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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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After the “Tatler Tory” bullying scandal, we must ask: what is the point of party youth wings?

A zealous desire for ideological purity, the influence of TV shows like House of Cards and a gossip mill ever-hungry for content means that the youth wings of political parties can be extremely toxic places.

If you wander around Westminster these days, it feels like you’re stepping into a particularly well-informed crèche. Everyone looks about 13; no one has ever had a job outside the party they are working for. Most of them are working for an absolute pittance, affordable only because Mummy and Daddy are happy to indulge junior’s political ambitions.

It’s this weird world of parliament being dominated by under 25s that means the Tory youth wing bullying scandal is more than just a tragic tale. If you haven’t followed it, it’s one of the most depressing stories I’ve ever read; a tale of thirty-something, emotionally-stunted nonentities throwing their weight around at kids – and a promising, bright young man has died as a result of it.

One of the most depressing things was that the stakes were so incredibly low. People inside RoadTrip 2015 (the campaigning organisation at the centre of the scandal) cultivated the idea that they were powerbrokers, that jumping on a RoadTrip bus was a vital precondition to getting a job at central office and eventually a safe seat, yet the truth was nothing of the sort.

While it’s an extreme example, I’m sure it happens in every political party all around the world – I’ve certainly seen similar spectacles in both the campus wings of the Democrats and Republicans in the US, and if Twitter is anything to go by, young Labour supporters are currently locked in a brutal battle over who is loyal to the party, and who is a crypto-Blairite who can “fuck off and join the Tories”. 

If you spend much time around these young politicians, you’ll often hear truly outrageous views, expressed with all the absolute certainty of someone who knows nothing and wants to show off how ideologically pure they are. This vein of idiocy is exactly where nightmarish incidents like the notorious “Hang Mandela” T-shirts of the 1980s come from.

When these views have the backing of an official party organisation, it becomes easy for them to become an embarrassment. Even though the shameful Mandela episode was 30 years ago and perpetrated by a tiny splinter group, it’s still waved as a bloody shirt at Tory candidates even now.

There’s also a level of weirdness and unreality around people who get obsessed with politics at about 16, where they start to view everything through an ideological lens. I remember going to a young LGBT Republican film screening of Billy Elliot, which began with an introduction about how the film was a tribute to Reagan and Thatcher’s economics, because without the mines closing, young gay men would never found themselves through dance. Well, I suppose it’s one interpretation, but it’s not what I took away from the film.

The inexperience of youth also leads to people in politics making decisions based on things they’ve watched on TV, rather than any life experience. Ask any young politician their favourite TV show, and I guarantee they’ll come back with House of Cards or The Thick of It. Like young traders who are obsessed with Wolf of Wall Street, they don’t see that all the characters in these shows are horrific grotesques, and the tactics of these shows get deployed in real life – especially when you stir in a healthy dose of immature high school social climbing.

In this democratised world of everyone having the ear of the political gossip sites that can make or break reputations, some get their taste for mudslinging early. I was shocked when a young Tory staffer told me “it’s always so upsetting when you find out it’s one of your friends who has briefed against you”. 

Anecdotes aside, the fact that the youth wings of our political parties are overrun with oddballs genuinely worries me. The RoadTrip scandal shows us where this brutal, bitchy cannibalistic atmosphere ends up.

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.