The subject of child sexual abuse is hitting the headlines on an almost daily basis following the revelations about Jimmy Savile and other high-profile personalities. But, according to child protection expert Bernard Gallagher from Huddersfield University, such disclosures could ultimately help to reduce the numbers of children being abused. HILARIE STELFOX reports
UNIVERSITY researcher Dr Bernard Gallagher has spent a lifetime studying the issues surrounding child sexual abuse and says the widely-held view that offenders were themselves abused is largely a myth.
What’s more the former residential social worker and expert on child protection also believes that the current revelations about celebrities such as Jimmy Savile and the growing number of victims coming forward will result in a fall in the number of future cases.
He explained: “Child abuse has been there for centuries but we are finally doing something about it and children are more likely to be disclosing it now.
“A good thing about the exposure following Jimmy Savile’s death is that there are adults coming forward to report it. We are hearing more about child sexual abuse – and the number of cases should be going down as a result.”
However, Dr Gallagher, a Reader in Social Work and Applied Social Sciences at Huddersfield University and an expert on child protection, is concerned that shrinking resources for social workers, police and the prison service mean the authorities face an uphill struggle to investigate cases, bring perpetrators to justice and prevent re-offending.
Although it’s true that children, particularly boys, who have suffered extreme abuse may go on to become abusers, in fact the bulk of abusers are male – 95% – and the majority of victims – up to 70% – are female.
Dr Gallagher has been a researcher since 1987 and spent the early part of his career working in children’s homes.
Research suggests that offenders fall into two categories – those who are sexually attracted to children only and those who are attracted to both children and adults.
“I think nature has a large part to play in the former category,” explained Dr Gallagher. “It’s just the way they are. With the second category it’s a mixture of nature and nurture.
“Having said that, while some offenders are born attracted to children, they don’t have to act on it and most don’t.”
The NSPCC estimates that between 5% and 10% of children in the UK have experienced sexual abuse and most will know their abusers.
“Parents worry about stranger danger,” said Dr Gallagher. “But children are most at risk from members of their own family, family friends, neighbours and people who work with them.”
Thirty years ago when Bernard became a social worker the issue of child sexual abuse was largely hidden, rarely spoken about and almost never investigated.
Victims now coming forward in their 50s and 60s say they were told they would not be believed.
He believes The Cleveland Inquiry, which followed a child sexual abuse scandal in 1987 when two paediatricians diagnosed 121 cases of abuse (many of which were later disproved) was a watershed moment when attention was drawn to the issue.
“When I started working with children there was nothing comparable to CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) checking,” he explained. “People had references but they weren’t that useful. Even CRB checks have a limited use as the vast majority of offenders are not apprehended anyway.
“The reason why abuse was so commonplace back then was that people weren’t thinking about child protection. Today we take it very seriously indeed and attitudes have changed.”
Lack of concern for child protection enabled people like Jimmy Savile to infiltrate organisations and charities set up to help vulnerable children.
“I’m speculating that he (Savile) went into charity work as a way of getting access to children”, said Dr Gallagher. “In years gone by the Catholic Church and children’s homes gave these people opportunities to abuse. Organisations need to check staff carefully, supervise them and monitor what they do.”
Unfortunately, around 16% of convicted paedophiles go on to re-offend after release from prison.
Dr Gallagher believes not enough is being done to treat offenders.
He said: “A report from Wakefield Prison, which has a high number of sex offenders, showed that the treatment just isn’t good enough at current levels.
“They come out and offend again. We should be doing our damndest to treat them. They can be trained to control their behaviour but we need to have the resources, not just pay lip service to the idea.”
While victims of sexual abuse can be scarred for life, Dr Gallagher says the level of support they receive can often improve long-term outcomes.
He explained: “If a girl who is being abused by her father is believed by her mother, for example, it can make all the difference. Again, being more open about sexual abuse can only be a good thing. We are now moving in the right direction and I’m quite positive that things will improve.”