Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy, shown on ITV last Wednesday, will have horrified those for whom Jimmy Savile was a broadcasting institution.
The programme alleged that the DJ and presenter of such shows as Top of the Pops and Jim’ll Fix It, famous for his eccentric lifestyle and having raised more than £40million for charity, was a sexual predator who regularly abused girls in their early teens.
Savile, who died last October aged 84, obviously cannot defend himself against these allegations, but the programme’s presenter, former detective Mark Williams-Thomas, made a compelling case, interviewing a succession of middle-aged women who described how they’d been assaulted by Savile in their youth, as well as people who had witnessed Savile’s behaviour.
Childline founder Esther Rantzen, a onetime BBC colleague of Savile, looked distraught as she said that she had no doubt that the women who had come forward to tell their stories were telling the truth. Admitting that people had blocked their ears to gossip about Savile, whose charity work had given him an almost saintly status, she said “In a funny way we all colluded in this… we in some way colluded with him as a child abuser.”
Some have been quick to speak of a BBC cover-up, and of a code of honour among ‘luvvies’, but neither gloating nor point-scoring will undo the harm that Savile did or prevent further abuse by others.
The reality is that Savile hid in plain sight; colleagues, journalists, and even fans chose to turn a blind eye to his behaviour.
His 1974 autobiography, As It Happens, describes how in the 1950s he had told a female police officer that if an attractive runaway from a remand home were to come to his club, he would return her to the police but only after keeping her overnight first as his ‘reward’. He did just that, and boasted that the officer’s colleagues had to dissuade her from bringing charges against him.
How could anybody have ignored this? Did they dismiss it as a laddish tall tale? It may simply have been that they didn’t want to believe it. Denial, sadly, is all too often our default response when faced with the reality of abuse. Our own history shows this all too bleakly.
In 1930, W.T. Cosgrave’s Cumann na nGaedheal government appointed a committee under William Carrigan K.C. to consider if the Criminal Law Amendment Acts of 1880 and 1885 should be amended. The most shocking of the committee’s findings, submitted the following year, was that:
“…there was an alarming amount of sexual crime increasing yearly, a feature of which was the large number of criminal interference with girls and children from 16 years downwards, including many cases of children under 10 years.”
The police estimated that under 15pc of such cases were prosecuted, as it was difficult to establish guilt and parents felt it would be better for their children if such cases were kept secret.
The Department of Justice recommended against the report’s publication, and Cosgrave’s government fell without having decided what to do; de Valera’s Fianna Fáil government set up an all-party committee to consider in confidence how to respond to the report’s findings, but nothing was done.
It would be easy to dismiss the suppression of the Carrigan Report as emblematic of a less enlightened age, but things have scarcely improved over the last 80 years. Nowadays we don’t hide the truth; we just ignore it.
In 2002 the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre published the findings of a massive study on sexual abuse and violence in Ireland. The SAVI Report found, among other things, that 27pc of Irish adults had been sexually abused as children, with half of these having never told anybody of their experiences. Of Ireland’s more than 780,000 adult survivors of childhood abuse, it seems that roughly 530,000 had experienced contact sexual abuse, about 120,000 having been raped.
SAVI also found that nearly 60pc of abuse survivors had been abused by people within the family circle including extended family, neighbours, and family friends, 4.6pc having been abused by their babysitters. Just under 1.7pc of abuse was committed by clergy, with a further 1.7pc by teachers who were members of religious orders.
For every victim whose abuser had been convicted for their crimes, about 200 had never seen justice done. Almost two-thirds of abuse survivors had been abused while under twelve years old.
So damning a report ought to have defined our national understanding of abuse, and shaped public policy for dealing with it, but instead SAVI’s impact has been negligible, Ireland’s media and politicians having averted their eyes from its findings.
The current government has made loud noises about protecting children, but its actions have resembled those of generals fighting the last war. Much of the Children First Bill concentrates on abuse within organisations, when it seems that organisational abuse, while not a thing of the past, has already been greatly reduced.
People generally recognise that most abuse takes place within the family circle, but few realise that relatively little contemporary abuse takes place elsewhere. In 2009 the Irish Times quoted a Garda Detective Sergeant fighting internet paedophiles with Interpol as saying that 85pc of child sexual abuse occurs within the family circle, and the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland revealed that 97pc of abuse survivors who had sought their help the previous year had been abused by people within their family circle.
As much as a third of Ireland’s sexual abuse is committed by adolescents, but our popular narrative of abuse remains focused on the bogeyman figure of the ‘paedophile priest’, rather than on the teenage boy.
People would rather believe that abusers are ‘out there’ rather than very close to home. Last September, Father Paddy Banville wrote in this paper that the problems of abuse and cover-up in the Irish Church reflected the problems of abuse and cover-up in Irish society; the ensuing furore was, in the words of the Irish Times critic at the time of the 1907 Playboy Riots, “as if a mirror were held up to our faces and we found ourselves hideous. We fear to face the thing.”
It’s clear that people rationalise abusive behaviour, believe that it’ll not happen again, play down the damage that was done, and say that whatever their loved ones may have done, they’re still their brothers, husbands, sons, or friends. Mercy, hope, loyalty, and trust conspire to drive our eyes from the crimes of those we love.
We need to acknowledge this if we’re to have any hope of eradicating the scourge of abuse from Irish life. Addressing it in the Church has just been the beginning. It’s time to face facts.
-- A version of this was originally published in The Irish Catholic, 11 October 2012.