The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

The man who “groomed a nation”

January 2013.  The UK news is full of reports of the early investigations into the activities of what appears to be one of the most prolific paedophiles in recent history.

Jimmy Savile

Born in Leeds on 31 October 1926, the youngest of seven children, Jimmy Savile lived a very private life in the public eye.  It is reported he injured his spine in a mining accident in 1940, when he was 14.  A little later he began what would become his public career as a dance hall DJ.  He went on to become a national icon, a man famous for his white hair, cigar, charity fundraising and eccentricity.  He never married and remained devoted to his mother, whom he called “The Duchess”, and who died in 1983.  Jimmy Savile remained a public figure until his own death on 29 October 2011, two days short of his 85th birthday.

We now know that his privacy and eccentricity were an effective cover for interests and activities that, when they became publicly known in 2012, met with shock and horror.

By 1955, when Savile was 28, he had begun a second ‘career’ as a paedophile.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that in the early 1960’s  he faced at least a couple of investigations for “messing about with girls”, charges which were dropped when he “paid them off”.  In 2009, when Savile was aged 82, the CPS analysed information regarding allegations against him but did not prosecute due to “insufficient evidence”.

Since the ITV revelation of allegations against Savile at the beginning of October 2012, more information and more allegations have come to light.  The collation of this information suggests he was most prolific as a paedophile during the 10 year period 1966-1976; however allegations of abuse date to as recently as 2009, making his paedophile career span over 50 years.

There is anecdotal evidence that his activities were an “open secret” at the BBC, schools and hospitals where he worked, visited or with whom he was involved for ostensibly charitable purposes.  Managers, colleagues, professionals, all knew Savile abused, and especially liked young girls.

Despite this his activities were not yet public knowledge.  In 1971 he was awarded the OBE, in 1990 a Papal Knighthood, the highest award the Catholic Church can give; in 1996 he received a knighthood from the Queen.  During his lifetime he successfully dodged the occasional questions about his sexuality and liking for young girls. The only real flaw in his public profile came from the Louis Theroux documentary in 2000, in which he came across as strange and creepy to some viewers.

The victims

After collating more than 450 reports from individuals since the revelations in October 2012, there are currently 214 recorded allegations of abuse against Savile, covering 28 police force areas, and including 34 allegations of rape or penetration.

The likelihood is that these are not the only incidents in which Savile was involved.  Of the 450 reports some were deemed to have insufficient information to record an allegation, while in other cases the victims did not want their allegation pursued.  It is probably reasonably safe to assume there are other victims who have chosen to not come forward to give information or evidence, and, considering the time span and level of contact Savile had with hospital patients, there may be other victims who have already died.

Whatever the actual number of victims the majority appear to have been teenage girls between the ages of 13 and 16 at the time of the abuse, although the full age range is already known to be 8-47.  73% of victims were under 18 at the time of the offence.  82% of victims were female.

Allegations or fact?

Like it or not Jimmy Savile is no longer with us to answer these allegations.  He cannot be prosecuted and found guilty beyond all reasonable doubt, or found innocent in the presence of doubt.  The best conclusion is that of the police who have noted that the victims’ accounts paint a “compelling picture of widespread sexual abuse by a predatory sex offender”.

Taking into account the number of allegations made and the possibility there are many more incidents that have not been included, together with anecdotal comments by former colleagues, the probable outcome of a trial would be ‘guilty’.

In the words of Cdr Peter Spindler, who is leading the abuse probe, Savile had “groomed the nation”.

What next?

Questions are being asked about how such a prolific abuser could have got away with it for so long.  David Cameron’s official spokesman is quoted as saying it is “absolutely right that every institution involved gets to the bottom of what has gone on”.  Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt wants to be able to assure NHS patients that it would be “much, much harder” for abuse on such a scale to happen again by establishing whether NHS procedures were to blame, and that the scale of the challenge for the NHS investigation into Savile’s abuse on its premises was “absolutely huge” because it would cover a period of about 40 years.  Labour shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper called for “a proper overarching review led by child protection experts into why everyone failed to stop Savile and what should be done now”, and that “a myriad of small reviews and inquiries into how it could happen in different hospitals or the BBC are just not enough”.  Most of this is political posturing.

When a child dies or other significant event of public concern happens it is right that reviews and investigations are held in order for organisations and society to learn from what happened and work to prevent a tragedy from happening again.  But does that apply in this case?

Victims and lawyers are talking of “justice”, “closure” and “compensation”.  In the absence of a criminal court hearing those reviews may well be useful in handling those claims, especially against the BBC and the Savile estate, both of which are probably the most vulnerable to claims.

Past or future?

