When the inexcusable was excused

The appalling revelations of Jimmy Savile’s systematic abuse of minors have left in no doubt the complicity of British society in his behaviour. “The universal abhorrence at Jimmy Savile’s predatory career is a rare moment of national self-revelation,” reads an editorial in last Friday’s Guardian, adding: “We all bear a certain responsibility for letting him get away with it for so long.”

What has also hit home, as an intelligent column by Hugo Rifkind in today’s Times notes, is how far and how far rapidly social  attitudes have changed in respect of sex with minors since the 1970s.

[W]e’ve learnt that the tricky terrain of sexuality, particularly as it pertains to adults having sex with Savilechildren, has changed immeasurably in thirty years. Don’t be confused by all those who point to the contemporary abuses in Rotherham and Rochdale and argue that this sort of thing still goes on. They’re right, but they’re badly missing the point. Savile was not a figure on the fringes of society in a world of minicabs and kebab shops. He was the embodiment of light entertainment, having sex with as many children and teenagers as he could at a time when having sex with teenagers was considered a roguish, slightly naughty thing to do.

Part of the rage against Savile, I’m sure, has been an inward one, driven by our uncomfortable knowledge that, in some distracted part of our minds, we knew this stuff already. As recently as 1989, the late John Peel was so relaxed about sex with the underage that he told a funny anecdote in a newspaper interview about accidentally receiving fellatio from a 13-year-old. Nobody alerted the police or appeared even to notice. The list of arrests in Operation Yewtree — the Met’s investigation born out of the Savile allegations — is starting to sound like a roll call of a panel on Blankety Blank.

To get a sense of how different things were, consider that when in the 1970s the National Council for Civil Liberties (now called Liberty) told Parliament that paedophilia did no harm, “it caused barely a ripple“.

The reason this needs highlighting is that, when the clergy sex abuse crisis exploded in the early noughties, Catholics advanced as an explanation — not as a defence of the abusive acts, but to account for the failures of the Church to deal properly with them — that the social culture of the time did not regard sex with minors as a moral failure to be extirpated, and so most of the time it went unreported, unacknowledged and hidden. It often did not occur to report the matter to the police, because the police did not regard it as a matter to be dealt with; there were cases where it was reported and nothing happened (as with Savile). Because society did not make an exception of sex with minors, the Church regarded priests breaking their vows in this way as not so different from  breaking their vows to have sex with adults. (The fact that canon law regarded it as a far more serious matter proves only  what is now widely recognised: that canon law in 1970s-80s was too often ignored in the Church in a climate of antinomianism).

When Catholics made these points, they were often made to feel as if they were attempting some uniquely wicked defence of the indefensible — as if the rest of society acknowledged as evil something which the Church, alone among institutions, did not. The Savile revelations have exposed the lie of this accusation: he could only have abused on such a scale because, as the Guardian said, “we” all let him get away with it: the media, the BBC, the charities, the hospitals, the TV producers …. none of them disapproved enough to take action.

What is also striking in the Savile revelations is how few institutions  – -including the BBC — have in place the kind of safeguarding measures which the Church has developed to defend the young. Almost none, for example, have mandatory reporting guidelines — the cornerstone of any safeguarding policy.

Rifkind also sees in some of the hysteria surrounding Savile a very British  “appetite for a witchhunt”: this, he says, “has become a country that keeps a mob on standby, and in which truth and consensus pass themselves off as the same thing.”

For those who lived through the fire of media scrutiny of the Church during the sex abuse crisis, this will provoke a nod of recognition. It sometimes seemed as if the Church  — whose failures and faults in this area were real, although not very different from those of other institutions — was being singled out, scapegoated, mocked and insulted by a “mob on standby”, represented, of course, by the very media which is now starting to come to terms with its own complicity in Savile’s predatory behaviour.  The fury of what was directed at the Church often seemed, at the time, bewildering and irrational. Now we can see better where it came from.

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