Breaking the silence is immensely powerful and it is good medicine. But speaking up is hard. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has data that suggests one out of three people abused as a child has not disclosed the abuse and that the average victim who does waits nearly eight years to do so. Many of the men coming forward now, encouraged by the testimony of ex-footballer Andy Woodward, had never spoken before of the events when they were children.
In the past couple of years I have read or heard the accounts of more than 700 men and women sexually and emotionally abused as children in boarding schools, state-run and private. They came to me after I wrote in the Observer of the abuse at my own, Ashdown House. The stories are the grimmest reading, but what is heartening is that for so many people the simple act of speaking up is hugely helpful.
It is a rejection of the power of the abusers who bullied them into silence and the first step in sharing the pain with those around them. “After I sent you my story,” goes a typical email, “I showed it to my partner. We talked as we have never been able to before. I can’t say how glad I am – and she is – that I’m no longer alone with my past.”
For those who love the survivors, the moment of disclosure is often the beginning of hope, of rebuilding lives with people who may have seemed beyond help. The collateral damage of childhood abuse is huge and uncounted. Many of the footballers who have come forward talked of relationships broken by the burden of the secrets they had “locked away”, as Chris Unsworth, raped many times by coach Barry Bennell, put it. For many of the survivors I have interviewed, it is not until their own children reached the age at which they were abused that they confronted their past. For others, that moment came with crises, such as the collapse of a relationship and the urgent need to get explanations as to why life and love had been so difficult.
The abused children of boarding schools and football academies have much in common. It is not just that they all lived in stiff-upper-lip cultures that scorned weakness and overvalued loyalty. These children all carried a potential curse when they left home – the burden of adult hopes and expectations. Many of the footballers who have come forward speak of how impossible it was to tell of what Bennell was doing to them for fear of disappointing their parents.
Steve Walters told how his father, now dead, had changed his life, moved and got a job with Crewe Alexandra football club, to be near his son. Many boarding school children had parents tell them how they’d scrimped and saved for this amazing start to their life. How could these lucky children confess that the great plan had all gone so horribly, shamefully wrong? What if it was their own fault? One of the common side-effects of abuse is the destruction of a child’s sense of self-worth.
The abusers – and more are certain to emerge in football – are also horribly familiar to a researcher into the darker corners of the boarding schools. Contrary to popular belief, child abusers are rarely violent, opportunistic psychopaths. They would be caught if they were. According to criminologists, far more prevalent are the calculating groomers, men and occasionally women for whom the game of snaring a child seems as much a part of their motivation as any sex act. They are rarely violent. What they seek is situations where, however improbably, they can believe hey have their victim’s consent. That is not just a sexual need: a child who thinks it is complicit is a child less likely to tell.
We lack an epidemiology of child sexual abuse, of any indication of whether it is really increasing or decreasing, whether it is worse in some cultures or in others. What we do know is that 90% of sexual abuse is in the family circle, which is perhaps why abuse in institutions is so under-examined. Better understanding might save more children.
Many of the teachers I’ve come across in research for my book were, just like Barry Bennell, adept seducers of parents and bosses too. I’ve heard the confession of a convicted former Catholic priest who explained that when he chose children to target, he started by working out which families would be most open to his entry in their lives: “I’d usually choose a poor single mother who wasn’t really coping,” he said. Men like this would make themselves indispensable to the institution in which they operated – Bennell was a “brilliant coach, an inspiration”, just as the teachers and priests who abused were often the most charismatic and effective.
So, when managers or headteachers are faced with incredible allegations from children against vital members of staff, the easy way forward is all too compelling. It’s far simpler to tell a child off for having a nasty mind, as happened to me at school, than it is to call in the police. Cover-up is a British institutional tradition, and the background noise of historical sex abuse scandal is of brushes working busily under the carpet. Yet the decision to cover up entails something absolutely devastating to the child – the abuse of not being believed. That is shattering. The destruction of faith in adult justice is a trauma that will be carried for ever; the anger may lead to rejection of all adult values, the loneliness and shame of being pronounced a liar leads to substance abuse, self-harm and suicide attempts.
Many children do not speak out for fear of not being believed and of being punished. One child footballer, Jason Dunford, was dumped by Bennell after he rejected the coach’s advances. He was dropped from his team and accused of theft. He never became a footballer. Others interviewed by Victoria Derbyshire on BBC2 said that they could not speak even to boys who had been abused beside them. “At 11 years of age, you didn’t discuss things like that because the dream would have burst,” said Chris Unsworth. “You concentrated on improving your football.”
The ongoing horror for many victims is that the pain of not being believed gets revisited again and again. Some of the footballers had been interviewed three times or more over the years since the first investigations of Bennell began in 1990. Men from my smart prep boarding school first called for investigation of it 13 years ago. Even today, they are still far from seeing their alleged abusers in court.
With my research I have been able to help some ex-boarders join forces to seek civil and criminal recompense against their schools, but there are very few who have yet come out of that process satisfied. Instead, the painfully slow working of the law and the failures of public inquiries add to the sense of isolation, to theories of conspiracy and to the survivors’ burning, life-eroding anger.
One of the worst things about each child sex abuse scandal that emerges is what first seems to be unthinkable often turns out to be exactly what happened. Police and social workers did cover up what was happening in the children’s homes of North Wales. NHS officials were aware of what Jimmy Savile was up to in the hospitals – and they did tell junior staff to keep quiet. Senior BBC managers did the same. Schools have hushed up complaints, bullying parents to keep quiet and, instead of calling the police, allowed dangerous paedophiles to leave with a reference. It looks now as though the powerful in football who might have rescued children instead did the usual. Two victims have said that senior players and management at their clubs knew what was going on. Chelsea has admitted paying off a victim of its chief scout in the 1970s, on the condition of silence. There’s no doubt at all that more such cases will emerge.
The question every interviewer should have asked last week was: “It couldn’t happen today, could it?” The answer is that things have changed in institutions that care for children. Procedures are tighter. The internet makes vetting of staff far easier, just as it provides, perhaps, other means for paedophiles to satisfy their needs. (So does cheap foreign travel.) “Everything is safeguarded, everyone’s protected,” says Dunford, who now works as a coach. But he adds an important note: “The system in place is still one of trust: until you become an ‘offender’ – which means there will be victims – you can get away with anything you want to do.”
The answer is that proper protection is also enabling children to speak, teaching them that it is their right to do so. When they do speak, they must be heard. Another report for the NSPCC looked at the cases of 208 “disclosures” made by children and found that only 58% were acted upon. That is why there is now an all-party campaign for it to be mandatory for an accusation in an institution to be reported to a third party, as is the case in most countries.
Last week, five powerful Commons committees, particularly worried about the habitual sexual abuse of girls in schools, came together to plead that the government make sex and relationship education compulsory in all British schools. The initial response from the Department for Education – the report “would be carefully looked at” – was taken as a brush-off. This is the wrong time for yet another education minister to decide that British schoolchildren, alone in most of Europe, are better off without education about sex and healthy relationships.
Alex Renton’s Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in April.
Napac – the National Association of People Abused in Childhood – hotline 0808 801 0331