When it was discovered that Jimmy Savile, the television presenter and media personality, knighted for his charity work for sick and disabled children, was a prolific child abuser, the story of the true scale of child sexual abuse was finally acknowledged. The myth that child abuse is a rare occurrence committed by mentally-ill loners was put to bed. As more and more of Savile’s victims spoke out, so did those who had been abused by other celebrities in the 1970s, reassured that they would finally be believed.
But what was uncovered was sexual abuse of children not only by television personalities, but also by politicians and other so-called VIPs. There have been rumours for decades about a child abuse ring operating from Westminster, involving senior politicians, allegedly including Greville (now Lord) Janner, Cyril Smith, and the late Leon Brittan.
At the time of writing, numerous allegations concerning the former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath have emerged. In the early 1980s, when I volunteered on a Rape Crisis line, I heard Heath’s name in relation to sexual offences against children from two separate callers, one year apart, with no connection to each other. Over the years I have heard from a number of child protection advocates and campaigners that it was “widely known” that Heath was involved in organised child abuse rings. Such evidence was of course circumstantial.
However, a number of police investigations are now under way, following allegations from a retired police officer that criminal charges for pimping against Myra Forde, a former brothel keeper, were dropped, after she allegedly threatened to claim that Heath had abused children. Forde was later twice jailed for operating a brothel in Salisbury, Wiltshire, where Heath lived after retiring from active politics. The barrister who prosecuted Forde has since claimed in a letter to The Times that the case was actually dropped because three witnesses refused to give evidence. Forde has dropped her allegations, but ten police forces are now investigating Heath.
There was, and there remains to an extent, a conspiracy of silence. Children were rarely believed when they alleged abuse, particularly if the accused was a powerful person.
The conflation of sexual abuse with sexual identity began during the early days of the so-called sexual revolution, and carried on throughout the gay liberation movement in the 1970s. The word “paedophile” to describe a sexual identity began to be bandied around with impunity, but no other word in our language is so dangerously misused. It means, literally, “lover of children”. Child sex abusers seek solace in this term, and it is easy to see why it is to their advantage to embrace the label. Suggesting that child abusers “can’t help it” lends support to the notion that they are simply another sexual minority — as the commonly held but flawed view suggests with regard to the “gay gene”, predetermining sexual attraction and orientation — and that such men are pre-programmed to abuse children.
This is the view of so-called paedophile rights campaigners such as the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), active from 1974 until its disbandment in 1984. Its stated aim was “to alleviate [the] suffering of many adults and children” by campaigning to abolish the age of consent, which would legalise sex between adults and children. PIE gained a certain amount of credibility by allying itself with other sexual minorities that were engaged in effective liberation struggles, such as the gay rights movement. Homosexual acts had only recently been decriminalised in 1967, so any movement with the word “liberation” in its title was viewed by many as a force for good. In 1975, PIE representatives were invited to address a gay liberation conference in Sheffield. A headline in the Guardian read: “Child-lovers win fight for role in Gay Lib.”
In 1977, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) passed a resolution at its conference, supported by the vast majority of delegates, condemning “the harassment of the Paedophile Information Exchange by the press”. The scandalous fact that PIE was affiliated to the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) from the late 1970s to the early 1980s has been well documented. NCCL officer Nettie Pollard, who worked in the organisation until the late 1990s and played a leading role in CHE, voted to support PIE at its 1975 conference. In 1983, at the CHE conference, Pollard reissued her defence of PIE’s “right to speak and organise freely”.
When it comes to the subject of child sexual abuse, there is no clear Left/Right divide. The sexual revolution of the 1960s led some left-wing liberals to believe that all sex was good sex, provided that both parties were consenting. But what of the argument that the age of consent to sex, currently 16 years old, is unnecessary, and that it is restricting the rights of children to seek sexual fulfilment?
