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Why is it so hard for our society to help survivors of sexual abuse ‘move on’?

One abuse victim’s account offers an instructive take on attitudes to paedophilia

By on Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Sir Jimmy Savile claims

I warmed to an article in last week’s Spiked on-line magazine. I am not the only person who thinks the recent orgy of revelations, allegations and damnations concerning the late Jimmy Savile bear all the hallmarks of a seventeenth century witch hunt. I do not mean by this that the allegations are not true; just that they are accompanied by an irrational hysteria about paedophilia itself. As some commentators who are brave enough to do so remark, our society now regards the sexual corruption of children as the worst sin – while at the same time shamelessly engaging in corrupting those same children through television soap operas, pre-teenage magazines that set out to “groom” young girls, and crude sex “education” in schools. In recent weeks I have felt that the emotional frenzy that accompanied the death of the late Princess of Wales has been subliminally transferred to the Savile scandals. It is as if a secularised society, ravaged by powerful emotions it can’t understand or contain, has to engage here in a neo-pagan rite of collective exorcism.

Anyway, the article I referred to, written under a pseudonym, entitled “I have lost patience with the Jimmy Savile affair” and with the opening sentences, “After weeks of prurient coverage in both the broadsheet and tabloid press, I am tired of all the probing. I am tired of the BBC posturing and the nanny state interventionism…” has injected an element of sanity to this fevered atmosphere. The key point of the article is that its author was sexually abused on a regular basis between the ages of eight and twelve, by a trusted family friend while her parents were unknowing and in the next room – and yet she refuses to let herself be defined for evermore as a victim, despite these painful experiences.

Her article raised for me the whole question of what emotional maturity in adulthood means. Many people grow up with unhappy memories of childhood; indeed, I rather think those lucky people who remember “a happy childhood” must be the exception rather than the norm. My own parents had a deeply unhappy marriage; this is different from sexual abuse obviously, but the memory of their destructive relationship cast its own long shadow over their children’s lives for many years. Yet as an adult you still have to deal with and then go beyond those past memories of conflict and anger that you absorbed as a child. Religious belief helps – not in a shallow, perky Mary Poppins fashion but as a way of gaining a profounder perspective: realising that one’s parents might be contending with their own damaged past even as they struggled with the demands of parenthood; and recognising that prayer plays its part in forgiveness and the subsequent healing process.

The anonymous author here does not have a religious outlook on life – but she still can forgive her abuser, now a pathetic old man. “I chose to render the abuse an irrelevance in my life. This has taken time and effort, but it has been achieved” she writes. What she challenges is the passivity engendered by victimhood, asking “what does seeking compensation for childhood trauma achieve?” Compensation claims are big business, she points out: £14 billion a year. She is certain that, damaging as the abuse was at the time, “its power can be diminished with time”. She adds, “I can safely say that, although I may not have forgotten, I have moved on.”

When it comes to grief over a death, we all want the sufferer eventually to “move on”. This might seem a rather callous way of describing a process that is ultimately healthy and life-affirming. To stay fixated on one dark period or event in one’s life is as damaging if not more so than the original trauma. So why is it so hard for our society, as the Spiked article indicates, to help survivors of sexual abuse to “move on”? Perhaps it is back to the idea that paedophilia is seen as the worst sin; to the psychology of victimhood that has entered our culture; to our guilt about the general loss of innocence in modern childhood. As the author points out, there are people who are bullied, abused or who suffer PTSD who still manage to pick up the threads of life again. They will need help – but “where does [the help] stop?”
A final thought: as adults we have to take responsibility for our behaviour and our lives. If we permanently see ourselves as victims of the past we evade this responsibility, allowing the trauma to become an excuse for all our own later mistakes and blunders. We blight our freedom to make choices, to grow and develop, in other words, to become a better human being.

  • AnnieB

    I agree, it has become all a bit hysterical. As a society we seem unable to handle trauma, death and other life changing events sensibly. I sometimes wonder how I coped in the world before I came to faith.

  • Jonathan West

    “So why is it so hard for our society, as the Spiked article indicates, to help survivors of sexual abuse to “move on”?”

    Because it takes such a long time and such a terrible fight for them to get justice. If proper child protection measures had been in place then much of the abuse would have never happened in the first place.

    And a Catholic newspaper is hardly in a position to go complaining that abuse victims find it hard to “move on”.  Remember that Ealing Abbey and St Benedict’s School has had a child sex abuse scandal spanning 60 years, and at the height of it the headmaster used his prizegiving day speech in front of assembled pupils and parents to say the following:

    “Recent media and blog coverage seem hell-bent on trying to discredit the School and, at the same time, destroy the excellent relationship between School and Monastery. Is this part of an anti-Catholic movement linked to the papal visit? I do not know, but it feels very much as if we are being targeted.”

    This was AFTER he had received an inspection report tearing his school’s safeguarding policy to shreds and making it abundantly clear that the school was failing to meet statutory requirements for child protection. 

