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We must not turn away

24 May 2013

JIMMY SAVILE, Dave Lee Travis, Stuart Hall, Jimmy Tarbuck, and Jim Davidson used to entertain us. Now, they trouble us, each arrested or accused of sexual offences against minors or women. But should we just let them alone? As yet another ageing celebrity appears on our screen, one lawyer says that we should stop "fetishising victimhood". Is that what we are doing?

The barrister in question, Barbara Hewson, goes further. In the online magazine Spiked, she says that the age of consent should be 13, and we should stop the "persecution of old men" in what she calls a "prurient charade". She also believes that complainants should no longer receive anonymity; and that, after a certain length of time, prosecution should become impossible.

In response, the NSPCC describes her views as "outdated and simply ill-informed".

Ms Hewson says that "touching a 17-year-old's breast, kissing a 13-year-old, or putting one's hand up a 16-year-old's skirt" are not comparable to gang rapes and murders, and "anyone suggesting otherwise has lost touch with reality." The NSPCC warns against trivialising the impact of these offences for victims, which "all but denies they have in fact suffered abuse at all".

It can appear that it is the 1970s on trial more than any individual. "Things were different then," someone said to me. "You can't apply the same rules now." Go down this path, and the prosecution of "old men" can appear meaningless, because, yes, things have changed: the main difference is the hyper-vigilant culture we now live in.

"Inappropriate" behaviour towards children sets communal alarm bells ringing, while new protective fences abound. "Under no circumstances must a volunteer who has not obtained a CRB disclosure . . . be left unsupervised with children," the Department for Education guidelines state.

There is no guarantee that a CRB check will prevent abusers' working with children; the smartest will not appear on police records. But since the Children Act of 1989, a landmark in child protection, it is certainly different from the '70s.

There is a deep sense of loss in all of this, felt by many. As a former head teacher, Sue Palmer, says: "There's a sense of everyone keeping an eye on everyone else. People can become paranoid - they can be frightened of putting a plaster on a child's knee. On one hand, we're stopping occasional awful things from happening, but, on the other hand, it's breaking down human interaction when it comes to caring for children."

True. "Occasional awful things" do bring paranoia and legislative overreaction. But, we will not demonise children in our discomfort; neither will we turn away from the abuse of adult power, even if the suspects now have grey hair.

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