The current climate — set by the Savile scandal and the torrent of child grooming cases in Rochdale, Rotherham and elsewhere — is one of concern and disgust at the scarcely believable prevalence of the sexual abuse of vulnerable children that had been allowed to happen. However, there still exists a group of academics, scientists and campaigners who appear to not only sympathise with the original aims of PIE but who are actively promoting them.
In 2013, a conference on sexuality was held by the University of Cambridge. One speaker, Professor Philip Tromovitch of Doshisha University in Japan, claimed in his presentation on “The Prevalence of Paedophilia” that “paedophilic interest is normal and natural in human males”. Also at the conference was a man not often invited to respectable events, at least not since his high-profile convictions and subsequent imprisonment for the possession of child abuse images. Tom O’Carroll, who gained notoriety in the 1970s as chair of PIE, is a campaigner for the rights of paedophiles.
Following the Cambridge conference, O’Carroll wrote on his blog that he felt “relatively popular” during his attendance. Aware of the publicity this conference gained, I contacted him to request an interview. I wanted to try to understand how his viewpoint — that paedophiles are an oppressed sexual minority, rather than a danger to children — could possibly hold water in the context of recent widespread revelations concerning child sexual abuse. O’Carroll has previously enjoyed support from so-called progressives for his views and aims.
It is now well- known that, representing PIE, he sat on the NCCL’s gay rights sub-committee from the late 1970s until the early 1980s. His book, Paedophilia: The Radical Case (1980), was favourably reviewed by Gay News and other gay publications. This was an era in which discrimination against the gay population was so bad that some would agree to align with the unlikeliest of allies so long as they were being similarly targeted.
Many of those who promoted the rights of the “paedophile”, such as PIE founder Peter Righton, a child protection expert and social care worker, have since been convicted of sexual crimes against children.
I wanted to find out from O’Carroll, a man rarely in the media these days, whether libertarian child abuse revisionism was still alive and well. I discovered that it was. O’Carroll is unrepentant, and sees himself and the likes of Savile as victims of an ongoing moralistic witch-hunt.
“In the 1970s I thought we were going to be embarked upon a journey like the gay people,” he told me when we met in a central London wine bar. “I would have quite liked [to be labelled as] ‘kindly’ because ‘kindly’ . . . relates to the Dutch and German kinder — children. So yes, being intimate, but also being nice with it. “I would say that if someone had sexual relations which were in the realm of what I called earlier the ‘kindly’ sort then that would not be abusive. Although these days one has to be careful because anything you do, no matter how kindly it is, it’s always subject to trauma later on — secondary trauma as a result of society’s hysteria over the whole thing.”
The writer and broadcaster Francis Wheen personally experienced the effects of child sexual abuse. Additionally, he suffered the attempts by PIE and its supporters to claim that the abuse did not happen. In 1968, Charles Napier, who would subsequently become treasurer of PIE, joined the teaching staff at Wheen’s boarding preparatory school, Copthorne, in Sussex.
“Napier was much younger than most of the masters there and he was quite friendly with the children so we quite liked him at first, because he seemed more on our level and not so forbidding,” says Wheen. “He had a little room off the workshop, and he would take us in there and offer us beer and cigarettes.
“I was 11 at the time, and it was incredibly thrilling, rather naughty and exciting. The word ‘grooming’ had never entered our vocabulary at that stage. One day he plunged his hand down my gym shorts and grabbed me, and I pulled his hand off and recoiled, and he then started slightly sneering at me and said, ‘Oh Francis, come on. Don’t be a baby.’ Very clever, tried to make me feel inadequate, to have to prove my maturity by going along with it. Other boys spoke about it. I wasn’t the only one.”
Wheen says that his classmates rarely spoke of Napier’s actions, and as such he was unaware of the sheer scale of abuse prevalent at his school. “Once or twice I would be talking to another boy in the dormitory and he’d say, ‘Did Mr Napier try it on with you? Oh he did with me as well.’ I didn’t have any sense quite how many boys were being abused until years later. I wrote about it occasionally when I became a journalist, and I did tell my parents, only some years later.”
