years ago included a penalty in prison of up to five years for failure to comply with the legislation. Are we back-tracking?
Maeve Lewis, of One in Four, though she welcomed the Bill, said she was concerned about two things: firstly, that the new legislation didn't include sanctions for professionals who do not adhere to the law (so one would have to ask, what's the point?) and secondly, that there didn't seem to be any extra resources in place to assist professionals in raising awareness of the new guidelines or for the general public "to let them know what is entailed in this".
I'd like to add a further concern, which is that we cannot forget that most abuse occurs within the family in cases involving children under 13, and within a close group of friends or community in cases of children over 13. The Saviles and Harrises may get more media print but, as we've seen, child abuse is usually much closer to home.
Professionals who work in this area often say that one of the biggest challenges they face is the collusion of people who should be protecting the child, with the perpetrator. Sometimes it is wilful, but often it is just a case of wanting to believe that a loved or trusted person is innocent, despite all evidence to the contrary.
What we really need is a focused, well-thought-out public awareness campaign, about what exactly child abuse is, how perpetrators commit their crimes and how they work to prevent detection, even (especially) from their nearest and dearest. We need to improve our levels of sex education in schools - it's horrific that so many children don't even understand what "consent" means.
We also need to persuade people, often those who have a lot to lose, that they have a moral obligation to speak out. And most importantly, we need to support them to do so.