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