In those days, says Wheen, boarding school was “like being in prison, shut off from the outside world, so the only people you see are the other pupils there and the teachers. And we couldn’t communicate with the outside world very easily. There was no telephone there, that we could use. The only way of communicating was through letters, and they were all censored.”
Napier, who is half-brother of John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary, left the school in the early 1970s and went on to hold jobs working with children in Egypt and Sweden. He was convicted of child abuse-related offences in 1972 and 1995, but continued being employed in positions of trust.
In 2012, Wheen noticed that Napier was speaking at the Sherborne Literary Festival. Appalled at a convicted child abuser being given such a respectable platform, Wheen told his colleagues at Private Eye how he was assaulted by Napier as a child, and the magazine published his revelations.
“That was what kicked it off. The police got in touch with me and said, ‘Could I put them in touch with anyone else who’d been abused by Napier?’” says Wheen. “The police then spent ages tracking down pupils from the late Sixties, and they did a hell of a job. They managed to get school records, so everyone there, every boy who’d been at the school between 1968 and 1971, and as many as they could find, and in the end the numbers kept going up and up and up, by the end of them it was over 30, I think it was 34 different boys he was charged with, it kept going up. Even days before court they were adding more charges, and that was a school that had 100 pupils, basically something like a quarter of the school was being targeted by him. I certainly had no idea, that if I’d looked around in my classroom, even being there I wouldn’t have realised it.
“That’s it — so much of it is hidden, so much is not spoken about, that’s why it’s so startling when things do start being revealed, you think surely not. But more often than not, it does turn out to be the case.”
Last year Napier was convicted of sexually abusing 23 boys between 1967 and 1983, and sentenced to 13 years in prison. The judge remarked that a number of his victims had been profoundly affected by the abuse, with one committing suicide, and others seeking help for mental ill-health.
Wheen, who waived his anonymity in order to speak out against impunity for sexual predators, was in court for the verdict. He says that he was relieved to hear the judge make it clear that men like Napier do not escape punishment for abusing children, even if a case is brought against them decades after the fact.
Napier’s conviction was not, however, the end of the matter for Wheen. “Soon after [the case],” he says, “I had a letter from O’Carroll, complaining I was being very unfair to his friend Napier, and if only I could understand, and that Napier was a very brilliant, witty chap, and it was very cruel of me to write about him like this.
“I also received a letter from some woman in the social services department, who told me that [child sexual abuse] was a complicated issue and I shouldn’t be tabloidy about it. There are still plenty of people today it would seem who think child abuse is not such a terrible thing.”
Part of the problem, it would appear, is the stark division in many people’s minds between what they understand as “paedophilia” and child sexual abuse committed by highly functioning, respectable family members or guardians. Men who sexually abuse children in the home are not usually labelled “paedophiles”: this word is reserved for people like Sidney Cooke, currently serving a life sentence for multiple convicitons of sex abuse against boys — evil-looking men who prey upon children previously unknown to them. And yet far more children are abused by someone they know.
Some experts, who try to unravel the phenomenon of paedophilia, in particular sexual libertarians, give the impression that being “attracted” to children is a sexual orientation rather than a choice to harm them. They suggest that these people are not “ordinary men” but part of a weird sub-group; that there is a medical explanation, rather than a social one, for their behaviour. That they are different from fathers or stepfathers, who abuse children in the home; or that they are inevitably victims of abuse themselves.
The dangerous implications of a resurgence of the “paedophile” label was evident in an article in the Guardian on January 17, 1996. It was a small piece noting a problem delaying the publication of the first British commentary on Catholic canon law due to a mistake in relation to papal infallibility. Within this document are two pages on how to respond to priests who “are paedophiles”. The Church’s position is that paedophiles have diminished responsibility because their sexual urges are “in effect beyond their control”.
