Child Sexual Abuse: The Whole Truth

Once upon a time, Peter Ball was the seemingly unimpeachable bishop of Lewes and Gloucester. In the eighties and early nineties he was much admired for his theological insights and stirring sermons. Insiders described him as ‘ one of the most godly and wisest men in the Christian church’. This ‘godly’ man was a sexual predator who abused boys and young men throughout his glittering career. New disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act show just how much blind support this man had from the most powerful people in this land, even after his other, sordid life was revealed.  George Carey, erstwhile Archbishop of Canterbury, some Tory ministers and other establishment figures wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions to defend the priestly paedophile. Before he was convicted in October 2015, Ball was revered by Prince Charles and other royals too. This is the recurrent Grimms tale of our times: little children lured to dark forests and despoiled by famous, invincible charismatic men. As bad as the crimes is the cover up by those in high places.

A letter I received from a woman in 2012, led eventually to the trial and conviction of the TV celeb Stuart Hall, who was realised from prison just before Christmas. There was no name, no address. Her story was meant to be a secret between us. I couldn’t keep such a secret. What I read- the detail and enduring hurt – was so shocking I took the letter to the police and they began investigating. Hall, they said, had not been on their radar. But people in his circle must have known what was going on. They did nothing to stop him. Perpetrators who come from the higher echelons of society, can still get away with it. The girl claimed she was sometimes raped in the home of a Labour MP, now a peer. Since Hall’s conviction, I have heard from other victims of abusers. These high profile prosecutions have given them courage to reveal their own stories.

 Earlier this year I wrote a long feature in the Sunday Times Magazine about my postbag, misery missives from those who have read my newspaper columns or seen me on TV. After publication, more mail arrived than ever before.  One chap, an alcoholic, had lost everything and everyone; ‘ I read this article. You seem like a kind lady. I need kindness. Consider this a marriage proposal. I will write again and send you my number. Is your hair long?’. I never heard again from the mystery suitor. Two Asian men, who had also read the piece, separately got in touch because their hearts were breaking. One was a Sikh, the other a Muslim. They were born here, went to university, fell in love, got married. Their wives are Asian and from within the faith but the parents have never accepted them or the marriage. The men, both high earning, middle class professionals who miss their families and are tormented by guilt. The marriages are falling slowly apart. As the Sikh gentleman put it: ‘I don’t know who I am without my parents, my community. I feel adrift and a nobody. I still love my wife but that is not enough anymore. Love was a trap I fell into. I wish I had just married the girl they chose. Now there is no way back and I have no one to talk to who would understand’.  

Letters keep on coming, Most are anonymous and almost all are unrestrained, red raw and unmediated. The writers are not seeking practical help, but calling out to a stranger to discharge pain, shame and anger, some to verbalise mental and emotional chaos. It is a bit like an imaginary confessional booth where Catholics admit their sins to an unseen cleric and seek forgiveness. Only these penfriends are sinned against ( or claim they are).  The public mistrusts the media, yet, paradoxically, Britons of all ages and backgrounds send their deepest secrets and unresolved agonies to some of us who work for the media.  

I learn more about family and social injustices from these unsolicited letters than I ever can from assiduous research and planned interviews.

The themes and writers change over time. Until the Savile case, I did not hear from readers about  child sexual abuse. Since then and other celeb convictions, several alleged victims have sent in terrible tales of violation during childhood. Some may be fabrications and fantasies, but many ring true.

But it was the Sunday Times article that prompted a fresh batch of letters from victims of British Pakistani grooming gangs.The depraved group abuse has been found to be going on in Oxford, Luton, and elsewhere too. I have no doubt these crimes against children are still going on in other areas.

 Andrew Norfolk, an assiduous investigative journalist working for The Times, first uncovered the organised exploitation way back in 2011. Hundreds of girls were befriended, gang raped, beaten and passed around as if they were sex toys. Communities, social workers and care workers did not protect them. The reasons for this conspiracy of silence remain unfathomable.

