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Leader comment >

Savile, Harris, and the loss of innocence

CONTRARY to popular belief, the 1960s and '70s were not an age of innocence. The trial of the Moors murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, put paid to that. Children were warned not to accept lifts from strangers. Teenage girls were told to keep away from men. But these were often unspecific warnings, as parents attempted to shield their children both from harm and from the knowledge that harm was possible. One of teenagers groped by Rolf Harris in 1978 explained at his trial why she had kept quiet: "It was the '70s. Things like that were not talked about."

Several lessons can be learned from the trial of Mr Harris and the posthumous investigation into the activities of Jimmy Savile. Perhaps the most important is that childhood trauma can have a serious and lasting effect. The distress that the victims recall, and in some instances still experience, gives the lie to the view of some that non-consensual sexual contact - there are various laddish terms for it - was just normal behaviour for the time. The age and celebrity status of the perpetrators in the Yewtree investigations meant that there was power and its abuse in these encounters. What rankled with many of the victims was the sense of entitlement felt by their abuser, and his assumption that he was beyond reproach - something that cannot be gainsaid, given the years of delay before exposure.

The dilemma of how to protect children continues to exercise parents. The standard approach is to deny children the sorts of freedoms that parents enjoyed, while not ensuring that they are much safer. A family member is a statistically more dangerous person, but what sort of action can a parent take to protect against that possibility (especially if the perpetrator is a parent)? The predatory stranger is still the easiest villain to imagine, and thus outdoor play tends to be curtailed, and children continue to be warned about unspecified "monsters". But whatever they tell children, adults, at least, ought to avoid such distorting language when considering the correct response to abuse. Harris, Savile, Max Clifford, Stuart Hall - celebrity gave these men opportunities to abuse and manipulate. But that did not make them any more monstrous than someone who quietly abuses the only person in his or her power - or than those who have not committed abuse only for lack of opportunity.

The difference between now and the '60s and '70s is that steps have been taken to protect children against abuse. DBS (formerly CRB) checks are, perforce, burdensome and bureaucratic, and offer only a measure of security. But we would argue that, despite an inevitable heightening of suspicion, a sense of proportion and the assumption of innocence have survived their introduction. Greater awareness of sin and human fallibility has been matched by better safeguarding. In time, to these might be added greater understanding.

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