What powerful global institution may have been aware of compounding allegations of the sexual abuse of children at the highest levels for decades but chose to protect institutional “integrity” and prevent public scandal instead of pursuing offenders? If you said the Roman Catholic church, well, yeah, you’d be right, but a continuing investigation in the United Kingdom is demonstrating that the church is far from the only major social institution which has put efforts to protect its image ahead of the protection of children in recent years (See the breaking Jehovah's Witnesses story). British police have only lately roused themselves from years of systemic neglect or worse and are now pursuing leads in a jaw-dropping cases of alleged abuse, even murder, of children dating back to the 1960s. Accounts of the reach and complexity of the escalating scandal read like a first draft of a new season of "True Detective."
Across the pond, Americans, in varying degrees of shock, are poring over the accounts of decades of sexual assault allegedly perpetrated by Bill Cosby. But the British public have already had their Cosby moment in the hideous Jimmy Savile, a leering pied-piper of pedophilia who deployed his celebrity reality-altering powers to protect himself from suspicion over decades as he molested an unknowable number of children. Savile’s victims easily could number as high as 500 and include paralysis patients he allegedly molested at a British hospital Savile treated like a personal fiefdom.
The Savile scandal, much like Cosby’s, reveals some of the pernicious privilege of celebrity. Savile deftly used his connections, wealth and reputation not only to create opportunities to reach victims but to shut down or sidetrack investigations into his odious behavior. Though reports and rumors of his behavior circulated for years—a first allegation surfaced as early as 1963—the BBC opted for silence or stymied the exposés of their own journalists and British police missed one opportunity after another to stop Savile's lifelong rampage.
Unlike the Cosby scandal—so far—the Savile case has led to even more dramatic allegations and as many as 13 separate investigations. Now 76 politicians, inlcuding members of the House of Lords and parliament and more than 1,400 other people across the United Kingdom are being looked at by police for child porn possession or production and the sexual assault of children—as the British public seeks answers to a dumbfounding question: How did Savile manage a career in sexual assault, disguised as a beloved child entertainer no less, without arrest even after, as in the Cosby case, his predilections had become more or less an open secret? Savile’s tentacles spread beyond the entertainment community and into Britain’s political world, many figures from both worlds are now the objects of pedophilia inquiries, creating the gnawing suspicion of something very black at the heart of the Westminster political establishment
In an effort—one can only hope—to find out just how deep the rot goes and after several false starts, the UK government began this month what it proposes will be a five-year long, £100 million investigation into the role of British authorities in failing to respond to reports of the sexual assault of children, perhaps even aiding to cover them up. After previous inquiry chairs were challenged for being too cozy with figures in the political establishment they were presumably going to investigate, the government has flown in a jurist from New Zealand, Lowell Goddard, to assume the unpleasant task. (Her hefty compensation package has become a scandal of its own).
Goddard warned UK reporters as the investigation launched on July 9 that the true figures on the number of cases “may be worse than the official figures estimate,” that there were indications of systematic “under-recording and mis-recording” of child sex abuse by the police and other agencies for years.
According to the judge, “The naming of people that have been responsible for the sexual abused of children, or institutions that have been at fault in failing to protect children from abuse, is a core aspect of the Inquiry’s function.” She said: 'Let me make it perfectly clear that this Inquiry will use its fact-finding powers to the full, and will not hesitate to make findings in relation to named individuals or institutions where the evidence justifies this.” Goddard has been empowered to follow the investigation wherever it leads, up to and including the Royal Household.
The judge added: “The sexual abuse of children over successive generations has left permanent scars, not only on the victims, but on society as a whole….This inquiry provides a unique opportunity to expose past failures of institutions to protect children.”
A previous government investigation, limited to reviewing whether documents related to reports of pedophile crimes had been “lost,” ended with that question still generally overhanging current efforts. After a number of previously missing documents were produced this week (they had been thought lost or destroyed, but were found in a cabinet office storeroom of “assorted and unstructured papers" at Whitehall), researchers Peter Wanless and Richard Whittam expressed their dissatisfaction with the process thus far and concerns about the government’s general lassitude on pedophile allegations.
They concluded that they could not say authoritatively that documents were not deliberately destroyed or misplaced, adding, “More broadly, there were a number of references across the papers we saw that reinforced the observation we made in our Review [Review 2.5] that issues of crimes against children, particularly the rights of the complainant, were given considerably less serious consideration than would be expected today.
“To give one striking example, in response to claims from two sources that a named Member of Parliament ‘has a penchant for small boys,’ matters conclude with acceptance of his word that he does not and the observation that ‘At the present stage ... the risks of political embarrassment to the Government is rather greater than the security danger.’ The risk to children is not considered at all. [Sir Antony Duff to Sir Robert Armstrong 4/11/86.]” Just so American audiences understand, this supplementary report indicates that Britain's MI5 urged a cover-up of child abuse allegations against a senior MP to avoid political embarrassment for Margaret Thatcher’s government; that would be something akin to the FBI or CIA electing to suppress a report about a Congress or cabinet member's sexual assault of a child to avoid embarrassing a sitting president or the party in power. Unimaginable here? I don't know. Perhaps Dennis Hastert could shed some light on that.
Some might wonder why political party leaders in past UK governments apparently assisted in squashing such criminal investigations of members of parliament. Part of the explanation for that complicity lurks in a comment by Tim Fortescue, a senior Conservative Whip in the Heath administration 1971-1973, in a 1995 BBC documentary “Westminster's Secret Service.” Fortescue was explaining the contents of a little black “dirt book” which contained information about MPs: “For anyone with any sense, who was in trouble, would come to the whips and tell them the truth, and say now, I’m in a jam, can you help? It might be debt, it might be… a scandal involving small boys, or any kind of scandal in which, …, a member seemed likely to be mixed up in, they’d come and ask if we could help and if we could, we did. And we would do everything we can because we would store up brownie points… and if I mean, that sounds a pretty, pretty nasty reason, but it’s one of the reasons because if we could get a chap out of trouble then, he will do as we ask forever more.”
Perhaps it is no surprise that some are not content to allow the British political establishment to investigate itself. “Anonymous,” the digital underground vigilante movement, has begun its own study of the extent of what it calls paedosadism (declining to use the standard “pedophilia,” arguing that the treatment the child victims received could hardly be described as “love”) and the UK government’s role in covering it up. The objective of their #OpDeathEaters “is an independent, international, victim-led tribunal/inquiry into trafficking and paedosadist industry.”
Anonymous elected to use a moniker for its unofficial investigation derived from the fictional world of Harry Potter, taking the name from the life-draining followers of Lord Voldemort. Most appropriate, given that the content of many of the allegations and the systemic inaction of British law enforcement over decades appears impossible to accept as chapters out of a real history.
Editor's Note: A previous version of the post misspelled Jimmy Savile's last name (adding an "l") and more unforgivably—considering how many times the author has read Harry Potter novels to his children—confused "Death Eaters" with "Dementors."