    It was my blog that he was referring to. A year later, Lord Carlile in his report intoi the abuse at Ealing Abbey spoke of the “lengthy and culpable failure to deal with what at times must have been evident behaviour placing children at risk”. I have never received an apology from the headmaster for his attack on me.

    It is only when high standards of child protection are implemented across the country, that allegations and incidents of abuse are promptly reported to the authorities and thence carefully and competently investigated that victims will start being able to “move on”. The denial, delay and distortion in response to their claims is a major roadblock in moving on. The failure to acknowledge what has happened is a form of abuse almost as distressing as the original sexual abuse in childhood.

    I suggest you make some effort at removing the plank from your own eye before you start commenting on specks in other people’s.

  • aearon43

    Are you suggesting that all Catholics are guilty for the actions of abusive priests and bishops who covered up?

  • Haldenrn

    I hope that at some time in the next 10 years J West will find a new focus for his life

  • Jonathan West

    As soon as child protection in this country is adequate.

  • Jonathan West


  • Rizzo The Bear

    For the last month or so, we have watched, listened to and read about the media squawkers moaning, whingeing and gnashing their dentures because of blanket coverage of the Jimmy Savile affair.

    Aw. Diddly diddums. Doncha just feel sorry for these poor critters, who are struggling to come to terms with this evil, heinous affair which many have known about, let go and didn’t do anything about it?

    I don’t. Not a bit of it.

    I’m sick and tired of our Roman Catholic clergy being called distasteful, cruel names at every opportunity and being made to carry the can for the few who spat and laughed up their sleeves at the holy office. We’ve had to endure the brickbats, the sick jokes and the rest with the patience and fortitude God gave us.

    There is only so much you can take for so long before you snap.

    Bullies don’t like the taste of the medicine they dish out, do they, BBC?

  • Guest007

    I remember Michael Coren in an interview regarding his book in Canada, Why Catholics Are Right when asked on TV about the abuse crises in the Church here was his response:

    “I’m not saying everyones out to bash the Church but I am convinced that there are people who care more about using the abuse crisis to attack the Church than they do care about the victims of the abuse crisis”

    Here is the link to the full interview:

  • scary goat

    I think there are 2 sides to this.  Overall I agree with the article above.  Our modern society is too obsessed with “victimhood” and media frenzy and the compensation culture.  Everything these days is about “my rights” and “I’m going to sue”.  Maybe it is something to do with expecting eutopia.  If everything isn’t perfect my rights have been violated.  This is not a realistic attitude.

    On the other hand, (to be honest, I don’t know much about the BBC so I am relating this more to abuse by clergy) it is very difficult for victims of abuse by someone in a position of trust to get past the confusion caused in such a situation.  It makes it a thousand times worse when they are not believed, or bullied into silence, or the situation is covered up, because then it becomes not only one trust relationship which is broken, but all related trust relationships.

    I think what needs to be done to help people move on is for them to be listened to and believed by the right person at the right time in the first place. They need to be understood and supported…..just at an immediate level.  And they need to see something being done about it to protect others rather than having it swept under the carpet. 

    Nipping something in the bud is far better than suppressing it and leaving it to fester otherwise it just goes from bad to worse……that’s when you end up with hysteria.

    These days everything gets “clinicalised” too.  It’s either PTSD or it’s OCD or it’s depression.  All these mental disorders are the result of not dealing with natural emotions in the first place. 

    Most abuse victims suffer from PTSD which is not a nice condition.  It can be greatly helped by dealing with it early. The problem is, for most victims it is not dealt with…..because the people who could help don’t want to hear.  It disturbs people’s “comfort zone”.  So and so couldn’t possibly have done that because he’s such a wonderful person/holy man. It messes with people’s pre-conceived ideas so they prefer to bury their heads in the sand.  This leaves a victim with no-where to turn…..alone in their confusion.

    Yes, forgiveness is the answer.  But you need someone to trust, someone to help you heal first….and if you don’t find it, mental illness is just round the corner.

  • Rizzo The Bear

    Thanks for the excellent link, Guest007.

    Michael Coren is spot on. I’d love to buy his book.

  • Rizzo The Bear

    You are right to a great extent, Scary Goat.

    However, it is unfair to lop depression into a ‘pull yourself together and snap out of it’ condition. I’ve known families who have suffered greatly because of it and, more often than not, it could be an indicator for more serious diseases like those of the thyroid, a tumour or diabetes etc.

    For some, mild depression can be cured with various remedies but for others it’s there for a long time. I should know as I’ve known families who suffer. 

  • scary goat

     Hi Rizzo

    Yes, fair enough.  Maybe I didn’t put that very well.  I didn’t for a moment mean to say that these conditions aren’t real, or you can just “snap out of it”. They are very real…..I know, too.  I actually suffered from PTSD myself……and it never really goes away…….however much you “get over it” it’s still there under the surface and can be re-triggered. 

    Of course some mental problems can be caused by other physical issues….I was talking specifically about mental problems caused by abuse or other emotional trauma.  It is natural to be shocked, saddened, frightened etc by experiences but appropriate support at the right time can help people to stabilize and get past it.  Lack of support can mean that these natural emotions fester and become more serious mental illnesses. 

