After Rotherham – how can we protect every child?

We need a consistent and effective response to child abuse. But, writes Christine Bird, that means thinking the issues through, and rejecting racism and hypocrisy.

Rotherham Town Centre sign

It is important to say from the outset that all children have a right to be protected from abuse. This should surely be the starting point for any discussion of Professor Jay’s report into the sexual exploitation of 1400 children in Rotherham. How will children be kept safe, from this point forwards? And how will those who have been violated be supported to heal?

There have been several scandals involving sexual violence against children recently – celebrities such as Gary Glitter and Jimmy Savile, a range of politicians and now organised groups of men in Rotherham. Why, we might ask, is the ethnicity of the perpetrators only mentioned in the case of Rotherham? By contrast, when five men were found guilty of grooming and sexually exploiting (read ‘raping’) girls in Derby in 2012, their ethnic origins and religion were barely mentioned .

One of the most dominant news angles on this case has been that councillors in Rotherham didn’t dare mention the abusers’ ethnicity for fear of being seen as racist. Presumably, this makes the BBC very brave for constantly referring to it as it broke the story. Other news providers, predictably, followed suit. The media should be aware that they are playing with fire. The English Defence League (EDL) has called a protest in Rotherham on the 13th September, with the tagline “1400 children were raped, abused and groomed… Call us racist if you dare!” Twitter carries a storm of righteous indignation from supporters of a range of right-wing organisations.

Whilst revelling in the Pakistani origins of the Rotherham abusers, such coverage pays scant attention to the child victims, many of whom are girls of Pakistani origin. This matters. The guiding question must always be: “How is this response helping the victims of abuse?” There is, no doubt, a place for targeted interventions, such as such as the training on safeguarding which Rotherham imams and mosque goers have recently undertaken, or the work of organisations which specifically support Muslim women and children in escaping abuse. However, racist mudslinging detracts attention from the fact that abusers come from all backgrounds, in terms of both class and ethnicity. In her report, Professor Jay points out that “there is no simple link between race and child sexual exploitation, and across the UK the greatest numbers of perpetrators of CSE [child sexual exploitation] are white men”.

It’s remarkable that Jay felt the need to make such a statement. It suggests that some may believe that there exists a crude link between the colour of a person’s skin, or their religion, and the likelihood of them perpetrating child abuse. If things were so simple, we’d be able to identify and lock up criminals just by looking at them. This is reminiscent of IQ tests in years gone by to see if black people were more stupid than white people, or of experiments to find whether men were more clever than women because they had bigger brains. How will the EDL protest in Rotherham help Asian, or any other women and children to speak out?

We might note, in passing, the absence of high-profile backers for the Rotherham men. In contrast, when Rolf Harris was accused of sexual offences, Bill Oddie asked people to support him because all he did was “cuddle his secretary”. Within hours of him being accused of sexual assault, thousands of Cliff Richard’s fans had taken to Facebook to express their belief in his innocence. Cilla Black has stated publicly that the allegations against Richards are “without foundation” (how can she know this?).  And after rubber-stamping his appointment to a Broadmoor governance taskforce in 1988, former Tory Health Minister, Edwina Currie, said of Jimmy Savile, “He is an amazing man and has my full confidence.”

The notion of equivalence comes to mind. Is child rape better or worse when the perpetrator is white? Should we focus on the political allegiance of the perpetrator – considering that Tories, Lib Dems, Labour and Sinn Fein MPs have all been recently implicated in the organised abuse cases (are they, too, a “gang”?) And yes, a quick internet search reveals that even the EDL has members of its own under investigation for child sex allegations. Does distance make the same offence better or worse? Does a Thai child have less right to protection than a British child? Does the amount of time that has passed make a crime more excusable? And if so, how far back must we go? Child prostitution was wide-spread and tacitly accepted in Victorian Britain. More recently, children were allowed to be abused in Glasgow council’s Larchgrove borstal from the 1950s to the 1990s. (Has anyone been brave enough to mention that the perpetrators were mainly white Scottish/English?) The Rotherham abuse itself “continues to this day”.

It seems evident that the establishment figures involved in child abuse are in a category of their own. In terms of hypocrisy, it is hard to beat Jimmy Savile, for example, supporting  the charity Children In Need. However, it is the power which some individuals wield which makes them particularly dangerous. Paedophile Peter Righton contributed to a government report on child care in 1970, which led to major reforms of 1970s children’s homes. Righton’s “expert” role gave him access to children’s homes across the country, where he is implicated in networking and abuse throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Sadly, any child can be a victim of abuse. However, it increasingly feels like children with the lowest social status, particularly those in care are open to abuse from all comers. They may be abused by those who are supposed to protect them. They can certainly expect to be disbelieved when they report their abuse. As things stand, they have received little by way of redress or even basic emotional support. Do our most vulnerable children have more or less of a need to be heard, to be listened to by people who actually care? Is their right to justice greater or lesser than the desire of our police and politicians to cover their own backs?

