Without doubt child sexual exploitation is this week’s hottest issue. Heads have rolled at the BBC for how they handled the Jimmy Savile case and for reporting allegations about a Conservative peer without checking the facts. Whatever the failings of the BBC, they should not divert attention away from the way children have been sexually abused and the harm it has done them.
The case against the late Mr Savile must be thoroughly investigated and his alleged victims given the help they need to find healing and peace, but they are not the only victims that need help.
Tom Watson MP says he has evidence of a former Cabinet Minister and a senior aide to Margaret Thatcher engaged in child abuse. Simon Danczuk MP told the Commons of allegations against the former and now deceased MP, Sir Cyril Smith. Nicola Blackwood MP, launching a Commons debate on child sexual exploitation, spoke of 50 victims aged 11-16 in her Oxford constituency. The Rochdale case is still fresh in public memory and nine more Rochdale men are due in Court for similar offences. Others speaking in the debate suggested that child abuse is happening in many communities. Ann Coffey MP cited sixty cases of ‘inter-familial’ abuse in Stockport. Catholic and Anglican priests have also been implicated.
The Christian ideal is that sexual activity belongs in stable, life-long, married relationships but each of these contextual factors has been abandoned in our morally relativist society. I used to think that the only absolute left was that children should be cared for and protected from abuse of any kind. Even that now seems to have gone. What should and can be done?
One of the wisest contributions to be Commons debate, by Graham Allen MP, concerned the need to understand why child abuse happens and how it begins, as a basis for preventing it. He noted evidence that many child abusers had themselves been abused by people they knew; causing some to think that it is normal behaviour. He quoted a source who described typical abusers as lacking empathy for their victims and capable of thinking that the children they were abusing consented to it. In other words, if we want to protect children from child abuse we have to find ways of helping everyone to grow into well-adjusted, emotionally aware human beings.
This focuses attention on parenting and schools but neither are presently in a good place to fulfil this responsibility. Too many parents split up whilst their children are still under 16 and teachers are required to reflect contemporary moral values. The challenge to the churches is obvious. What are they doing to prepare couples whom they marry to stay together and then to parent effectively so that they nurture their children to grow up safely, with a healthy emotional life and empathy in their relationships. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that child abuse is part of a bigger problem and preventing it should be a top priority of Church and state.