Contexts of abuse revisited

The revelations about Jimmy Savile reminded me of a blog post I wrote four years ago. It was inspired by the events that were unfolding then in the former children's home in Jersey, and it has now emerged that Savile himself was also implicated there.

Although my post concentrated on other forms of physical abuse, the general argument is just as relevant today for sexual abuse.

I will repeat it in full, as my old blog is not easily accessible.


Saturday, 01 March 2008

Contexts of abuse

The revelations about child abuse in Jersey have been very disturbing, and will no doubt get worse as more evidence is found and more information is put in the public domain. 

For me they awakened memories from the 50s, 60s and 70s. Not that I suffered any abuse myself, but I feel an irrational guilt about the way abusive behaviour was often considered acceptable then.

It is only in the last twenty years or so that attitudes to children have really changed. The images that haunted my childhood were of other children being beaten or humiliated in front of me. Six year olds spanked in front of the whole school as punishment for bad behaviour; infant school refusers being dragged screaming into assembly, banging their heads horribly on the doors; nine year old boys being caned in front of the class. This was considered acceptable by teachers who were acting 'in loco parentis' - after all, parents could do it in the privacy of their homes.

So violence against children was institutionalised and indeed promoted as the way to produce good citizens.

Child sexual abuse did not, according to popular wisdom, exist - but then sex was not talked about much anyway.

Back in the 70s I was a Governor in an Inner London school (it no longer, exists, by the way). Right at the end of his career the Head was arrested for sexually assaulting a pupil while on a residential trip. It appears this was by no means the only incident. 

Looking back we realised that there had been some attempts at whistleblowing, but the brave whistleblower had been branded a trouble maker and eased out by the Head. (Hm.. it seems something similar happened in Jersey, too)

But what really upsets me now is that the Head, who pleaded guilty, was only given a suspended sentence. Can you imagine that happening now?

This is the context within which the Jersey abuse was happening.  The casual acceptance of violence, coupled with a belief that the damaged children who found their way into children's homes needed 'discipline', created a culture which, sadly, permeated all such institutions at that time. 

How it then slipped in Jersey into a different level of abuse, going far beyond the acceptable limits even of the time, will probably be revealed when all this comes to court. My guess is that one charismatic and physically powerful character established a regime in which more and more extreme forms of 'discipline' were gradually introduced as instruments of control. Each step would have been justified by the failure of previous methods. Of course, such cultures attract and encourage those with an appetite for sexual abuse.

I'm just very grateful that the UK is now a more liberal society. People in general are sensitive to the damage that can be caused to children, and today's youngsters are protected in a way that my generation never were.  Abuse does still happen, and we should all be ready to report it, but the difference now is that beating a child is actually recognised as assault and not dismissed as discipline.


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