Published on November 5th, 2012 | by admin0
Jimmy Savile: People suspected. Nobody talked. Why?
How child abusers like Jimmy Savile hide their evil from the world – right in front of our eyes
By Jenny McCartney
One of the most striking aspects of the late Jimmy Savile’s lengthy career as a child abuser was how singularly little effort he made to conceal his predilections: the DJ and television presenter was, as his former colleague Paul Gambaccini put it, hiding “in plain sight”.
But while Savile was perhaps more brazen than other child abusers, the terrible inactivity of the “responsible” adults around him is a common feature of such cases. Paedophiles – particularly high status ones – are often expert manipulators who use their plausibility, dominant personality or social status to beguile or intimidate potential accusers. We often examine why children fear speaking out about abuse, but a less examined question is why the adults who should protect them so often stay silent too. As one former victim described it: “Adults look, but then they turn their faces away”. And they do so in the moral shadows.
For decades Savile bragged openly about behaviour with young girls which ranged from the inappropriate to the criminal, while simultaneously denying that he was a paedophile. The fact that no one in authority stopped him can be attributed to many factors, but they can’t say they weren’t warned. In Savile’s 1976 autobiography, Love is an Uphill Thing, parents loom large as a potentially bothersome force to be tricked or evaded. In one anecdote, Savile graphically described being among a group of naked young girls in his caravan – “we all resembled some great human octopus” – when the parents of one girl came inconveniently knocking on the door. On another occasion, two mothers arrived, furiously banging on the door of his flat, after their daughters had spent the night there with Savile and his bodyguard. Savile was out, but his bodyguard hid while the girls apparently calmed their mothers. The DJ wrote: “I train my men well and, to date, we have not been found out. Which, after all, is the 11th commandment, is it not?” And yet, Savile felt confident enough to hint at his sexual activities himself without apparent concern. His publishers evidently saw nothing untoward, nor did fans who bought the book.
When a well-known paedophile is exposed, it is commonplace for the cry to go up of “how could we not have known what was going on?” The more painful truth in the Savile case is that – while other adult abusers may have taken advantage of the opportunities Savile engineered – there were many other ordinary grown-ups who knew or suspected what went on, felt uneasy, but did nothing. This is no isolated phenomenon: it has been seen frequently in prominent child abuse cases, from those of paedophile priests in Ireland to the recent Rochdale scandal, in which a group of British Pakistani men systematically groomed and abused up to 50 under-age girls. Repeatedly, predatory adults used highly determined strategies to gain access to children, and “responsible” adults noticed something wrong, but wilfully ignored it in order to avoid the personal risk or embarrassment of confronting the abuser.
As Gambaccini told the recent Panorama investigation, he heard Savile’s activities freely discussed in BBC music circles, yet never thought of notifying the authorities: “So what – I, a junior DJ, am supposed to get up there and say my senior is a perv? They are going to laugh at me. It never occurred to me!” Another BBC colleague, Bob Langley, described how – while reporting on one of Savile’s charity runs – he saw two girls who were “12 or 13” leaving the star’s caravan, whereupon Savile clearly implied “in a nudge-nudge wink-wink kind of way, that he’d just had sex with them”. Langley assumed he was joking.
The broadcaster’s behaviour stuck clearly in the minds of both men: they were evidently bothered by it. Yet they did not feel inclined to look into it further. It was a form of paralysis that was seemingly shared with innumerable other adults in the BBC, schools and hospitals who came into close contact with the star.
Colm O’Gorman, the executive director of Amnesty International in Ireland, has a precise understanding of the long-lasting damage caused not just by abuse, but by the inaction of adults. He was 14 and growing up in Fethard-on-Sea, Co Wexford, when Father Sean Fortune, a domineering parish priest, first targeted him in 1981.
Shortly after meeting O’Gorman, Fortune asked his parents if the boy could stay for the weekend in his house, and such was the trust in the priesthood that O’Gorman’s parents agreed. The abuse began that night. The priest used a toxic combination of threats, physical force and shame to intensify the nature and frequency of the sexual activity, which continued for two and a half years.
“He was a controlling, powerful individual,” says O’Gorman of Fortune, “a bully and egomaniac.” He recalls that, like Savile, with his theatrical persona, Fortune was noticeably grandiose: “He wore little dark sunglasses and flowing robes. He was described by others as incredibly charismatic.” Fortune made a point of setting up activities that brought him into frequent contact with young people, just as Savile did with his relentless round of clubs, discos, shows and charity events. The range, audacity and violence of Fortune’s abuse, detailed in the subsequent Ferns Inquiry, makes grim reading. Yet even before Fortune was ordained, the Catholic authorities knew he was a problem: he had molested young boys while leading a Catholic scout group and had been banned from such a role again.
His ordination went ahead, however, and the Church did little to arrest Fortune’s rampant exploitation of children despite subsequent complaints about him to senior clerics. The Church protected its reputation, and the community did not challenge the Church.
O’Gorman was the first of Fortune’s victims to report the abuse to the Irish police in 1995, whereupon many others came forward with similar appalling stories. Fortune committed suicide in 1999 while awaiting trial on 66 charges of sexual, indecent assault and buggery of young boys. Yet even as an adult, some things still had the power to surprise and wound O’Gorman afresh. When he returned to the village to make a film in 2002, he spoke to an older woman who had been there throughout Fortune’s time: “I was terribly naive. I said to her: ‘Did people know?’ and she said: ‘Yes, everybody knew all right. They used to say: “Don’t bend down in the churchyard in front of that fella.” ’ I felt as if I had been kicked in the gut. They had watched Fortune parading me around as a teenager, and they had known. And those who did know had kept their own children well away from him.”
