Content warning: this post discusses child sexual abuse, sexual violence and police
It was reported today that Rolf Harris will be charged with seven counts of indecent assault, with one of the seven complainants being just 12 years old at the time the offence occurred. This follows his conviction in 2014 for twelve counts of indecent assault, with one of the survivors being just eight at the time it happened. Rolf Harris is a predator. A convicted paedophile. So, why is it that one of this country’s top police officers would have let him get away with it?
A few days ago, Bernard Hogan Howe, head of the Metropolitan Police, wrote an article outlining what he reckons should be done about sexual abuse investigations (warning: if you click this link it contains discussion of CSA and sexual violence and is absolutely viciously infuriating). Hogan-Howe advocates a two-stranded approach which will have a devastating effect on encouraging survivors–particularly survivors of historic sexual abuse–to come forward:
- Making it clear to survivors that they will not be automatically believed if they report to the police.
- Offering anonymity to those accused.
Both of these affect reporting sexual violence to the police. A lot of survivors don’t report because they’re scared of not being believed anyway. The man in charge of the capital’s police force making it explicit that the police might not believe you isn’t exactly going to alleviate these concerns.
Anonymity for the accused sounds nice and fair in theory, but it, too, has an impact on reporting, particularly for serial rapists and abusers. We see the pattern again and again: one or two survivors stick their head above the parapet and speak out about what happened to them, and it encourages more and more survivors to follow, knowing that they’re not alone. It happened with Savile (although, unfortunately, after he died, so he was never brought to justice). It happened with Bill Cosby. It happened with Greville Janner (although, again, he died before being brought to justice). And yes, it happened with Rolf Harris, which is presumably why further charges are being brought 18 months after he was convicted.
In his nasty article, Bernard Hogan-Howe describes what happened after Savile as “a dam burst[ing]”, as though it’s a bad thing that more survivors come forward. He acts as though a senior police officer telling historic abuse survivors, “Come forward, we will believe you,” is a bad thing. It isn’t and it wasn’t.
So why has Bernard Hogan-Howe laid out a roadmap for helping serial rapists and abusers like Rolf Harris get away with it? Again, Hogan-Howe is kind of clear about this in his article: it’s been more than a little inconvenient for some powerful men who have been accused, but there isn’t enough evidence to bring charges.
The right-wing media have been all over Hogan-Howe, baying for his blood. Not because Hogan-Howe is proposing measures that will help serial child abusers like Rolf Harris get away with it, but rather the opposite: a high-up army man and a Tory peer got accused and weren’t charged because of insufficient evidence. Lord Bramall’s case is getting ugly, with him calling for an investigation into his accuser, and today’s Sun front page headline outright calling the accuser “a serial liar“. Meanwhile, Lord Brittan was implicated in dossiers on the Westminster paedophile ring being ignored, allowing child sexual abuse to go on.
I have no opinion as to whether Brittan or Bramall committed the crimes they were accused of or not. It’s worth noting at this juncture that a lot of historic abuse cases are dismissed because there’s not enough evidence. Even in recent cases of sexual violence, there’s often not much of the sort of evidence which will likely secure a conviction through the courts. With historic abuse, the case may be investigated over 40 years after the incident took place. In a way, it surprises me that there have been any convictions of historic sexual abuse at all, especially ones for abuse which happened decades ago. Again, I am not saying that Bramall or Brittan raped anyone. Rather, the point I would like to make here is that what helps these convictions take place is more victims coming forward. Indeed, one of the things which contributed to the lack of evidence against Bramall–and indeed the media frenzy over how unfair it was to investigate him–was it was based on only one complainant’s testimony.
So, the way things are set up, for historic abuse claims to stand a chance of seeing the inside of a courtroom, plenty of survivors need to come forward. It’s probable that if just one person had come forward to accuse Rolf Harris, he would have got away with it. It’s probable that if other survivors didn’t know an investigation was taking place, they wouldn’t have come forward. It’s probable that nobody would have come forward to accuse Rolf Harris if they’d felt they might not be believed.
Bernard Hogan-Howe would have let Rolf Harris get away with sexual abuse of children and adults alike if he’d decided to say what he said a couple of years ago. In pandering to right-wing media outcry over the poor powerful old white men, Hogan-Howe has achieved only one thing: making it easier for rapists and paedophiles to never be brought to justice.
The media are of course complicit in this, and I am sure they know exactly who they’re helping and who they’re hurting.
I’m sure it’s incredibly inconvenient for the police to be investigating powerful old white men, but this doesn’t mean they should try to discourage reports that they have to investigate. I don’t know, maybe if they stopped harassing BME people using stop and search powers, they’d free up some resources to investigate complaints.
The fact is, under Bernard Hogan-Howe’s ideas, Rolf Harris would have got off scot-free. Think about what when talking about how historic abuse investigations are handled, rather than Bramall and Brittan.
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