Teachers and Sports Coaches up there with Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall

The news that veteran broadcaster Stuart Hall has pleaded guilty to a number of sexual offences has prompted a further eruption of the long-grumbling volcano of opinion and comment around sex offenders in general and child abuse in particular. In the most recent Observer, there was an item titled What the BBC can learn from scandal of Stuart Hall and the dark side of fame. It wasn’t the discussion of the main offender or the BBC that interested me, but some (apparently authoritative) comments included in the piece, which are indicative of the low level and incoherence of the way these issues are typically being discussed, even in the quality press.

Donald Findlater, director of research and development at the ‘Lucy Faithfull Foundation’ and director of ‘Stop it Now! UK and Ireland’, was quoted at length (and presumably with accuracy). To allow full appreciation, here are his words in full, and some linking text from the piece:

“Any suggestion that this is a unique problem of the BBC is a distraction. There’s acres of children being abused every day. Maybe with celebrities they’re on a different psychological track with children, because they’re people they look up to, who are big in their world, but we could say the same about sports coaches.” But many, said Findlater, might well never have been abusers in an ordinary job. “That’s my assumption with some of these people – they would have been harmless in ordinary life. It’s the context in which they find themselves but that’s the same for, say, teachers, who train with no intent towards children but then find themselves in perhaps facing a life crisis and are feeling vulnerable, in a situation of temptation, and suddenly thoughts are developing. They never planned to be sexual offenders.”

Passing by the cavalier ‘acres of children being abused every day’, which seems designed to shock and demand agreement, the numbing laziness and saloon-bar quality of the rest of this contribution takes time to sink-in. The comments might begin to make sense if there was clear evidence that a category of people we could define as celebrities is any more likely to be child-sex offenders than the rest of the population. I am unaware of any such evidence. Moving on, the casual references to sports coaches and teachers only work if accompanied by a knowing nod and wink: ‘and we all know they’re at it don’t we!’ In fact there is no basis for picking on these groups except for it being a common tactic used by those intent on spreading fear and mistrust. There is no evidence to suggest that children are more at risk near teachers or sports coaches than any other adult, and they are almost certainly safer there than with family members.

The real message here is that anyone who works with children and young people in loco parentis is likely to be (or become) a child abuser. Dressing the shifty argument up in terms of ‘it really isn’t their fault, they are tempted and vulnerable’, is insulting. Although we should perhaps be grateful that there is no mention of intrinsic evil in this account, the downside is that the child is constructed as being a source of contagion. The idea, with echoes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, seems to be that being or becoming a teacher or coach (or social worker, or nurse, or doctor, or presumably parent!) is potentially very bad for our health and moral wellbeing. (‘Everything in my life was going so well, then I decided to try to teach young people to play tennis, then my wife left me and I found I was developing some very nasty thoughts…’.) This is a counsel of moral and social despair, an incitement to detachment and passivity. Off the cuff comments like this from people who should know better foster a culture of fear by saying that the only way to be safe is to keep away from other peoples’ children, and that those who choose to do otherwise should not be trusted. Those who represent the interests of children should not come out with stuff like this, and quality journalism should notice that such comments are absurd and not include them without some critical comment.

Heather Piper

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