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Laurie Penny: Why the Pope has a point on child abuse

The abuse of children within the home is something that society has yet to tackle adequately.

The abuse of children within the home is something that society has yet to tackle adequately.

It has to be a bad day for the ethical health of the species when we are taking lessons in child welfare from the Catholic Church. Speaking to an audience of US bishops in a week when the US just happened to be embroiled in a scandal involving the possible cover-up of child sex-abuse at Syracuse University and Penn State College, the Pope took pains to remind the faithful - and anyone else who might be listening - that the Catholic church was not the only institution whose members have turned a blind eye to the rape and abuse of prepubescents in its care.

"Just as the church is rightly held to exacting standards in this regard, all other institutions, without exception, should be held to the same standards," said Joseph Ratzinger, conveying a rather tasteless undertone of relief to the church's statement of official repulsion.

Ratzinger, nonetheless, is technically correct. Child abuse is a social disease that contemporary culture has barely begun to address. It extends far beyond the institutional reach of the Vatican, American college sports, or the organised gangs of predatory paedophiles on whom the British government is orchestrating a welcome crackdown.

Child abuse is far from an institutional phenomenon. Eighty per cent of child sexabuse takes place within the home, and most of it is perpetrated by parents, close relatives and family friends. In 2010/11, more than 17,000 sexual crimes against children under 16 were recorded in England and Wales - a third of all recorded sexual crime - and this statistic represents only those cases that were brought to the attention of the police. A large proportion of young victims choose not to speak about or report their abuse, sometimes for many years. This may be for the same reasons that lie behind our hesitancy as a culture to speak and write about such abuse: shame and fear that we will be disbelieved and, above all, a confusion about how to confront cruelty when it occurs within the family - the very structure that is supposed to be the bedrock of love, support and social cohesion. That is the one institution no politician has yet been brave enough to challenge.

Home truths

The abuse of children within the home is something that society has yet to tackle adequately. There are plenty of resources available for survivors, particularly those who can afford therapy. Search online for "child abuse" and you will find endless web pages in soothing pastels where victims share their stories of suffering; wander into any chain bookshop and you will encounter shelves devoted to books with soft sepia pictures of weeping children and titles like Please, Daddy, No.

Child abuse is still approached, largely, as something for victims to grow up and get over, rather than as a systemic social ill that requires a political response. For all the appropriate public consternation over paedophile priests, seedy sports coaches and shadowy child-porn rings, we are as far as we ever have been from accepting on a broader level that the abuse of vulnerable young people is not something that can be allowed to continue, even behind closed doors, even within families who love one another.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.