Abusers of children often try to convince them that what is going on should be kept secret. It suits their purposes, because sex with children gratifies the abusers, and they know exactly what is going on, unlike the child.
As a consequence, investigators of child abuse take pains to explain to children that some secrets need to be shared with others, not kept for ever. The UK is currently going through trials of sex abusers of children, and also re-examining the investigations which were carried out, or more commonly not carried out, in previous decades. The general mood in the press is that it is time to expose the secret world of abusers, which may include high profile people capable of covering up their practices and impeding the course of justice.
Regular readers of this blog will not need the following to be spelt out for them, but to new readers, welcome, and please understand this distinction: one can be morally opposed to a practice and also retain an enquiring mind about how it is defined, detected, proved and punished.
In a recent trial of what is now called “historical child abuse” many reporters have said that many sexual practices and events were revealed in the trial which they thought it proper not to report to the general public. They said that the material was so disgusting that it should not to be published. In general, I agree with such restraint.
However, it means that a secret is being kept from us: namely, precisely what takes place when a child or young woman is abused. This cannot be kept secret from everyone. Somewhere there must be trial proceedings which can be seen by researchers who, even if they don’t report each trial in detail, can at least classify the behaviours in terms of severity. For example, child pornography has been classified in terms of the blatant and intrusive nature of the acts portrayed, and presumably this is known to researchers, and can at least be described in general terms. There are many definitions of sexual abuse, but this covers a wide range of behaviours, from unwanted touching to rape. We need more understanding of the categories of actions that constitute abusive sexual behaviour. Otherwise, as members of the general public, we are being led to believe by press accounts that people are being sent to prison for allegedly touching the breasts of young women. It is also unclear how courts deal with adult accusers who apparently consentingly return to the alleged abuser on many occasions for sexual meetings. Restraint in reporting sexual crimes can lead to public bewilderment.
When sexual abuse of children was being investigated decades ago I recall sitting through tapes of children talking about what had happened to them, whilst being interviewed by questioners using anatomical dolls. The interviews were harrowing, and also flawed. Some children being interviewed had very probably been abused. However, many interviewers did not realise that the questions they were putting to the child were too complex, and that they were leading the child rather than using appropriate open-ended enquiries. It was frustrating to see how errors were very probably being made because of a lack of care in interviewing methods, and a lack of understanding of childhood cognition.
There are also more general evidential matters to consider: reporting makes it unclear how the statements of the accused are balanced against the statements of the accuser. Current prosecution policy seems to be to show that there is a pattern of behaviour, namely that the accusation made by one person has also been made by others, presumably independently. This is somewhat different from the procedures followed with other crimes, in which a habitual burglar is judged on each case, not on the fact that they habitually burgle houses. Pattern recognition makes sense from a psychological point of view, but usually common law has been against it, attempting to judge each event on its own merits.
I do not intend to attend any trials, but it would be good if, sometime, someone would spell out what the press did not report, perhaps in an obscure legal report or academic paper. As always, if you know what is going on, please send me a reference.