The revelations around the apparent career of sexual abuse conducted by Jimmy Savile (involving children, young people, the physically and mentally ill – just about anyone in a power-subordinate position) are horrifying. They’ll prompt widespread institutional and personal soul searching, public apologies and perhaps prosecutions if conspiracy or culpability can be proved. They also touch on issues covered by recent ESRI-based research on the unintended negative consequences of mainstream approaches to child protection and safeguarding, in teaching, childcare and sports coaching (read more about the project here). Mainstream approaches start from the premise that all adults are potential abusers, all children are vulnerable victims, and the result is that intergenerational contact becomes seen as toxic and dangerous rather than positive and nurturing.
The typical safeguarding practices imposed today (eg universal vetting, proscriptive guidelines and regulations) would have done little to prevent Savile’s celebrity career of abuse. There seems to have been nothing official on file, and he did what he did because he wanted to, and he could. What these revelations show is the importance of individual judgement and courage in recognising and responding to abuse; bureaucratic systems are no substitute for people doing the right thing. Indeed if anything, bureaucratic systems make this less likely by giving a false sense of security and interrupting the ordinary routines of adult-child interaction through which we learn how to recognise good and bad intent.
I never understood how someone who seemed to lack human warmth and kept his own persona impenetrable was constructed as a national treasure. Although current media accounts tend to start from the assumption that ‘everyone thought he was marvellous’, I wonder if this is true, and suspect many people outside the bubbles in which the abuse occurred registered something darker and unknowable. Without the media-halo, had that person offered to look after our children, how many of us would have agreed? Personal judgement and integrity remains the best safeguard against the abuser – especially when the abuser is powerful.