In 2013, at the height of the revelations concerning Savile and other well-known men exposed as child abusers, Guardian feature writer Jon Henley wrote an article headlined “Paedophilia: bringing dark desires to light.” The standfirst read: “The Jimmy Savile scandal caused public revulsion, but experts disagree about what causes paedophilia — and even how much harm it causes.” The article caused some intense anger, but also drew support from others, including — unsurprisingly — some self-identified paedophiles, including O’Carroll.
In the article, Henley went to great pains to make a distinction between a medical diagnosis of paedophilia, and the act of child sexual abuse. “But not all paedophiles are child molesters, and vice versa: by no means every paedophile acts on his impulses, and many people who sexually abuse children are not exclusively or primarily sexually attracted to them.
“In fact, ‘true’ paedophiles are estimated by some experts to account for only 20 per cent of sexual abusers,” he continued. “Nor are paedophiles necessarily violent: no firm links have so far been established between paedophilia and aggressive or psychotic symptoms. Psychologist Glenn Wilson, co-author of The Child-Lovers: A Study of Paedophiles in Society, argues that ‘the majority of paedophiles, however socially inappropriate, seem to be gentle and rational’.”
This argument is, however, reliant on the notion that men who desire sex with pre-pubescent children cannot help themselves if they have a diagnosis of paedophilia. Many experts, such as Professor Liz Kelly, director of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at North London University, do not agree. “The self-serving construction of paedophilia as a specific, and minority, ‘sexual orientation’ acts as a useful distraction to both the widespread sexualisation of children, and girls in particular, in Western cultures and the prevalence of sexual abuse,” she said.
According to Henley, any reasonable debate around so-called paedophilia is hindered by the moral panic that surrounds child abuse. But this could only be the case if such a thing as paedophilia existed, and if child sexual abuse was a rare occurrence. In any case, opposing the sexual abuse of children and upholding their human rights is not a “moral panic”.
Henley told me he was shocked at the level of vitriol, from a relatively small number of people, directed towards him following the publication of the article, which had been commissioned “from up high”.
“I should have been more explicit in my support of the victims of child sexual abuse, and my understanding of the traumatic consequences that child abuse can cause,” he went on. “But the level of hysteria and general panic around this whole subject means that no man would feel comfortable saying [that they feel sexual attraction towards children]. We need to reach a state where we can deal with this, so that abusers can be reached before, not after, they act.”
“The Jon Henley piece was extraordinary,” said Wheen. “I mean, that’s why it stood out for me, because it’s the one attempt I’ve seen in recent years to revert to the old ’70s case and say: surely there’s a case to be made and let’s not get over-censorious about this, and let’s approach this coolly and let’s lower the age of consent to four or whatever it might be. To me, [the article was] startlingly sympathetic, and I saw [Tom O’Carroll] rejoicing at the Guardian running it. I think it must have come as much as a surprise to O’Carroll as it did to everyone else.”
Christian Wolmar is the author of The Forgotten Children: The secret abuse scandal in children’s homes (2000). He believes that the “equal opportunities culture” of some London boroughs in the 1980s was such that, in order to promote the employment of “minorities”, criminal convictions of gay men were often unchecked, to avoid the appearance of discrimination. Wolmar quotes a 1995 report by Ian White about Islington council: “We were told that managers believed they would not be supported if they triggered disciplinary investigations involving staff who may be . . . members of the gay community.” This, of course, simply enabled child abusers to obtain jobs in children’s homes and other places where they would have access to vulnerable children. (Only an estimated 5 per cent of child sex abusers are women.)
“Organised abuse rings definitely exist. When I began to research Forgotten Children I was not a sceptic, but I was unsure as to what I would find,” said Wolmar. “PIE positioned themselves close to liberation movements as a deliberate ploy to attract the support of gays and leftists.
“Post-Savile, it was almost impossible to be a [child abuse] denier, but there will always be some. Nature created puberty for good reason. We know it is wrong to have sex with pre-pubescent children.”
