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