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‘These outrages are going on more than people know’

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From Kate Lampard’s ‘lessons learnt’ report it is clear that hospitals such as Stoke Mandeville and Leeds Infirmary failed to safeguard children from sexual abuse. The role of volunteers, casual staff, and fundraisers is hazy and regulation of them more so, with inadequate vetting procedures. Lampard rightly insists that hospital leaders must do more, and offers comprehensive and appropriate suggestions for how to implement change. However, historical research suggests that, despite strong pressures for change, institutions may not easily learn from their mistakes. Concern over ‘indecent handling’ of ‘the bodies of young girls’ has regularly emerged over the last 100 years – only to recede, with little achieved to protect children from abuse.

In 1925 Mr G., a 60-year-old businessman, magistrate and parish councillor was found guilty of indecently assaulting a 15-year-old girl. Mr G. was also a charity fundraiser for St Thomas’s Hospital, London.  He raised vast sums for the hospital – in today’s terms, three to four million pounds.  He exploited this position to gain the trust of teenage girls who were helping him to fundraise. In an extraordinary ruse, he invited the girls to his home and workplace on the pretence that he had a new device that could project their images using radio waves.  He asked them to undress so he could take their measurements to ensure their suitability for modelling or dance work – all undertaken whilst the girl’s mothers were in the room.  Motivated by deference or prospects of employment, the mothers did not intervene.

Mr G.’s crimes are strikingly similar to Jimmy Savile’s crimes against children, many of which also occurred as part of his hospital fundraising. The difference is that Mr. G. was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to 8 months in prison. His crime took place at a time of high visibility and concern over child sexual abuse. The issue had been prioritised in the early 1920s by newly enfranchised women voters, and by the new women MPs in the House of Commons. The Home Secretary had been forced to appoint an inquiry. The 1925 Departmental Committee on Sexual Offences Against Young People made sensible suggestions about the need to tighten the law to protect the young: the defence of ‘reasonable belief’ that a girl was over 16 should be abolished; young witnesses should be provided with a separate waiting room in the court; their evidence should be given in camera. The report’s authors challenged institutions to respond to child sexual abuse with something better than ‘ignorance, carelessness and indifference’. Their recommendations are similar to safeguarding best practice today. The 1925 report shows that good policy on child safeguarding and treatment in court came frustratingly close to implementation.

Tragically, however, sensational cases of abuse such as that of Mr G., and public concern, were insufficient to change the cultures of hospitals and schools. Despite Mr. G’s prison sentence, there was little sense of outrage. The jury even praised his self-restraint for not committing a more serious sexual assault on the girls, and seemed more concerned with criticising the mothers for letting their daughters be measured and viewed.  Men were assumed to be driven by ‘natural’ sexual instinct and drives. It was women’s responsibility and duty to protect themselves and their daughters from unwanted advances.

Police records suggest that for much of the twentieth century, the vast majority of complaints and accusations of rape and sexual assault on children were never even brought to court.  In many cases, fears of scandal and reputation trumped concerns about child safeguarding; parents often preferred not to press charges, as court appearances were regarded as too damaging to children.

Children who accused people in positions of authority were rarely believed. Even campaigners against child sexual abuse could not believe that offenders might be figures of authority or public esteem. Instead, offenders were suspected of being ‘mental defectives’ or ‘victims of some kind of delusion’. Cases involving clerics, teachers and scoutmasters were sometimes brought to court. Yet the general climate of disbelief meant that allegations were hard to prove. Instead, the reputations of children and young people who made complaints were often the focal point of investigation.  In most cases, child sexual abuse was unlikely to produce witnesses, and the evidence of children alone was insufficient to gain a conviction. 

In the 1920s, and earlier, for example in the 1880s, when public concern about child abuse sex abuse grew, press campaigning was pivotal.  But in subsequent decades, journalists tended to focus on demonising individual offenders rather than discussing policy solutions.  Child abuse moved back up the press agenda in the late 1970s and 1980s, due to a combination of feminist campaigning, a backlash against 'permissiveness', and the exposure of a number of high profile scandals in children's homes.  But journalists generally focused their attention on convenient institutional targets, such as 'incompetent' social workers and local authorities, or excessively 'liberal' judges, rather than critically examining the prevalence of this type of offence.

‘Ignorance, carelessness and indifference’ remained characteristic of twentieth-century attitudes towards child sex abuse. This was not for lack of concern - earlier generations did condemn child sexual abuse, and periodically, tried to strengthen safeguards. However, history shows that for change to happen, firm leadership and transparent management across government and the voluntary sector is vital. A robust investigative press is also essential. Without these, potentially pivotal moments, like 1925 and 2015, may become missed opportunities.  

Listen to Dr Delap on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Saturday 28 February (7.43am) discussing the lessons of the 1925 Mr G case for policy makers today. 

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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