When Norfolk started publishing his pieces, it was as if a series of bombs blew up locked vaults hiding dirty truths. Child abusers and gang rapists do not come from any one race or religion. But, within too many Asian families, white females are disrespected and despised and the intolerable is tolerated. This form of cultural supremacy excuses and validates appalling offences against ‘outsiders’. 

So back to the letters. A young woman calling herself Pippa alleged she had been abused by such a gang from when she was only eleven and living with her mum: ‘ I hate them, I hate you, I hate all you Pakis. I bet your son is like them. You stink. His body stinked ( sic) when he hit me and did me again and again. Tear this letter now. Burn it. I hope you all go to hell.’

Three other victims sent a joint letter. Again, there were no names or addresses. . :’ The Paki blokes did us. Police didn’t stop them. We were in care and they didn’t care. But at least the Pakis were nice when they were in a good mood. Why don’t you ask why we were taken into care? The abuse in our families? Nobody stopped them. Now they want compensation from the government.’   A list of allegations followed, including  rape by the dad of a young girl and her brother from the time they were five and an uncle, a gambler who sold his niece and nephew to abusers.  

Another young woman claimed she was the moll of a Pakistani British leader of a grooming gang. He got her when she was eleven and in care. At sixteen she had a baby girl after refusing to have an abortion. She went to live with her aunt and he found another prey. : ‘My girl has light brown skin and green eyes. My dad won’t see her. But he raped my mum all the time when I was little. We kids heard it all. She died when she was only fifty. I felt safer on the streets than at home.’ 

Just before Christmas, a young Asian girl handed me a letter at an event to raise money for refugees. It said: ‘ My Pakistani father is in prison because he raped white girls. But he raped me too when I was young. Why the police not talking to the families of these men? Nobody cares about us’.  

In all the media coverage of child abuse by groomers, euphemisms cover up the gruesome back stories: The girls were from ‘troubled families’. Or had ‘unstable home lives’, or were ‘in and out of care’. Why this coyness? Partly because there is still this romantic idea that all families protect and love their kids. They do not. I am not trying to divert blame. The men who get together to rape vulnerable children are monstrous and should have nowhere to hide. But too many of the victims were also failed and used by their nearest and dearest before the outside predators got to them.

In November came a letter from a social worker from an unnamed town. She gave up her job after the first tranche of sexual abuse was made public: ‘ I left because I couldn’t bear the hypocrisy. You people in the media  accused us of not caring, the police of not doing their jobs. But did you look at the families these girls came from? Wild animals take better care of their young than some of these people I had to deal with. If we take their kids away we are evil witches. If we try to help them become better parents, we are hated. I knew one of the girls who testified in court. She told me but never told the police that her mum was a prostitute and gave her to someone who wanted a young virgin. You think these things happen only in Thailand and Africa. They happen here in our back yards.’.

Reports on in-house abuse are written by experts and neatly shelved, conveniently forgotten. A recent YouGov /4Children study, for example, found that nearly 950,000 children in Britain were living in violent homes, were often terrorised and neglected. Fear and loyalty tie the tongues of the victims. Sexual attacks on very young children remain buried and inarticulated. Some of the victims do speak out when they get older and understand what happened to them. By then they are irreversibly damaged. 

The government has identified 120,000 troubled families which need acute and constant interventions. An NSPCC report found a link between delinquency and maltreatment in the home. We know those who were abused are more likely to become perpetrators. These problems are interconnected.

In November the Children’s Commissioner looked into thi problem. A report based on data analysis in England concluded that : ‘ Up to two thirds of all sexual abuse happens in and around families. The focus has been on child sexual abuse which occurs in institutions and communities…Child sexual abuse which occurs in families has largely been absent from the national conversation’. Our society can, it seems, deal with stranger danger but kith and kin danger is too disorientating and unsettling. It challenges fundamental assumptions about what it is to be human.

The independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse ( IICSA) led by New Zealand judge Hon Lowell Goddard is investigating institutions which failed sexually abused kids. But there is no such investigation into the bigger and more intractable problem of children violated by their nearest and dearest. We are in denial about familial sexual abuse, which often precedes exploitation by manipulative outsiders. The silence needs to be broken for the sake and safety of these poor kids.

 Edited Version in the Sunday Times, 3/1/2016