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A terrible human weakness lies at the heart of the Jimmy Savile case

It is very hard for us to acknowledge the evil that lies plainly before our eyes

By on Friday, 12 October 2012

Flowers lie in the place formerly occupied by Jimmy Savile's headstone (PA)

Flowers lie in the place formerly occupied by Jimmy Savile's headstone (PA)

After a time you notice that a pattern emerges. Jimmy Savile’s case reminds me very strongly of other cases that have come to light. A man who was universally respected, who enjoyed the company of the famous, who was praised for his charitable work, suddenly unmasked after his death. And questions are asked: who knew? If they knew, why didn’t they say? Why, above all, did they go ahead with celebrating the man’s memory when, it seems, all the time they had known?

Similar questions were put shortly after the death of Fr Kit Cunningham. Now it is the BBC that faces these questions. But there is, if one can consider things calmly, a human angle to this.

We often say things like the following, after the event: “I noticed such and such, and I felt uncomfortable, but I didn’t like to say…” People did notice things about Jimmy Savile, and they must have been disturbed, but they did not want to say anything. It takes courage to speak out, especially against the overwhelming consensus of opinion – and as a result the person who does not speak out becomes complicit, becomes part of the conspiracy of silence, and the guilt they feel at not speaking out makes their silence, the longer it is maintained, all the more compelling.

People at the BBC appear to have known about Jimmy Savile – there were explicit allegations after his death on Twitter, which suggests that the people in the know were numerous, though what they knew might have been very far from concrete. Yet it appears that they were drawn into and paralysed by the web of deceit spun by Savile. They knew, they did not speak out, they were made to feel like co-conspirators, sticking to the received orthodoxy (which they had helped create, after all) that he was a wonderful man. As the years passed, the breaking of silence grew ever more difficult: untruth assumes a seemingly invincible life of its own. It might well have seemed an impossible task to blow the whistle on Jimmy Savile back in the 1970s when so many, especially those who had covered up for him, had a vested interest in maintaining his undeserved reputation.

We may well see that some BBC personalities are forced to fall on their swords thanks to their long failure to act on Savile, just as several Catholic bishops were forced into retirement and disgrace by their failure to confront early on the known crimes and misdemeanours of their clergy. But this is not altogether suprising: humankind cannot bear very much reality. Denial of shocking offences is a common refuge of those confronted with what they know to be wrong. Things that are too awful to think about do lead people to bury their heads in the sand.

When the German government in the mid-1930s turned against German citizens of Jewish extraction, no one, or hardly anyone, protested. They pretended Kristallnacht somehow had not happened. They went on to ignore Auschwitz. By then they had a massive stake in denial.

In acknowledging Savile’s guilt now, those who praised and honoured him in the past have to admit not only that they were wrong, but that they had been wrong for decades, and that for decades they should have known better. That is quite a tall order. But the fact remains: if they had confronted the evil earlier, it would have been so much easier for all concerned, not least the victims. The long silence has compounded the damage.

Savile is not the only one to have offended in this way. Many of the abusive clergy were know to be abusers for years – I mentioned the Fr Kit Cunningham case earlier, but the most clear example of this was Fr Marcial Maciel whose evil deeds first began to come to light almost 60 years before he was brought to justice by Benedict XVI in 2005. Again, so many knew about Maciel, and yet he was able to get away with it for so long: but the more people who knew, the greater the number with a reason to keep it quiet. In the end thousands of people had a stake in the reputation of a man in whom they had invested so much.

  • Jonathan West

    Though it might surprise a few people for me to say this, but I wholly agree with you.

  • Kevin

    I see. Without the quote marks it appeared to be a turn of phrase from – none other than – Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    I don’t understand what “guilty for derailing” means. Is this something to do with trains?

    Apart from that, the priests who did these acts and the Bishops who knowingly took risks with others by moving them on ought to be strung up on the proverbial lamp-posts, yes.

  • daclamat

    As the Irishman said, I writing to say I’m not answering.

  • Jonathan West

    (Reply to Lazarus)

    a) I wouldn’t be too sure that someone who can do what Savile did can be unproblematically assumed to have a clear understanding of original sin. Whatever his knowledge of the doctrine, it seems unlikely to have struck home.

    I agree with you. Given the number of Catholic priests worldwide who have also abused children, it seems either to be a very difficult thing to get your head around, or it doesn’t have the effect on behaviour that you think it does. Either way, it doesn’t seem to have achieved all that much.

    b) Let’s try and imagine your sort of law taking its place in an environment where everyone thinks it’s a bit of a larf to get some young girl and muck around with her (ie the BBC). Going to be about as effective as anti-blasphemy laws in a Grauniad comments forum. Effective law can only exist in a certain cultural context -and that’s best provided by a society that has taken full account of original sin and its involvement in sex.

    It doesn’t matter all that much if there is a localised culture as you describe. If the wider culture is against it (and from the widespread disgust at Jimmy Savile’s behaviour, it seems that it is),  one or two prosecutions for failure to report would concentrate people’s minds wonderfully. 

    c) Even if your approach were ‘more helpful’ that would not mean that mine didn’t have an important additional role to play. Dissing my comment, by not engaging with it and trying to substitute your own hobby horse would remain both ill mannered and off the point. (But of a piece with your customary absorption in  lecturing the ignorant, Catholic natives here on your latest wheeze.)

    I think it is entirely reasonable to ask about the extent to which your approach actually helps things, whether there is in fact much of a linkage between an understanding of the doctrine of original sin and better sexual behaviour. Might there be a greater correlation with the risk of getting caught? The risk of getting caught is after all a wonderful aid to conscience.

  • Veuster

    > Savile fell, and fell very hard and far.

    We don’t know that. So far, there have been only unsubstantiated rumours and allegations. As Christians, our job is not to judge him on the basis of hearsay “evidence” but to pray for the repose of his soul.

  • Martin Shaw

    Savile was a Papal Knight. KCSG. Knight Commander of the Order of St Gregory the Great. The Diocese of Leeds should be asked what the citation was. Was the honour conferred at diocesan or national level? Was it a donation? How much? I think we should be told. I never met Savile but we spoke at length twice on the telephone. Once I told him I was heading off to Lourdes. He told me that the difference between him and me was that I felt the need to go to Lourdes whereas Jimmy could live Lourdes in his heart. A charlatan. Simply ghastly. A chav.