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Exposed — the dangers of a group mentality

by
28 August 2015

One year on, the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal reveals the risks of group norms, says Alan Billings

A YEAR ago this week, Professor Alexis Jay delivered her report on the way Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council handled child sexual exploitation in the town between 1997 and 2013. Her verdict stunned Rotherham, South Yorkshire, and ultimately the country as a whole. Girls as young as 11 had been systematically groomed, raped, abducted, beaten, and trafficked, while the authorities looked the other way.

Those authorities included South Yorkshire Police, whom I now hold to account as Police and Crime Commissioner — a post I was elected to last November, in the wake of the Jay report.

Inevitably, everyone asks the question: how could this possibly have happened? It is a question that the police in particular feel sharply. If anyone was in a position to see criminal activity of this nature and scale unfolding, it should have been them.

 

PROFESSOR JAY hints at some possible reasons for the negligence: managers and councillors who underplayed the seriousness of the situation; police who gave it “no priority”; sensitivities around ethnicity — the girls were mainly white, and the perpetrators were mainly of Asian heritage. These and many other individual factors contributed, but no single reason or collection of reasons seems to provide an adequate answer.

For the police, the situation has been similar to the issue of abuse which the Churches have been facing. If any organisations ought to have been alive to wrongdoing, and determined to prevent it, it should have been them.

 

THE Church, then, is hardly in a position to point any fingers; but it ought to be able to help its people reflect on why and how these and other instances of collective failure can come about.

When I took up my office, I was contacted by some of the victims of abuse and their families. Most of them prefer to call themselves “survivors”, because they now feel that they have come through those bad times and to some extent have regained control over their lives. At their request, we now meet regularly to see how the police response to those who have been abused can be managed better.

As I reflect on what they say, I understand more fully the importance of the Christian story — specifically, the narrative of Christ’s Passion — for alerting us to the way in which our individual sensitivities and behaviour may be shaped, or even taken over, by the attitudes and practice of the various groups to which we belong.

The Gospels illustrate with shocking clarity that, however good a disciple, chief priest, Roman official, soldier, or citizen may be as an individual, when part of a collective he or she is always capable of acting differently according to the norms of the groups to which he or she belongs. When the interests of our group — material or reputational — are in some way at stake, we go with the group.

It is a point that Reinhold Niebuhr understood, and tried to impress on the Church of his day, the 1930s; but the Church could not hear it then, and I doubt whether many Christians read Niebuhr today.

 

THE attitude of the police in Rotherham reflected those of the bigger collective, society itself. I am firmly of the opinion that we all played our part in what went wrong, not only in South Yorkshire, but across the country. The girls who were being groomed were seen by society — by all of us — in a particular light.

They were wilful, knowing, difficult, out of control, disrespectful of all authority. They were what my mother would have called “little madams” who brought it all on themselves. This mindset lay behind the response of so many, and represents a collective failure. There is no inspection regime that deals with this.

The fact that a crime was being committed, and that these girls were children, could be suppressed in such a culture. With a few honourable exceptions, we could not see it for what it was. We failed to understand the insidious nature of grooming.

 

THE value of the survivors’ and families’ group is that it helps to dispel some of these misconceptions. So, for example, the young women, who are now in their twenties, make it clear that what they were looking for when they fell into the hands of their abusers was not “a good time”, gifts, alcohol, or drugs — something that I hear said, even now — but love, romantic love.

They thought that they had found it with these men who loved them, or so they believed — older men, who knew what love was because they paid them attention and were affectionate. Eventually, the hideous truth dawned; but by then, they were trapped.

The group also dispels the notion that all those who were abused were from disadvantaged families, or in care. Many were, but some were not. Girls from any social background may know the allure of the groomer.

This is important to recognise, because the nature of grooming is changing. What happened on the streets of Rotherham and other towns is now migrating to the internet and social media. New types of grooming are happening between young people of a similar age.

There is also a warning here about the place of public opinion. The victims that Professor Jay identified were let down by officials who were responding to a public demand for certain types of crime to be prioritised. At that time, it was acquisitive crimes — burglary and car theft. Attention and resources were focused there; targets and bonuses were used. And, by and large, the police delivered what they were asked by the public to do. They did not allow emerging crimes to distract them.

Of course, the police need to listen to public opinion, but they should not be afraid to help the public think more widely about how the social landscape is changing, and new crimes are emerging.

In the Gospel accounts of the Passion, Christ is judged by ordinary people, whose attitudes and behaviour are shaped by the culture of the groups to which they belong. We are no different.

Professor Jay held a mirror to the behaviour of those who could not find a perspective from which to judge how they found themselves responding to child sexual abuse. We see that now. The next step for us is the more difficult. What are we currently not seeing?

 

Canon Alan Billings is the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire.

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