In Gavin de Becker’s bestselling 1997 book The Gift of Fear, the author lists the subtle ways in which people can predict the fact that an individual is likely to be dangerous. Threatening individuals might, for example, act by repeatedly overriding the word “no” when uttered by others, or give unsolicited help and expect favours in return, or signal that they are lying by adding in too many details. Our wary reactions to such people are not based on groundless prejudice, but intuitive responses.
De Becker gave the example of one woman, Kelly, who arrived home one day to find her communal hallway unlocked: halfway up the stairs her grocery bag split, sending a tin of catfood tumbling down the stairwell. “Got it! I’ll bring it up,” called a man’s voice. Kelly did not like the voice, but she told herself not to be silly. When the young stranger appeared, smiling, he insisted on taking her bags up to her apartment, even though she protested that she didn’t need help. At the door of her apartment, she said firmly: “I’ll take it from here!” but he insisted on taking the bags inside, saying: “I’ll just put this stuff down and go, I promise.” Although something in his attitude seemed “off”, Kelly didn’t want to seem rude. She let him in, and he raped her: sadly, her instinctive suspicion had been right.
The behaviour of adults who abuse children, it seems, quite often strikes other adults as unusual. Predatory adults can seem almost ruthlessly focused on contact with young people, flouting ordinary boundaries in order to gain it. But they can also combine their oddness with a distracting talent or charisma. Both Savile and Fortune used their professional status and the cover of charitable works to gain unsupervised access to children. More recently, in the US, the former assistant Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky manipulated his sporting role, his other-worldly persona and his much-praised charity The Second Mile to gain access to vulnerable youngsters. Sandusky was sentenced in October to between 30 and 60 years in prison for sexual offences against minors, following decades of abuse.
Once normal adults have unwittingly allowed such high-profile paedophiles ready access to children, however, they can seem very resistant to accepting suggestions of wrongdoing. Even in the face of direct, frank testimony from children, the adult response is often to downplay the allegations or freeze in horrified silence.
Former pupils at Duncroft Approved School in Staines, where Savile is alleged to have abused a number of girls in the Seventies, have said that their headmistress encouraged them to go for rides in Savile’s car as a special treat. Sometimes, the DJ brought Duncroft girls to London, where they appeared on his television show and attended showbusiness parties. Here, the adult view of them subtly shifted. Many may have been oblivious to anything illegal. But others – including those who actually witnessed Savile in compromising situations – no doubt quietly excused their own failure to act with the unspoken judgment that the excited under-age girls in party clothes were “groupies” who were “up for it”: the girls were trapped in adult doublethink.
We like to think, perhaps, that attitudes have changed immeasurably since the Seventies and Eighties. But then one remembers the recent Rochdale case. When evidence of the abuse first emerged, some social workers argued that the children involved were merely making their own “lifestyle choices”. One courageous girl who went to the police in 2008 saw her case dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service on the grounds that she wasn’t a credible witness.
Adults who speak out to name paedophiles in “respectable” circles can be made to feel as if they have transgressed some understood code of silence. In 2008 a shocked Pat Cleary went public about the paedophilia of her former husband, Roger Took, a respected art historian and travel writer, after it emerged that he had molested her granddaughters, participated in online discussions about the torture, rape and murder of young children abroad, and possessed 102 “Level 5” photographs involving children, the most cruel and depraved kind. Some of Took’s friends and colleagues attacked her for speaking out: they could not put the image of the highly cultivated man they knew together with such horrific crimes. After his conviction, one of his female friends wrote reprovingly to Cleary: “We have no right to judge and to destroy a person’s life when he wants to live a different life.” Took killed himself in July last year while on probation.
No one wants to live in a society in which normal contact with adults is fraught with fear of accusation, or parents cannot let their children out of their sight. But the cases mentioned here are at the other end of the spectrum: evidence of child abuse was often placed directly before adults in positions of trust, and simply brushed aside. One way forward, as argued by survivors of abuse such as Colm O’Gorman, is to make it obligatory for people with institutional responsibility for children to pass on any such allegations to the authorities, and also to educate children that they have the absolute right to refuse physical contact with adults they don’t feel comfortable with.
With the latter in mind, I listened to a long-buried recording of Jimmy Savile talking to a young girl, made during his radio programme Savile’s Travels. He is clearly wrestling physically with the girl, attempting to get her to repeat after him: “You, Jimmy Savile, are the only one in my life”. The girl, who has previously said she prefers Noel Edmonds, sparkily retorts: “You are not the only one in my life!” Savile continues brusquely pestering, ignoring her requests to “Get off!”. You can hear a girl struggling to hold on to her dignity: her voice is growing nervous and breathless, and eventually she says more bluntly: “Get off my backside!”
At the word “backside” Savile affects pious shock, even though he, a grown man, is forcefully touching a young girl in a way she does not want and compelling her to say things she does not agree with. “Eh?” he says reprovingly: “I beg your pardon? In front of your mummy and daddy? Goodness gracious.” Her parents are there too, you see: they can just about be heard in the background, laughing along politely with the prince of BBC broadcasting.