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Why we must change attitudes to child sex abuse

One is a scandal in Ireland which has polarised opinion within the Catholic Church.

One is a scandal in the north-west of England which has divided the Asian community. The common denominator is children; doubly abused because the adults in their lives, whose duty it was to protect and heal them, ignored their agonised accounts or, worse still, believed them and chose to stay silent.

And, in both the latest Irish and English cases, the authorities allowed the abuse to continue, and the number of young, vulnerable victims to multiply.

The excuses proffered for this appalling neglect of duty and failure of common humanity are themselves sickening. Cardinal Brady, Ireland's most senior Catholic, suggests his role as a note-taker in the proceedings where one of the victims of parish priest Brendan Smyth told his story, gave him no authority to act. In 1975 there were no political or clerical guidelines as to how to deal with abusers, he says.

Guidelines! What sentient adult needs a guideline to tell them how to deal appropriately with someone abusing children? Would he have stood so idly by had he watched a street mugging rather than learning of a furtive assault?

But herein lies another ghastly link between these appalling stories. In the case of the clergy in Ireland it's clear that the reputation of the church trumped the suffering of the children. Rogue priests were not charged or sacked but instead passed like some poisonous parcel around other parishes.

Similarly children's charities report that a significant proportion of the Asian community would hesitate to report abuse to the authorities because of the impact on the family's honour. It is a strange concept of honour. An NSPCC survey found almost half of Asian respondents reluctant to deal with abuse in any way which involved an external authority becoming involved.

Another report from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Agency (CEOP) found over a quarter of those suspected of being in a grooming gang were described as Asian.

It quite properly warns against placing too much emphasis on that statistic, given the limited nature of the research. Like the police, the NSPCC is anxious not to exacerbate racial tension or give fodder to the British National Party, whose presence outside the courtroom when the Lancashire men were convicted illustrates their tactic of using other people's tragedies for political gain.

Yet the commentator Yasmin Alibhai Brown has bravely spoken out for the need to have an honest and open debate about cultural attitudes. On Radio 4 this week she told us she had been advised by some in the Asian community not to rock this boat for fear of giving succour to the nation's racists.

But this is a boat which needs rocked by us all. The majority of child abuse is still carried out by white men, and the majority of the population seem content to turn a blind eye when they witness anything which should properly ring alarm bells. And a deaf ear.

CEOP's report, Out of Mind, Out of Sight, makes it clear that much of the grooming which takes place does so in public places; in the street, outside takeaways, around places where young people are liable to gather.

As Scottish academic Sarah Nelson, who has long studied the causes of child abuse, notes: "On-street grooming ... is not behind closed doors, it is public and witnessed. In all these recent cases of sex rings they have been groomed in cafes, takeaways, on particular areas of streets where young people congregate. Why and how did none of the public notice all those years when 13-year-olds were sitting repeatedly with 30 and 40-year-old men who were chatting them up and plying them with gifts?" She adds: "An aware public is the biggest protection against sexual abuse and exploitation, no matter what the race or culture of the perpetrators."

Yet in truth, it's not just about awareness but about attitude. How many adults have passed by on the other side because they have rushed to judgment about the merit of the children being targeted?

There is a collective guilt here which goes much wider than the men in assorted docks.

And there is an impact which goes far beyond the immediate hurt and pain. The now adult man who testified to abuse in Ireland, like so many men and women, has carried that pain and distress with him all his adult life. Many abuse victims cannot even access the modest relief of admitting what took place.

The National Association for People Abused in Childhood publishes a very long list of reasons people give themselves for not reporting how they have been violated. It also, however, offers an outlet for these hidden voices, where adult "survivors" can tell their stories anonymously. It is a deeply distressing forum.

But let me give you a flavour of the psychological havoc which childhood abuse wreaks long after the acts themselves have ceased: "All I seem to have is tears – that's what you've left me with. There isn't a day that goes by where I don't cry – for myself or for others. I've always felt alone and isolated from everyone else and that includes family - this is because of you, because what you did to me scarred me – not physically but on my heart there are huge scars and they hurt me so much."

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