Following the alleged Jimmy Savile scandal, broadcaster Anne Atkins confesses she is guilty of turning a blind eye to similar crimes – but says we can NEVER force victims to report their abusers – even if it means them going unpunished
Daily Mail Reporter
09:36 GMT, 2 November 2012
10:31 GMT, 2 November 2012
Some years ago I heard the brilliant George Steiner lecturing on taboo, the issues we cannot talk honestly about. Every society has them: some don’t realise it. Ours War, race, incest and death.
Add another. Paedophilia.
I suspect like many, I was dismayed that so many could have ignored such a damaging crime for so long. Reflecting on this, I suddenly realised, to my consternation, that I too had been blind to something I’d been told years before.
Broadcaster Anne Atkins confesses to turning a blind eye
Opting to tackle the mote in my own eye before the plank in another’s, I analysed last week, as honestly as I could, how this was possible. If I can understand why I didn’t see a gnat, I might understand others missing an elephant. The ensuing vitriol taught me everything I did – and didn’t – need to know about why it’s difficult to speak out.
Charities have recently been inundated with people reporting child sexual abuse – some from several decades ago. If the criticisms levelled at me were accurate, these people are also morally bankrupt monsters, deliberately endangering others by shielding paedophiles for years.
I don’t believe they are. Some have only just found courage; some only now trust that they might be believed; some, like me, may have suddenly realised they’ve long known something without seeing its implications.
Sometimes we genuinely don’t realise something is abuse. I was told, by a friend I’m calling Chris, about something that had happened years earlier. By the time I was told, Chris was adult – and older than me; so I naturally assumed, better informed. It obviously hadn’t occurred to Chris that what ‘Peter’, an older man, had done when Chris was a teenager constituted abuse.
Why should it have occurred to me It wasn’t until my daughter Serena asked me very recently whether it should be reported that it even crossed my mind. I had considered it horrible and controlling: not criminal.
I have since described the incident to a number of professional people… none of whom knew whether it was illegal either: there was no physical contact, and it took place in the 1970s. The authoritative pronouncement I eventually received was that if Chris were male, they almost certainly were criminal acts committed against him; if female, they probably weren’t, unless force could be proved.
Anne had had considered it horrible and controlling: not criminal
Today, they would undoubtedly be crimes because Peter was in a “position of trust” – a provision that was only introduced in 2000.
To muddy the water further, when I asked what action the police would have taken when I first heard about it in the 80s, I was told, ‘probably nothing.’ If the police would have turned a blind eye, how can we blame civilians for doing so And in what sense was it against the law
I didn’t urge Chris to report the incidents simply because I didn’t think of it. Chris didn’t either. This is hardly surprising if the behaviour was not obviously illegal.
Even if I had, there is the even more compelling issue of loyalty. I could not contemplate breaking my friend’s confidence without permission. There was no legal onus on me to do so, since Chris was an adult and capable of doing this without my help.
How can it ever be right to pressurise a survivor to report abuse
Nor could I. If Chris is not willing to press charges, what could I – or the police, or the CPS – do I have been profoundly disturbed by people shrieking that I should have reported it then and must now. To what end All I have is hearsay; which thankfully, in a liberal democracy, is not sufficient for a criminal prosecution. So reporting it would achieve nothing except a broken faith and a damaged friendship – with one of the few people Chris has talked to about it.
When I was researching for my novel A Fine and Private Place, in the 90s, I was told by the Samaritans that they would not break confidence even to report a murder about to be committed: this formed the basis of my plot. Frightening though this seems, I’m sure there was good reason.
And how can it ever be right to pressurise a survivor to report abuse If, heaven forbid, a daughter of mine were raped, I would consider her welfare and recovery before anything else. If she would find it too traumatic to report, I might gently suggest but I would never forcefully persuade.
I have spoken to my friend about reporting it, as I said I would last week. Chris's response was stark: “I can't be bothered.” Startling though this sounds, these are the words of someone who has moved on. ‘There’s no evidence: it would be my word against his. It’s very unlikely he is a risk to others now, and I don’t know that there were others then.’
The next comment was highly significant: ‘What was damaging was not the sexual acts, but the psychological control. That went on for years, and there is no law against that.’ The inappropriate sexual behaviour, in this instance, was perhaps a symptom – almost incidental – of something rather worse.
I have also spoken to ‘Peter’. He told me there was one incident only, with which Chris concurs. He has assured me it never happened with anyone else, which I have no reason to disbelieve. He also emphatically disputed the timing: Peter says it took place after the age of Chris’s majority; Chris remembers it taking place before. I believe the latter – but I also know Chris has far too much integrity to insist on an accusation, so long afterwards, that relies on memory alone.
'It is never right to pressurise someone
else to take part in a sexual act, whether that compulsion relies on
youth, or on a long and controlling relationship which started in youth'
Regarding the two people concerned – the coercion involved; the domineering relationship that the act represented – a few months either way makes no difference whatsoever. It is never right to pressurise someone else to take part in a sexual act, whether that compulsion relies on youth, or on a long and controlling relationship which started in youth.
In law, however, it makes all the difference in the world. The slightest ambiguity over the date means that in this case, further action would be not only futile, but unjust.
What have I learnt That Chris’s instinct was right all along: there was, and is, nothing to report. The only time to have done so would have been immediately afterwards. And that was impossible for the same psychological reason that resistance was.
Thankfully, too, it means that my instinct was right as well: by the time I heard of it, some years later, it was already too late to do anything other than listen sympathetically. There was little the police could or would have done, and action would only have been possible because of the age of consent – a prosecution hardly palatable then and abhorrent now.
But it was also right that I should have questioned what I knew, and agonised over whether I should have done something. It has also helped me to understand how others could not have reported something much worse.
There is something else which I am loathe to admit publicly. But since this exercise has been an examination of myself to understand how others have behaved, integrity requires it: I was frightened of talking to Peter. My sleep was disturbed and I felt anxious and nauseous – and immediately beforehand, sick all over. In real terms, he had far more to fear from the conversation.
It should be no surprise that reporting abuse can sometimes take decades
But that is how powerful personality works: it is very hard to oppose. If this was so for me, who had nothing to do with the events, how many times more must it be for those who have experienced abuse Particularly from those in positions of authority. It should be no surprise that reporting it can sometimes take decades.
How dare we dictate how someone should respond to being abused I experienced two sexual assaults in youth. One, when I was 18, was illegal – and caused me no trauma whatsoever. The other, when I was 11, was not – and yet resulted in years of fear and humiliation. If any fuss had been made, my distress would have been far worse.
Most of all, sadly, I have learnt how very judgemental we still are. I admitted that I hadn’t reported something told me in confidence years ago. By the response you’d almost think I’d committed the acts myself: I have been dubbed a “paedophile enabler,” a “hypocrite”… and no doubt much worse if I had stomach to read it all.
Donald Findlater of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation says that our sometimes “binary” frenzy over sex abuse – the idea that most of us are human beings, while the rest are fiends – does little to help us recognise or respond to it. Human relationships are infinitely complex, we are all capable of good and evil, and abuse within families (for instance) can be committed by an otherwise loving and providing carer.
One significant factor is that Chris and Peter are still friends. Although there were inappropriate and damaging aspects to the relationship, overall, Chris says, Peter did Chris far more good than harm.
I was always far from convinced that Chris should report Peter. Far less that I had any right to insist on it. I remain passionately convinced that open discussion around paedophilia is crucial.
And hysterical, judgemental over-reaction is never going to foster that.
For help with reporting abuse contact the Lucy Faithfull Foundation: www.stopitnow.org.uk or 0808 1000 900.