Wednesday 20 November 2019

David Quinn: The Savile scandal has echoes of our own child abuse nightmares

The BBC's response to the Jimmy Savile revelations has been eerily reminiscent of both the Catholic Church's response to its child abuse scandals, and to our own national broadcaster's handling of the Fr Kevin Reynolds case.

Writing about the BBC in the London 'Times' on Wednesday, David Epstein had this to say: "It turns out that the BBC is no different from any other large organisation when it comes to handling a crisis. First there has been denial, then reluctant acknowledgement ... then the internal inquiry rapidly overtaken by external inquiries, then the abject apologies and finally the admission that the system failed."

When news of the Fr Kevin Reynolds libel action first emerged, RTE's initial response was a fierce defence. Later we had a station executive announcing that "rolled heads learn nothing". Then we had several inquiries and appearances before Oireachtas Committees plus several resignations. In the meantime, Fr Reynolds received a huge out-of-court settlement.

How the Catholic Church responded to revelations of abuses is well recorded, which is what makes the BBC's response to the Savile revelations all the more bewildering.

BBC Director General, George Entwistle, showed a singular lack of awareness when he tried to explain to a House of Commons committee on Tuesday why the station did not put a stop to Savile's reign of terror.

He said: "So far as I have been able to tell so far, Mr Savile prosecuted his disgusting activities in a manner that was very successfully and skilfully concealed.

"Experts in paedophile behaviour have pointed out that this is often the case... People build long-range plans to put them in contact with their targets. These things are institutionally, it seems, very difficult to deal with."

This is exactly the sort of special pleading used by bishop after bishop when trying to explain why their organisation didn't rein in this or that abuser.

Entwistle even hid behind the hierarchical nature of the BBC when trying to explain why he didn't know more about the cancelled 'Newsnight' investigation into Savile. He didn't want to interfere in the decisions of managers lower down the chain of command, and information wasn't passed up to him. In the words of Ann Treneman, writing in the London 'Times': "He (Entwistle) kept talking about the culture of the BBC, how the chain of command was sacrosanct, how systems and structures were everything".

This is also all too reminiscent of the Catholic Church.

What is also very familiar is the way in which everyone at the BBC seemed to think it was someone else's responsibility to report suspicions about Savile (plus the nine others now under investigation) to the relevant authorities.

Or else they didn't think what Savile was up to back in the day was that big a deal because it was all part of the 'anything goes' culture of the 1970s and 1980s, when there were real attempts to replace the age of consent with a 'principle of consent' and to permit sexual relations between adults and young teenagers. A pro-paedophile outfit was a member of the National Council for Civil Liberties in the UK until the early 1980s. The North American Man-Boy Love Association was a member of the International Gay and Lesbian Association until the mid 1990s.

What also protected Savile was his huge celebrity status. That also sounds very familiar.

Another organisation in big trouble over child abuse is the Boy Scouts of America. It has been forced to release files showing that between 1958 and 1985, it received multiple allegations of abuse against no fewer than 1,200 scout leaders.

These allegations were often covered up, not just by the scouts, but by the police as well, and sometimes the offender, not the victim, was sent away for treatment. How familiar does that sound?

In the 'Daily Telegraph' on Tuesday, Mary Riddell might as well have been writing about the Catholic Church (or the scouts) when she said: "At the heart of Savile's story are two interlinked forms of violation -- the abuse of children and the abuse of power.

"The victims were betrayed not only by the BBC hierarchy but also by the Surrey Police, who failed to prosecute; by the DJ's colleagues, who never spoke out; and by all those in awe of a star whose fame and bogus virtue shielded him from scrutiny until (no thanks to the BBC) his secrets emerged and the current wave of horror broke."

What Riddle describes is a pattern that seems to repeat itself in one organisation after another, namely the committing of a terrible offence by members of the organisation, the turning of a blind eye followed by cover-up and then denial.

The Catholic Church did it, the Boy Scouts did it, and now the BBC has done something very similar.

Irish Independent

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