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The late British entertainer Jimmy Savile, who passed away last year, has been accused of molesting more than 300 children.
The late British entertainer  Jimmy Savile, who passed away last year, has been accused of molesting more than 300 children.

UK's ‘stranger danger’ undercut by Savile and people in authority

Entertainer Jimmy Savile has taught a nation how the real threat of child abuse often comes from people in authority.

LONDON // After years of misplaced fears about "stranger danger", experts hope that the torrent of child abuse allegations against children's TV presenter, Jimmy Savile, will teach Britain that the real threat comes from people in positions of authority.

How Savile was able to avoid the allegations during his lifetime has fascinated and baffled the British public, with the story barely leaving the front pages of newspapers for the past month.

But experts such as Dennis Green, a child protection consultant with a firm called RWA, want the Savile case to "highlight the need to ensure there are proper protections for children in large organisations like the BBC".

"I hope the Savile case will make people realise there is a much greater threat from people in positions of authority than from the weirdo in a scruffy mac stood outside the school gates," he said.

It is becoming clear that hundreds of women felt that they could not speak out against the primetime BBC presenter and charity fund-raiser while he was alive.

Savile died last year, at the age 84, still worshipped for his charity work, and holding a knighthood from both the Queen and the Vatican.

Since a documentary last month in which several women alleged sexual abuse by Savile when they were children in the 1960s and 1970s, police have said that they are pursuing 300 leads.

The BBC and health authorities also face a series of inquiries and a grilling from parliament over their failure to protect children in their institutions.

Shame, and fear that they would not be taken seriously, were clearly factors in keeping the victims quiet. Savile's connections and saintly reputation also offered him a great deal of protection.

Others have argued that different attitudes to child abuse helped shield Savile from criticism.

Max Clifford, a high-profile public relations guru in London, garnered controversy this week when he said that ageing celebrities are "frightened to death" of being dragged into the scandal.

In those hedonistic days, he said, TV and pop stars "never asked for anybody's birth certificate".

The 1970s were certainly a more liberal time. For several years, a group called the Paedophilia Information Exchange (PIE) openly campaigned for the removal of the age of consent and public acceptance of paedophilia.

PIE found partial acceptance at a time when left-wing groups were challenging broader censorship laws, but it soon became clear that their academic arguments were a cover for criminally abusive behaviour.

However, experts dispute the idea that society was more tolerant of paedophilia in those days.

"The law was the same then - people were fully aware it was wrong," said Mr Green.

What has changed is that people have become much more open to discussing interpersonal relationships, said Kieran McCartan, senior lecturer in criminology at University of the West of England.

"There is an openness to talking about sexualised behaviour that means victims feel more confident to come forward. A lot of that came from the feminist movement and the media's increased willingness to talk about these issues," he said.

The increased coverage of child abuse has not always been positive, however.

The case which did more to raise the issue than any other in Britain was that of eight-year-old Sarah Payne. In July 2000, she was kidnapped, sexually abused and murdered by Roy Whiting, a stranger who lived near her grandparents' home.

Whiting was caught and convicted, but the case sparked months of hysterical press coverage, including a campaign by the News of the World demanding that the names and addresses of known sex offenders be provided to the public. The paper even published some names itself, but backed down after this sparked vigilante attacks on the homes of suspects. "It generated a lot of fear because it gave people the feeling that this could happen to anyone," said Dr McCartnan.

Along with another case in 2002, in which two ten-year-old friends - Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman - were murdered in Soham, the coverage left families with the impression that the primary threat to their children was from strangers.

In fact, the National Society for the Protection of Children (NSPCC) says the vast majority of victims know the offender beforehand, with 80 per cent of incidents happening in one of their homes.

Part of the problem is also a basic lack of information. Although child abuse dominates the news agenda, it is not clear how many predatory paedophiles are out there.

Official figures show in 2010 there were 37,225 registered sexual offenders in England and Wales, but this does not distinguish between those who have targeted adults or children. The NSPCC has filed a freedom of information request with the government to find out why specific data on child abusers is not available, but is still waiting for a response.



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