Savile: Institutions, abuse and justice

Dr Roger Grimshaw
Thursday, 3 April 2014

It is hardly surprising that the investigations of Savile ‘and others’ have prompted anxious reflections about the protection of children in institutions. The aftermath of the initial revelations has receded but the scale and intensity of the abuse is only now emerging as fresh investigations into children’s homes across the country have been announced.

There has been NSPCC research with some of Savile’s victims, which once again emphasises how difficult it can be to report abuse and how challenging the process of personal recovery can be. As many people who followed Savile’s career can testify, there was a shocking discrepancy between his philanthropic pretensions and predatory actions, between the cheerful and cheeky public figure and the devastation that he caused. For victims this cognitive dissonance has been multiplied by the direct impact of their abuse, which took place when they were maximally vulnerable, both because of protection failures and because of previous damaging experiences.

There are two important sets of questions about responses to institutionally focused abuse: one about justice; and the other about policy.

The leading role of the police raises the question of how far investigation, prosecution and sentencing constitute justice: what kind of justice can be achieved by successful prosecutions and long sentences? Does the emphasis on criminal justice outcomes always serve the interests of victims and society; or is witnessing in the criminal court still too much of an ordeal for many of the most vulnerable members of our society? There are other kinds of formal justice that can be pursued in terms of civil redress and compensation: are these more satisfying, or more effective?

Then there is the ‘welfare justice’ associated with increasing safety and protection for the vulnerable so that similar experiences can be prevented for good. Again, focusing on welfare: how far is personal recovery promoted by state services and interventions? Relatively few according to the NSPCC report have accessed counselling: what kind of support is needed and for how long? Is there a case for a more ‘transformative’ justice in which personal accounts and memories are honoured and difficult relationships between victims and those who should have protected them are addressed? Exploring what justice means is therefore more complex than it might appear.

A crucial question surrounds the historical nature of the Savile phenomenon: while uniquely shocking in some respects, it has had clear precedents. Anyone familiar with the history of institutionally based abuse can cite numerous examples of persistent and prolific abuse for which reputable individuals were found to have been responsible. Inquiries into abuse in the churches, in children’s homes in North Wales and in Jersey have uncovered disturbingly embedded patterns that continue to have wide resonance.

Prevention remains a formidable challenge: the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre assessment of institutional abuse highlights weaknesses in institutional care which are structural in origin.  Conventional strengths may turn into vulnerabilities: loyalty to the institution, for example, can inhibit reporting of abuse; a high institutional reputation can be exploited by abusers.

The sheer scale of risks associated with institutionally focused abuse demands more than particular inquiries, no matter how prestigious or well-funded. To match the size of risk an all-embracing policy initiative must be mounted, which stems from a government commitment to enduring and comprehensive solutions.

It will take real political courage to grasp what is necessary but the rewards for so many of us living in institutions could be correspondingly great.