    I was lucky.  I had the support I needed.  I am very grateful to those who stood beside me when I needed it.  One priest, one GP and one friend was enough.  It still took about 2 years for me to be well. I cope very well….but even now I still get occasional nightmares. I can live with that. If I hadn’t had that support I don’t know what would have become of me.

    It’s because I had the support I needed at the right time and it worked for me that I know it is so important, and I have every sympathy for those who have not been so lucky. 

  • Jonathan West

    “I’m sick and tired of our Roman Catholic clergy being called distasteful, cruel names at every opportunity and being made to carry the can for the few who spat and laughed up their sleeves at the holy office. We’ve had to endure the brickbats, the sick jokes and the rest with the patience and fortitude God gave us.”

    And you’ll continue to have to do so until the church implements effective child protection measures everywhere, stops trying to be obstructive about paying compensation to victims, and starts to act as if the hierarchy actually did something wrong when they moved abusive priests from one unsuspecting parish to the next.

    Even if by some miracle, the church were tomorrow to implement such effective child protection measures that no child is ever abused by a priest or in a catholic school again, you will still have 30 years of bad headlines as people gather the courage to come forward. But at least in that circumstance you would be able to say “it can’t happen again” and know that the end is in sight. At the moment the church lacks even that consolation.

  • Robin L

    I entirely agree! The Savile affair has become persecutory, a search for scapegoats! Collective
    violence comes to mind!

  • AugustineThomas

    So you have a problem with the Church, but not every other institution that gets off scott free for sexual abuse scandals?
    I’m not a scumbag so I typically apply my morality to everyone, not just the groups I hate!

    Children are far safer from abuse in the Church than they are at the BBc or a British school.

    But you just want to scream at God like a demon, you’re too out of your mind to think logically about the situation.
    You’ve been trained by hateful leftists to demonize the Church no matter what the facts and rationality would say..

  • AugustineThomas

    In America we demonized Joe Paterno to death because he didn’t single handedly expose all evil within a ten mile radius of him.
    We’re very proud of what hypocrite scumbags we are and we’re glad you can join in on the secular two minutes hate!!!

  • Jonathan West

    “So you have a problem with the Church, but not every other institution that gets off scott free for sexual abuse scandals?”

    Not at all. I’ve had a look at the BBC child protection policy. It’s useless. I’ve been quoted in The Times to that effect and have written to Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry saying what is wrong with it.

    What have you done about child protection this month? For instance, have you taken a look at the child protection policies of the catholic schools in your area? Do they make an unequivocal commitment to report all allegations and incidents of abuse to the authorities?

    If they don’t, then one very useful thing you could do is to work with parents of children at those schools to press for changes in the policies to ensure that they do commit to reporting all allegations in future. If 100 catholic laypeople across the country took the lead in pressing for improvements in child protection in catholic schools, youth groups and parishes, then within a year, the church could actually live up to its claim of implementing good child protection practice across the country, despite the foot-dragging of the bishops.

    I’m interested in children being protected. If I were as anti-catholic as some people want to believe, then I would keep extremely quiet about the abuse scandal in the church, and allow as many catholic children as possible to be abused and in almost all cases lose their faith as a result.

    But I’m not. I’m anti-abuse, and you can only interpret that as being anti-catholic if to be catholic is to be pro-abuse.

  • Nweiikewwstdr

    Typical of the catholic Church to say people are overreacting to sexual abuse ,and that as adults We should just get. over it . this is criminal . children are scared and vunerable for years afterwards . saying that the Church does Have a reputation for hiding away their own Dirty preists and sexual deivients. ! dont preach about things you are to Blame for as much as anyone else . and for gode sake get with the Times . this is no longer the 18 th century ,god Im sure would agree , your outdated views are just that . outdated . No wonder religion has all but been dropped by most brits .

  • AugustineThomas

    You’re projecting your fantasies (and bigotries) onto reality.

    The truth is that children are much safer from sexual abuse in the Catholic Church than the public school system. If you were really just out to protect children you would start with the institutions where children are at the greatest risk.
    I would never protect a catholic who abused children and anyone who did should be prosecuted. Pretending that the Catholic Church is especially dangerous is ludicrous though and I’ll confront people who tell that lie wherever I find them.
    You’re trying to tar two billion Catholics with the actions of a few thousand who chose to do evil. That’s bigotry.
    Accusing me and the Church of supporting child abuse as some kind of arguing tactic is absolutely pathetic and scumbaggish by the way!

  • Kell Brigan

    I think there’s also a need on the part of people who’ve not experienced violence to ritually sensationalize publicized instances as part of an attempt to convince themselves that violence is rare or extreme. Violence is a common as dirt. Alcoholism, misogyny and sexual pathology appear over and over in the same patterns, and somewhere around 25% of women will have been battered at some point in their lives. (And, we don’t have numbers yet for “bullying” and other battering instances between men and boys.) And, for some vulnerable groups, i.e. people with severe disabilities or who are institutionalized as children, the rate of sexual violence is as high as 50%.