Recently the media has focused on the incidence of abuse in society and also specifically within the Catholic Church. Pope Francis mentioned in an interview that he gave to a reporter that he understood the incidence of paedophilia to be approximately 2% amongst the clergy in the Catholic Church worldwide. Many would regard this figure as an underestimate of what is the likely reality but in the absence of sound evidence it is impossible to be certain. Similarly the media in the United Kingdom have given prominence to the arrest of 660 individuals for accessing images of children being abused from the internet. Only 39 of those arrested were on the sex offenders register. In their coverage much emphasis has been placed on the occupations of these individuals. Some were doctors, teachers, youth leaders, and care workers.
To anyone who has worked in the field of safeguarding there is nothing in this that would be surprising. Indeed, it has previously been reported in the media that there are a substantial number of individuals in the United Kingdom that regularly access hard core child pornography sites on the internet. This figure should be regarded as just the tip of the iceberg. The numbers involved have been quoted as being very much higher than just 660 in the past. What is surprising and worthy of comment is the fact that society, through the operation of the National Crime Agency, has at last taken action. It is acknowledged that it has not had to use new technology in doing so. The means of doing so was previously available but not applied in a focused way until recently.
The possibility of past abuse being covered up by powerful individuals at the heart of the establishment in the United Kingdom, is to be the subject of a full judicial inquiry. Allegations that senior politicians and others were involved in the abuse of young children are now to be properly investigated. All this is following in the wake of the scandal of the hidden abuse by Jimmy Saville.
For most people, there appears to be shock at the reported scale of the problem. This, I would suggest, is not the case for most who work in the field of safeguarding children. The existence of abuse within society is by its nature a hidden problem. It is not one that regularly features in the media in a way that allows you to gain a comprehensive understanding of what the reality is.
It is also the case that most people in society find the existence of child abuse to be deeply disturbing. It gives rise to strong negative emotions that we seek to avoid. It tends not to sell newspapers if prominence is given to it for a sustained period. I mention this because it is important to try to gain some understanding of how the widespread existence of abuse occurring either in a specific institution like the Catholic Church or in wider society, can remain hidden with such ease for so long. It would be my view that we contribute to that situation through our unwillingness to engage uncomfortable realities that we do not know how to deal with.
The sad fact is that there are many individuals amongst us that pose a risk to children and who create a market for their sexual exploitation. The scale of the problem is large and deeply disturbing. However, this should not act as an inhibitor to action. Children have a right to live free from abuse. Where this is denied to them, it indicates a failure on the part of society or of a particular institution. The problem cannot be solved by the police force alone, arresting everyone who engages in these activities. It is a problem for wider society which demands action at the highest level.
The media has a particularly important contribution to make in achieving change. They can help to inform us through balanced journalism. They can gather the known facts and present them to us in a way that aids our understanding. Sensationalism is unhelpful but the reality of this issue in our society is shocking and in itself disturbing. Through their work they can help to transform the social issue into becoming a public problem. Once they have achieved this, I would suggest that enduring political interest will follow.
Politicians are charged with specific responsibilities in democratic societies. Their interest tends to focus on matters that have an influence of how we vote. If politicians were convinced that the safeguarding of our children in wider society was an issue that exerted a strong influence on who we voted for, then I believe they would be more willing to create a framework in society that sought to address the problem of abuse with greater urgency. This is the change that needs to be achieved. Solving the problem of abuse should not be regarded as an optional extra to any political manifesto. On the contrary it should be given the highest priority in line with the value that we place on the importance of caring for the most vulnerable members of our society, our children.
Abuse is a hidden problem but its existence should not give rise to surprise. The fact that our understanding of the true reality of abuse is only partial should not be allowed to become an inhibitor to action. There are many individuals that pose a risk to children in our society. They need to be identified and changed. The factors that exist within our society that facilitate the creation of the problem need to be addressed. Much more needs to be done to aid our understanding of the scale problem and to make that information much more widely available. We must be more willing to engage that which we find uncomfortable if the issue is to be effectively dealt with in society.