We need to speak out about Child Abuse

If the Jimmy Savile case has taught us anything, it’s that we aren’t good at protecting young children from those who want to use them for their own sexual gratification.  It’s also exposed the fact that Feminism hasn’t done a very good job of empowering women to shout out about sexual harassment.

Talk to any woman confidentially and they’ll tell you of their experiences. When I first started work as a shy teenager, being groped was just one of the office hazards - it was whispered around that Mr S from accounts wasn’t one to be caught alone in the photo-copying room with, and never let X get you cornered in the cloakroom.  It just had to be endured - goodness! -  a junior typist making a complaint against senior management?  Never!  Like the pervert in the cinema, the flasher in the park, or the elderly clerical groper at the harvest festival supper, it was one of the facts of life you had to come to terms with.  Why, oh why, were we never able to stand up and shriek ‘get away from me!’.   Why weren’t we able to complain?

It was all about the abuse of power. It’s a potent aphrodisiac.  After I married, we were taken out to dinner by my husband’s employer with some clients, and his boss groped my legs with his hands throughout the meal under the tablecloth.  I had to keep smiling and chatting to the clients and he knew that I would.  Making waves wasn’t my style.  But why didn’t I make a fuss?  Why would it have been me who would have been blamed for ruining the dinner and probably losing the contract?

The other consequence of the Savile affair is that more and more women are beginning to talk about the abuse they suffered as children.  The problem is much, much more common than anyone realises, but we don’t talk about it and as a result people have the impression that it’s rare and couldn’t possibly happen in their family.  We need to talk about, not just Kevin, but Karen and Kirsty and Katherine.  In this case it’s Kathleen who is coming clean.  Those of you who are squeamish will probably stop reading the blog now.  But this is a story of hope and optimism - abuse needn’t ruin children’s lives if we listen to them and protect them.

My paternal grandfather was a paedophile.  He was a war hero, had been a champion boxer, was a charity worker in his community, a writer for the local paper and he ran an amateur dramatic society that toured the towns and villages of Cumbria.  He was given medals, had letters from the Queen and was generally respected and looked up to.  But there were people who knew something different.  Some of his colleagues at work were shocked by the photographs he occasionally showed them of young naked girls, which he kept in his pocket.  And (it transpired later) there had been an incident with a neighbour’s daughter which resulted in angry scenes and my grandparents moving house.  In those days it was called ‘being interfered with’.  

Then there had been an incident with a cousin, whose mother warned my mother that ‘Harry’ wasn’t to be trusted around children.  My parents thought she was simply imagining things - they were very naive.  We lived on a farm in a very rural location and my grandparents used to come out on the bus from Carlisle once a fortnight, stay for lunch and then go back in the evening.  Sometimes they stayed overnight.  I was about 9 at the time and my grandfather began cornering me in the house, when my mother was out helping my father on the farm, and getting me to touch him in ways I thought were disgusting.  Why didn’t I say something to my mother?  I’ve pondered that over and over.  I think because I simply didn’t understand what it was all about and I didn’t have the language to explain.  I’d been brought up to trust adults and to do what I was told.

It got worse.  In the afternoons my grandparents would walk down the country lanes to the village school to collect me and my young brother (he was around 4) from the school.  Mum was very glad of the break this gave her.  My grandmother suffered from angina, so sometimes my grandfather came alone.  And that is where hell really started.  On one occasion he took us into the woods that lined the road, stripped me naked and tried to rape me in front of my small brother.  It may have been my brother’s crying that stopped him going all the way.

I have a dim recollection, next morning when my mother was brushing my hair, of begging her not to let my grandfather pick me up from school.  But when I got out of the classroom that afternoon, he was there again.  I climbed over the playground wall at the back, with my brother, and came home across the fields - we both got scratched and muddy and I was told off for tearing my dress and not waiting for my grandfather.  ‘Whatever possessed you?’ my mother asked.

When, years later, I asked what it was I’d said that alerted them to what was going on, I discovered that it wasn’t anything I’d said, but something my brother had blurted out.  I know I was questioned and was very relieved to be able to tell them what had been happening.  The miracle was that I was believed, because I was an imaginative child who had difficulty discriminating between what happened in my head and in the world around me.  They were both equally real.
My brother and I aged about 9 and 4
I remember a family conference (without my grandparents). Then I remember my grandmother asking why my father no longer spoke to his own father.  I remember never being allowed to be alone with him again.  I was allowed to hate him, told that he was a ‘bad man’, and never, ever was I made to feel I might have been even slightly to blame.  It helped that I wasn’t the only family victim - there was a rumour that one of my uncles, accompanied by some friends, had met Harry in the street on his way home from work, put him up against a wall and punched him.  He’d been threatened that if he ever touched one of us again, they would kick his balls to pulp. That was working class justice.

