Watershed political moments usually require an indelible image to register change on a large scale. The collapse of the Berlin Wall or the sight of Nelson Mandela leaving prison are images that immediately convey a sense that society was making a quantum social leap. I had my own watershed moment last week, but it wasn’t a moment eminently framed by news cameras for posterity that made me realise I was witnessing social change. It was the sight of a man in his 50s, his hands visibly trembling and tears welling in his eyes, sat before me talking about child abuse.
I’ve met many victims of sexual abuse now, and it wasn’t his experience of abuse that affected me most – although it was extremely distressing, – it was how he explained why he’d come to see me. “I would not have been able to talk about this ten years ago,” he began. “It would have been too embarrassing and no one would have believed me. But the environment’s changed. It feels safe to talk about it now.”
I won’t forget his face – or the ever so slight gleam of hope in his eyes, reflecting a sense that something good may come out of sharing a terrible burden that’s held him back all his life.
He’s not alone in this view. Many more people are now willing to open up about terrible things they’ve never spoken about before. I’ve long felt that child abuse was a voiceless crime, forever silenced by a feeling that the authorities didn’t want to know about it, but it’s slowly beginning to find its voice and it’s getting louder by the day.
The events of the last few weeks show that we’ve well and truly crossed the Rubicon and this change cannot be contained. First the government caved in to demands for a national inquiry looking at historic child abuse then attempts to appoint a safe establishment figure to chair the inquiry in Baroness Butler-Sloss well and truly backfired as she was forced to step down before she’d even started. In her statement Butler-Sloss acknowledged that she did not have the confidence of victims and survivor groups.
As a measure of how far we’ve come it’s worth recalling that little over 10-years ago the Children’s Minister, Margaret Hodge, was able to keep her job after calling a victim of child abuse “deeply disturbed”. She ended up settling out of court with this victim but nowadays it wouldn’t just cost ministers financially. They would have to resign. Victims of child abuse cannot be so easily rubbished or ignored. And the establishment cannot continue to lord it over us and dictate how investigations are conducted.
This week the Economist said historians will look back on Britain’s public life at the turn of the 21st century as being mired in an “age of disillusionment”. They are most probably right. But for some people, it may well be remembered as a golden age when the most vulnerable people in society were finally given a voice and powerful abusers were brought to justice.
There are, of course, those who don’t believe anything good will come out of this at all. “Paedomania”, “hysteria” and “witch-hunt” have become the common language of certain members of the commentariat. I wonder if any of them have ever met with victims of child abuse. The fact that 660 suspected paedophiles have been arrested this week suggests that far from over-hyped hysteria we’re finally confronting a massive crime.
The man in his 50s who I spoke to last week had been abused by the former MP for Rochdale, Sir Cyril Smith. He was one of many in a long line of poor, vulnerable people that have been treated as disposable goods by powerful figures like Smith. Back then the abuse of young boys didn’t matter and it was easily hushed up. Not so anymore. And as long as the gradual empowerment of victims continues then plenty of people across the establishment will continue to have sleepless nights and be forever looking over their shoulder.
Simon Danczuk is Labour MP for Rochdale and his book, Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith, came out earlier this year, published by Biteback Publishing