Reviews are about blame.  Those being blamed, whether individuals or organisations, naturally take the position of defence.  Conclusions are still drawn and recommendations for change made.  But analysing what went wrong forty or fifty years ago and trying to draw conclusions about it for today is not the way forward in the Savile case.

The data currently available shows that the vast majority of Savile’s acts of abuse occurred at a time when knowledge about, and attitudes towards, sexual abuse and the protection of the vulnerable, was vastly different and underdeveloped compared to today.

The 1960’s was about the growth of “free love”.  The 1970’s saw the development of the contraceptive pill and the acceptance of cohabitation, at a time when it was still called “living in sin”.  Women still regularly suffered sexual harassment in the workplace with no recourse for justice.  The crime of marital rape was not yet recognised in law.  Sexual abuse was hardly considered and child sexual abuse barely acknowledged.  Those families who knew of the ‘unusual interests’ of one of their members monitored their behaviour and protected the children in their family and wider network as best they could.

That is not to say any of that was right, it’s just how it was.  Had Jimmy Savile been successfully prosecuted in those decades he would have found much less controversy than we are seeing now.

The way forward?

For better or worse we are now living in the 21st Century.  This is no longer the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Some things have not changed.  Children are born, people get sick or grow old and die.  Divisions of wealth and poverty remain.  We know paedophiles existed then and we know they exist today.  But there are new ways in which they have to operate.  The internet did not exist 50 years ago.  Social media did not connect people thousands of miles apart in anonymous intimacy.  Families and communities are more fragmented, leaving the vulnerable more vulnerable than they were fifty or more years ago.

Instead of wallowing in what went wrong in the past we need to be looking at the now and toward the future. We don’t need blame oriented investigations to look at whether or not a Savile type reign of abuse could be happening today.  Instead we need to be asking how well today’s preventative measures are working.

The exception in the Savile case is the Crown Prosecution Service which has made a start in publishing their review.  It was right that they should investigate their failure to act in 2009.  It was only three years ago.  Their prompt response, apology and pledge for enhanced information sharing and additional training for prosecutors is to be applauded.

But what of the rest?

Today Jimmy Savile would have to have a CRB check to visit children’s homes and hospital wards.  But does the Enhanced CRB check system work?  Personally I have my reservations about a system that depends on records of someone having been reported, investigated or prosecuted.  Most paedophiles have long reigns of abuse before they would fail an Enhanced CRB check.

News media should be asking themselves, honestly, what they would do now if they became aware of allegations against a famous and apparently much loved public figure.  Some quarters of the media might leap at the chance of such an exposure but could they also be persuaded to ‘suppress’ a similar story today?  Especially if their reports would damage well established charities and institutions.

What of the BBC?  They are looking pretty bad at the moment.  Operating as a private company they are not only facing the Savile crisis they are also under pressure from negative press for their actions in encouraging their ‘stars’ to operate ‘companies’ that enable both the stars and the BBC as their employers to avoid their income tax obligations.  But they can still ask themselves some hard questions.  How would management respond today if they had reason to believe that any of their employees with access to children and vulnerable adults had improper motives?

Public and private institutions, including private and NHS hospitals, care homes and schools, should all be adhering to current safeguarding legislation.  Each and every one should check their systems for reporting abuse and suspicions of abuse.  Does their culture deter whistle blowing?  What would happen if a member of staff reported concerns regarding not only another member of staff but of visitors too, whether friends, family or respected members of the public?

In some of Savile’s cases professionals were guilty of suspecting or knowing what was going on.  Again we need to take into account the period in which these things happened and how professionalism, particularly of the nursing and child care professions, has changed since the 1960’s and 1970’s.  The expectations, training, values and ethics of all the professions have developed and moved on since that time.  Hopefully for the better.  However, as their employing organisations look at how they would respond to such a high profile case today, professionals need to have a voice in those considerations.

As members of the public we should all be asking ourselves how we would respond if we suspected someone of carrying out abuse.  Would we ignore it, think it someone else’s responsibility, not consider it important enough?  Would we think, just because they were famous, they could not be guilty?  Or are we prepared to accept the evidence when presented?  As adults are we willing to take responsibility for ourselves, our vulnerable members and our children?  Parents sometimes make the difficult decision to drop charges in order to protect their child from the traumas of giving evidence and potential publicity.  How as a society do we respond to their very valid concerns?  But it goes beyond these questions.  Are we concerned about how the media presents the sexuality of children and exposes our children at ever younger ages to sexualised attitudes and material?  These are just some of the questions we should be asking ourselves.

Could our nation be “groomed” by a charismatic eccentric today?

Data and quotes taken from the plethora of reports on various UK news websites, including the BBC, and Wikipedia (


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