When I was older, in my young teens, I had to make conscious efforts to keep out of the way of his groping hands at family events, and I was aware that he haunted children’s playgrounds.  I was angry with my family for not going to the police, believing that they had not done so in order to protect my grandmother and the family reputation.  I felt guilty (and still do) for all the child victims I was sure were out there, who had not had loving, secure families to protect them.  I didn’t realise just how much their decision to keep the police out of it had contributed to my own well-being.  When I began to study law and observed trials in the courts with the object of becoming a barrister, I became aware that if my parents had gone to the police, the process of law would have destroyed me.  The adversarial court process is a meat-grinder that abuses children all over again and often breaks fragile human beings completely.  We have to find a better way to prosecute abusers.

I am one of the lucky ones - I received what the victims of child abuse need in order to heal - I was believed, protected, allowed to hate, reassured that I was innocent.  I was also in a secure loving family unit with other male role models I could love and respect without fear.  I knew my paternal grandfather was a rogue male.  Later, as an adult, I read his privately written memoirs and realised that he too had probably been an abused child.  He was the illegitimate son of an Irish immigrant mother who took in lodgers who shared her children’s rooms and lived in the kind of poverty we can’t even imagine today. They were brought up as Catholics, but he was so fervently anti-catholic it makes me wonder about that too.  In the first world war, he was gassed, shell-shocked and badly injured in the trenches at Ypres.  Then he had the misfortune to marry a woman who hated sex and rarely allowed him into her bed.  The things I read gave me a different picture of  the man I’d grown up to hate. I found that I could feel compassion.
Harry in his WWI uniform
It took me a long time to write about my experience.  The taboos around talking about it are still very strong.  It first emerged as a poem, ‘War Hero’, eventually published in ‘Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21'.   The first time I read it to an audience I agonised for days about whether to read something so private and controversial (as I’ve agonised about whether to put up this blog).  On the night, reading it was a much more emotional experience than I’d expected.  But after the reading was over, a woman approached me as I was putting on my coat and told me, weeping copiously, that she too had been sexually abused by her grandfather and she had never been able to talk about it to anyone, ever.  We put our arms around each other and wept together.  I hope it helped her to tell someone. 

Of course it’s not just girls who get abused, boys do too - we need to protect our children better.  No point in telling them to avoid strangers - it’s more likely to be Uncle Bill, or even Aunty Trish - because women are abusers too (remember the Little Ted nursery scandal?)  We need to give children better information about their bodies and what it’s ok for people to do to them.  No namby pamby euphemisms - children can cope with truth.  And we need to look out for them - all of us.  It’s the culture of silence that allows paedophiles and sexual predators to operate.


  1. Kathleen - thanks for the bravery of the story. It is SO true that we need to share this -whether through fiction or fact because people need to know it's not just ONE celebrity or even just celebrities but that people in positions of 'power' of any kind and that includes within families where some of the most insidious and worst abuse goes on. People like to think of celebrities as heroes and family as a 'safe' place to be, but it's time they opened their eyes to the fact that this is often not the case. It's not nice but the more people talk about it the isolation is lifted and the stigma somewhat lessened and if enough people talk, who knows, SOMETHING might actually happen to lessen (we'll never stop it) this sort of abuse going on. It is hard, I know, but it's EXACTLY the right thing to do to tell these stories.

    1. Thanks Cally - I feel very strongly that we've got to try to change things institutionally and if we don't speak out, nothing will happen. People just keep shutting up and putting up and children get harmed.
      Be interesting to see what response your fictional campaign is going to have!

  2. Oh Kathy, how terrible.
    Yet, how wonderful you had a loving family who helped you heal.
    It speaks volumes for you as a person that you could find compassion for your grandfather.
    I have to agree, knowledge is power and giving children the tools to understand and defend themselves is vital. There is no need to make them fearful, honesty and openness is the key.
    Thank you for sharing such a profound story. Thank you for your contribution to ending the silence.

    1. Thanks for your supportive comments Al. I agree that giving children the knowledge and the means to tell the difference between what's ok and what isn't is the answer.

  3. The trouble is that what you say about the legal process is TRUE and I'm not sure we're seeing any change there, are we?

    1. Yes, Julia - you're right. They've brought in video interviewing, but the whole process is still very child unfriendly and traumatising. Not enough people who know what they're doing. The biggest problem is the social work crisis. There aren't enough and the ones who are there are all exhausted, with too big a caseload. It's ridiculous.