Photo by chrisfp on Flickr


  1. I’ve just seen this on Facebook – if anyone’s round London and wants to make their voice heard (I won’t be, cos I live in Scotland): Too Many Have Died, Too Many Lives Destroyed… Stop Government Child Abuse Cover Ups. Time for Truth
    Parliament Must Act… White Balloons & Flowers Vigil – Join us Monday, Sep 15, 3.45pm at 27 Rocks Lane, Barnes (former site of the Elm Guest House paedophile centre for the rich and still awaiting a full Police investigation)
    Commemorate the Innocent. Please Bring White Balloons and Flowers
    Safeguard Our Children Today
    NB White balloons and flowers were the symbols of childhood innocence used by Belgians when they protested in 1996 at the deaths of scores of children at the hands of the abusers, whilst their government stood by.

  2. This is a really good article. Thanks Christine. I totally agree that asking the question “how is this response helping victims of abuse?” is so important and something we should be repeatedly asking ourselves when dealing with this issue. I think your question about about space for political campaigning/leaving it to experts and survivors is really interesting. I work in the women’s sector and with women and children who have experienced abuse and I do think in many ways that the left’s understanding of these issues and the way they affect not just the individuals involved but also broader forumaltions of power, control and sexuality in our society is some way behind the discussion and understanding that exists within that sector. Perhaps this is understandable but I think it needs to be addressed. I think that as socialists we have an important perspectieve to bring to the discussion (especially in terms of looking at why abuse like this is so endemic and how we can stop it) but we have some work to do in understanding the issues better beforehand. I don’t think can we can afford to leave things to survivors/experts. It is such a massive issue, something so many people have direct experience of. Also I think that the political climate we’re in at the moment (austerity, cuts to services – mental health services, women’s refuges, rape crisis centres etc etc) is having a negative affect on the politics of this discussion inside the sector (not to mention the time, space and security needed to have it in the first place!), which actually, now I’ve started thinking about it, is a whole other can of worms so I’ll leave it there!

  3. This certainly one of the more ‘reasoned’ contributions to this current debate. It picks-up on a number of issues of which I’m familiar with in Leicester. ‘Ethnicity’ is neither here nor there, in many respects. What is at issue, I think, is men who think they should have power and control by right. Quite why the shape of your genitalia should play a role has always baffled me. I also think Christine was right to pose the question “How will the EDL protest in Rotherham help Asian, or any other women and children to speak out?” Absolutely ‘sod-all’! Because — and I don’t have verifiable evidence for this — I suspect that members of the EDL share a number of views about women and children that are not ‘dissimilar’ to religious fundamentalists from many of the world’s leading ‘faiths’. Difficult one and could, of course, be discussed at length.

  4. Great challenge to the racist storm accompanying the Rotherham scandal. The Left needs to have a good look at Professor Jay’s report. It seems to have been badly misinterpreted.

    I have published an article has been published on the issue at:

    Through analysis of this contentious report I show how the story that it shows how Asians have carried out abuse on a very large scale in Rotherham is false.

  5. C – Thankyou so much for sharing your experiences. Do you mind if I share your blog elsewhere? I feel that a lot of the taboo around these issues does little to help the victims. Why do we call it ‘exploitation of young people’ when it’s rape of children? The children who have been raped should feel no shame whatsoever in using those words. The shame is with the perpetrator. Nobody should have to keep anyone’s dirty secret out of fear that others won’t know how to react. It’s definitely about time we opened this subject right up. I wonder what your opinions are about what should be done now? Is there room for some sort of campaign for justice? What form might this take? Or is it better to leave such a sensitive subject to survivors and professionals…? I hope you don’t mind me asking!
    Luke – I’m not sure that boys are taken more seriously. It was all boys at Larchgrove in Glasgow, and many of those at Elm House were boys too… I wonder if it’s harder for boys to speak out about abuse – even harder than for girls? Because it’s emasculating in some way, and they haven’t been taught to express their feelings, perhaps. What do you think..? There’s another angle on this, especially with regards to boys, i.e. the institutional abuse which took place at boarding schools, where the greatest crime was to tell anyone outside what was happening. It gives a real insight into the psyche of our rulers, I think. Alex Renton describes his experience here:

  6. I feel, but am not sure, that there is an important issue of gender in these cases. I can’t help but think if the situation had been reversed the authorities might have been more likely to take action eg if young boys had been getting taken away by older women/men, if young boys had returned intoxicated would they have taken accusations of drugging them up more seriously?
    What do you think?

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