Not all would agree with Wolmar on the matter of pre-pubescent children being non-sexual. In 1993, Nettie Pollard wrote an essay called “The Small Matter of Children” which begins by discussing “children’s rights”: “But baby boys are born with erections and girls with genitals swelling and vaginal lubrication . . . Masters and Johnson found that lubrication resulted from sexual stimulation in baby girls. Clearly, birth contains elements of sexual arousal for babies.
“Babies often react sexually when being held, or in other moments of physical pleasure. Reaction akin to orgasm has been detected in babies only a few months old, though masturbation and orgasm are rarely detected before the ages of one or two, and not all children masturbate.”
As Pollard’s views demonstrate, those who refuse to accept the harm done to victims of child sexual abuse are not confined to those directly abusing children. Some so-called experts in the field argue that for some adults, sex with children is a “natural” desire. In 2001 Glenn Wilson was ranked among the ten most frequently cited British psychologists in scientific journals. Wilson is co-author of the book Born Gay: The Psychobiology of Sex Orientation (2008), which states the case for a genetic basis to same-sex attraction and orientation. He is also co-author of The Child-Lovers: A Study of Paedophiles in Society (1981), in which he writes that “the majority of paedophiles, however socially inappropriate, seem to be gentle and rational”.
Qazi Rahman, who wrote Born Gay with Wilson, is a highly respected and much cited biologist based at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London. I asked him if he believed that the urge to abuse children is actually hard-wired. He said: “There is growing evidence of biological and brain differences, where the brains are cross-wired.”
What about paedophile rights? If Rahman and Wilson use the “gay gene” argument to ask for homosexual rights, why not then for child abusers? All they have to say is that there is a medical or genetic basis, as opposed to the fact that they chose to abuse children for power and sadism.
Rahman agrees that this can be problematic: “Should we feel sorry for paedophiles? As soon as the liberals get that rhetoric going, we will not be able to make any subtle distinctions as to who is dangerous and who is not.”
Ken Plummer is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Sociology at Essex University. Plummer, who is gay, contributed to a book called Perspectives on Paedophilia (1981). It was a supposedly objective look at paedophilia and was designed to be used on social work training courses. Plummer was a member of PIE in the late 1970s for “research purposes”.
Both Plummer and Pollard are warmly thanked in O’Carroll’s book, Paedophilia: The Radical Case (1980). In 2012, on his personal blog, Plummer wrote: “As homosexuality has become slightly less open to sustained moral panic, the new pariah of ‘child molester’ has become the latest folk devil.”
Last May, the Times journalist David Aaronovitch narrated a two-part investigation for BBC Radio 4’s Analysis. It sought to question how what were described as the “bizarre ideas” of Satanic abuse gained traction among police and social care professionals in the 1980s and early 1990s. Two of the contributors made formal complaints to the BBC for inaccuracy and bias following its broadcast.
I asked Aaronovitch whether he is concerned that his radio programmes could potentially contribute to a post-Savile backlash. However, his primary concern is not with the potential backlash against believing victims, but rather with a witch-hunt against potentially innocent victims of false allegations.
“The post-Savile hysteria is happening now,” he said, citing the number of accusations against VIPs that have yet to be proven. But will the doubt that he and others are casting — on whether organised abuse exists beyond rare exceptional cases — serve to cast doubt on those victims of abuse who are telling the truth? “No, we need to ensure that we identify false allegations.”
Judith Jones, a former senior social worker and expert in the effects of child sexual abuse on the victims, who was featured in the programme, disagrees: “We forget abuse memories because we can’t bear the truth. What David Aaronovitch is doing is suggesting that because wild claims of ritual abuse can be easily discredited then the hysteria about ‘ordinary abuse’ has gone too far. And yet he claims the opposite.”
Meanwhile, countless victims of horrendous sexual abuse in childhood are choosing not to disclose it to the police because of a fear that they will be told it was all their fault.