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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

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.