By Esther Townsend
Allegations of rape and sexual assault against Jimmy Savile have now reached 340 lines of inquiry with 40 potential victims.
Questions are raised about sexism; gender dynamics; why “stranger rape” persists as the dominant conception of sexual assault; and how behaviours are dismissed as normal or inevitable (a Stoke Mandeville hospital trainee occupational therapist had concerns but thought Savile was “just a pervy old man”).
But, as the list of implicated organisations grows, the case raises serious questions about services, accountability and safeguarding.
Fundamentally, a severe lack of communication, a culture of ignoring issues and a lack of clear organisational structures creates space for people to gain influence and power.
There are also questions, perhaps especially for a stigmatised institution such as Broadmoor, with which Saville was involved, of the power of charitable donations — does money and support encourage myopia and buy privilege?
Hierarchical organisations privilege some voices and reduce accountability, as junior workers are told issues are “not their concern”.
In the 1970s a Stoke Mandeville hospital nurse reported that Savile was abusing patients but senior police said: — Jimmy Savile is a high-profile man. He could not be doing anything irregular.”
This mirrors the even lower value placed on service users, especially in institutions such as Broadmoor where demonisation and depersonalisation is common. Claims of mistreatment or sexual assault are often dismissed and pathologised as delusions, confusion or deliberate lies.
It is important not to sensationalise the emerging lessons; safeguarding frameworks are now radically different, alongside stringent processes and policies. However, the Protection of Freedoms Act (2012) changed checks for people, like Savile, volunteering with children and vulnerable adults.
Nick Clegg called for a reduction in CRB-checking and the “atmosphere of suspicion and distrust”. Of course grandparents shouldn’t have to be CRB-checked before babysitting, but the Coalition government are exploiting “common-sense” principles for their own “sack-workers-and-get-volunteers-in” Big Society agenda — in the process making service users vulnerable.
Cultural attitudes and underlying problems of communication, accountability and discrimination against service users persist.
These must be tackled in order to protect children and vulnerable adults with learning difficulties or mental health problems, who might struggle to communicate their experiences or convince others to believe them.