  4. Thank you, Kathleen. I have enormous respect for what you've done in sharing this story.

    1. Thanks for your supportive comment Susan. Be interesting to see Cally's fictional campaign too!

  5. Dear Kathy, I remember the extremely powerful War Hero in your collection and now you are generously and plainly sharing this whole narrative to contribute to the development of this crucial discussion. Thank you for that. I think your points about a proper context for healing is well made and I feel glad that they were there for you. The rough justice meted out by the the uncle and his friends is disconcertingly satisfying - I feel guilty about this. But I do see your point about the destructive processes of legal action on the victims. There must be a way to tackle this.

    Silence a nd tacit endorsement in some families and neighbourhoods creates children of low self esteem who can only deal with this by running away and becoming targets for predators who have a sleazy geigercounter set to 'find'. That and the potential here for criminalisation means that some of these children could end up in the kind of special schools and confined care ripe for the further abuse being recounted this week around the Savile scandal.

    I met women with similar stories when I worked in prison.

    Thank you for making me think hard to again about all this. Although it was not so sustained the same thing happened to me. My very popular uncle and his very popular son. It
    I told no one. I did tell my dear mother when I was about 35 and she didn't believe me. Low self esteem became part of my DNA due to those events.
    Bless you

    1. Being believed is crucial Wendy - I'm so sorry your mother couldn't. I think often parents just can't face up to the consequences and they prefer to blank it out. It's the kind of thing that wrecks families and familial relationships.
      I'm sure you saw a lot of the horrors of child abuse in prison. Paedophiles often pick on vulnerable children 'in care'(what a joke) and they are even further emotionally maimed. Sustained abuse does terrible things to people. My aunt, (my grandfather's daughter) became a prescription drug addict and alcoholic in later life, spending years in rehab centres and nursing homes. She was the real casualty.

  6. It's very brave of you to share this Kathy but I know that your sharing will help others. So many women harbour such secrets. Like Wendy I met them in prison and worked with them over a long period of time and I know first hand about the conspiracy of silence. In the 1980's myself and a probation officer set up a group for sexually abused women (after receiving training) but before long we were accused of being prurient and I remember one prison officer in particular saying to me, 'We never had all this sexual abuse nonsense until you and Jean came along.' Sadly Jean came close to losing her job and was moved on. Later I was asked to start the group again this time by more enlightened managers who simply couldn't deal with the amount of serious self-harm on the women's wing. But two years later, again with a colleague, despite recognition from Her Majesty's Inspector's of Prison and the endorsement of the women themselves, I was accused of being dangerous and the groups were shut down. If the Jimmy Savile affair does anything I pray it puts an end to abuse being covered up within the family and wider institutions. I hope it will make it so much more possible for victims to come forward and be believed because as you say Kathy being believed makes all the difference.

    1. I find your story horrifying Avril, but can quite easily believe it to be true. It's the Institutional aspects of the concealment that I would like most to change - why can't institutions recognise it's existence and the part it plays in mental health issues, criminal behaviour etc? it makes me very angry. Thanks for posting this - People need to know what it's like behind the scenes.
      Hope Danny Beck is going well!

  7. I read your powerful and moving post when it first appeared and have been mulling over it ever since. It underlined for me the importance not only of speaking out but of creating a climate of safety and nurture in which children, young people and adults can speak out - and will be believed.

    There was someone just like your grandfather in my immediate family; he was predatory and dangerous and he blighted many, many lives, through three generations. But it was several years after his death before someone found the courage to tell her story. It wasn't me; I was far too young - little more than a baby - to remember the sexual abuse, although the physical and mental abuse went on for many years. (I was 40 before anyone told me about the sexual abuse and by that time the perpetrator was dead.)

    Since then, the women in my extended family have shared their stories, revealing a far more extensive pattern of abuse than any of us, individually, could have imagined. The men, by contrast, have pulled up the emotional drawbridge, gone into denial and remain there to this day. They have chosen not to believe us - or at least to say that they cannot believe what we know to be true. The irony is that at least one of the men was himself abused as a small boy - by a member of the family. Perhaps they find denial easier to live with than acknowledgement but their refusal to confront what happened has eaten away at the respect and trust we once felt for them.

    To be abused is bad enough in itself; to then encounter denial and disbelief from those whom you thought loved you, or were responsible for your welfare, makes that bad experience infinitely worse, as all those young girls in Rochdale discovered.

    Now we are all beginning to shout very loudly for change. Let us hope that, this time, people are listening to us, really listening, are willing to act on what they hear - and will make that change possible.

    1. Thank you for telling this powerful, but all too familiar story. My heart bleeds for those women who were not believed. The male behaviour doesn't surprise me. Your phrase 'emotional drawbridge' really sums it up. I think there are many more families like ours - apparently some of Jimmy Savile's female relatives are beginning to talk now about what he did to them. We have to speak out and carry on talking until people really do listen and something happens. Thanks for sharing! I still follow your blog very happily, but for some reason it won't let me leave comments. No idea why!


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