A wave of revelations about long-hidden child sexual abuse has left Britons wondering what is wrong with their country, but experts say they are simply facing up to a problem that exists the world over.
“Child sexual abuse thrives on denial and secrecy. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to admit to and to talk about, and the UK is not alone in that,” said Jon Brown, lead official on sexual abuse at the NSPCC children’s charity.
“But unfortunately we are now being forced to face it squarely and look at the reality of what’s been going on.”
Britain has seen high-profile child abuse cases before but the revelation in 2012 that late BBC presenter Jimmy Savile was a prolific sexual predator opened the floodgates.
Abuse by other celebrities such as Rolf Harris emerged later and ministers this week launched a review into decades-old rumours of a paedophile ring involving politicians and a cover-up by the establishment.
Ministers also announced a wide-ranging inquiry into how institutions have failed to protect children, following a myriad of claims of abuse in care homes, schools, hospitals and churches.
Jon Bird, a victim of childhood abuse who works for the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC), says this official recognition of the scale of the problem is a breakthrough.
“It really is a sea change in attitudes — I never thought it would happen in my lifetime,” he told AFP.
Bird was raped by a stranger when he was four years old, but his mother told him to try to forget about it.
When he was sent away to boarding school at the age of eight he was abused again, this time by his headteacher. But he kept silent.
“People just didn’t want to talk about it,” Bird said, adding that without the revelations about Savile, “we still wouldn’t know about all of it”.
Dr Kieran McCartan, associate professor in criminology at the University of the West of England, says the high-profile cases have contributed to a “watershed moment”.
“We are becoming more open to conversations about sexual violence. People are starting to realise that anyone can be a sex offender and anyone can be a victim,” he said.
– ‘No worse than elsewhere’ –
Protestant Britain had largely escaped the major scandals over abuse in the Catholic Church seen in neighbouring Ireland and in the United States, and the latest revelations have led to national soul-searching.
The NSPCC estimates that one in 20 children has been sexually abused in Britain, 80 percent of them by someone in their family circle — a number that seems shockingly high.
Global comparisons are difficult, due to a lack of data and different cultural attitudes toward the problem.
But Professor Lorraine Radford, a social policy expert at the University of Central Lancashire who has just completed a review of child sexual abuse for UNICEF, says there is no evidence that Britain has a particular problem.
“The UK is not particularly high on child sexual abuse compared to the US or to Switzerland, for example, where comparable data exists,” she told AFP.
“Highest rates of child sexual abuse tend to be found in the US — although this has recently declined, according to US researchers — in several African nations and in some Latin American nations.”
– Why does this happen? –
Many hope the new willingness to confront abuse in Britain could help prevent it, alerting adults to the warning signs and giving children the confidence to report and repel offenders.
But there are concerns that yet another official inquiry into the failure to protect children — the first in Britain was in 1945 — will fail once again to address why the abuse happens in the first place.
There is a lack of research about sex offender behaviour and opinions about what drives it vary widely.
“We never really get to grips with why this happens,” said Alyson Leslie, a former social worker and child protection expert who is currently involved in investigating care home abuse on the Channel Island of Jersey.
“If we really want to be serious about prevention, that’s where we’ve got to put the bulk of our effort and attention.”