How do the Scouts get past their paedophile problem?

At the latest count 51,000 British youngsters are sitting on a waiting list for a place in a Scout, Cub or Beaver group. The cause of this lengthy queue is a shortage of adult volunteers, to the tune of around 17,000. Now the Chief Scout, TV Adventurer Bear Grylls, has launched a campaign to fill the shortfall.

Martin Daubney at the Telegraph is clear why. The risk of being labelled a paedophile is the ‘one reason’ stopping men from putting their names forward. He suggests that it is not only the fear of malicious rumours, but the accompanying concerns around the intimidating bureaucracy involved in the vetting and debarring scheme and other child protection policies.

The statistics suggest it is a bit more complicated than that. Surprisingly, perhaps, more adults than ever before now are volunteering with the Scout Association, a total of 154,000. The problems are that those volunteers have less time to give than before and secondly that more children than ever are wanting to get involved. (It would be interesting to know the gender ratio of the volunteers – it is possible male numbers are falling while female volunteers rise, but we don’t know)

That said, I have no problem agreeing with his fundamental point. I’m sure there are many, many men who would be happy to give up an evening a week to help run a Scout or Cub group but fear that others will question their motivations.

At this point let me express my unequivocal admiration for the adult volunteers who run the Scouts. I will admit that as an adult, the ethos of the movement is really not for me. I’m not in a hurry to march my own boys off to an organisation that teaches submission to God, the Queen and the military (thankfully, neither son has ever asked.) Having said that, I recognise that the volunteers are, as the cliché would have it, the salt of the earth. Countless generations of young people have had childhoods enriched by their energy and generosity. My own earliest memories include my mum going out in her Akela uniform every Monday night to run a cub pack. To this day she is occasionally stopped in the street by burly men who recognise her and thank her for her efforts 50 or 60 years earlier. It should go without saying that the vast majority of Scout Association volunteers are wonderful people.

The issue is with the minority.

I remember that even back in the more innocent days of the 1970s, there was no shortage of rumours and jokes about Scout leaders. The book by Lord Baden-Powell which set the ball rolling was called “Scouting for Boys.” Aharrharrharr. ‘Join the Cubs,’ ran the famous graffito, “one child molester free in every pack.” Stitch my sides and then hand me my sewing badge. And when I had my own couple of years in a Scout troop it turned out that the jokes weren’t so funny. We had three volunteer scout leaders. One of them, regular readers may recall, was this guy.

And so here’s the first problem with the Scout movement, as I see it. If some evil genius wanted to design a mass movement for the specific purpose of providing children to be sexually abused by predatory adults, they would probably design something that looked very much like the Scouts. All of the elements are there: the strictly enforced oaths of obedience to authority, under the stern command of God; the removal of children from their parents or carers into the hands of much-admired, trusted pillars of the community; overnight trips to remote locations; the list goes on.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying for a moment that this was ever the intended purpose of the movement. But I am saying that once such a movement exists, it would have to be a powerful magnet for those twisted individuals driven to target, exploit and abuse children. I am saying that, knowing what we now know about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, knowing what we now know about the dynamics of institutionally-based abuse, knowing what we know about the typical modus operandi of predatory child abusers it would be flat-out astonishing if the Scout Movement had not been regularly and extensively infiltrated by paedophile child abusers.

I realise this is a hard truth to accept for those who admire the Scouts, especially those who have had their own, entirely positive experiences whether as children or as adult volunteers. It is tantamount to a mass defamation of hundreds of thousands of people, the vast majority of whom are entirely innocent. The same was true when concerns were first raised about the priesthood, the clergy, social care home staff, music teachers and sports coaches where, in most cases, identical dynamics were in play.

And this leads me to my second huge concern. As far as I can tell, the Scout Association itself remains almost entirely in denial about the risks it has been sheltering for over a hundred years. A couple of years ago the BBC ran one short news item about allegations of abuse in the Scouts. Within weeks, 150 individuals contacted the solicitors mentioned in the report to add their own victimisation. At the same time, the Scout Association claimed that in its entire history, they had received 48 allegations of sexual abuse.

Some might look at that figure, 48 cases, and conclude that the Scouts have never had a problem with child abuse. I look at that figure and conclude that throughout their history the Scouts have failed dismally to identify, record and act upon suspicions of abuse. To underline the point, many of those who called the solicitors after the news item described institutional failings that are painfully familiar from the other scandals.

One caller spoke of his difficulty in finding resolution after the Scout Association failed to apologise even after his abuser was convicted. Another told of how his parents’ reports were dealt with by the Scout Association internally and the abuse was never reported to the police. Unfortunately, there appear to have been numerous cases where the Scout Association failed to act appropriately after allegations of abuse were made.

Of course, it remains possible that my worst suspicions are ill-founded, that the reason there has never been a major institutional sex abuse scandal with the Scouts because there has never been a major institutional sex abuse problem within the Scouts. It’s possible. It just strikes me as vastly more credible that the reason the scandal has never broken is because, as yet, that particular stone have yet to be turned over to see what crawls out.  And yet for some reason, day by day, reports drip out. Another one today. Every one an isolated incident. Sure.

It seems to me that the Scout Association will never get past its problems with paedophile stigma and suspicion until it makes every full and transparent effort to establish what problems it has had in the past, what problems it might still have in the future, and then develops policies that get as close as they can to making it impossible that a predatory child abuser could ever operate within the movement. That means firstly opening themselves up to examination. No one could have imagined the scale of child sexual abuse within professional football until the FA were forced to open a helpline to which victims could call and report. In the first two months of the helpline being set up, they received 1,700 calls. For perspective, the number of boys training with professional football clubs is a minuscule fraction of the numbers involved in Scouting over the decades.

Secondly, Scouts (like all organisations serving children and young people) need to be far more proactive in equipping their charges with the tools to protect themselves from abuse. I’ve just been reading the leaflets that the movement hands out to different age groups on how to ‘Stay Safe.’ They are full of advice about online grooming, giving your phone number to strangers and much else. They all suggest that if you are worried you could talk to your scoutleader. Nowhere in the leaflets does it tell children what they should do if the person they are worried about IS their scoutleader.  Nowhere does it spell out anything like the Underwear rule.  Nowhere does it say that a cub or scout should never, ever be asked to keep a secret by an adult. These (and many others) are easy, zero-cost, effective steps that could be taken instantly. Going further the Scouts could set up their own helpline, akin to the FA/ NSPCC abuse helpline, to which victims of past, recent or current abuse could call.

All of this and much more could, in the long term, go towards reassuring parents and potential volunteers that children are safe in the care of scout leaders, and reassure the public that there is no reason to be suspicious of any adult who volunteers. But it also requires them to grasp the nettle, acknowledge the possibility that the movement has been providing haven to widespread child abuse. I would propose that the alternative for the organisation is to wait until the scandals burst out in their own time and on their own terms and then cope with the vastly greater resulting damage to their reputation and function.

All of this would be a painful process for the institution of Scouting. It is also absolutely essential if they are to operate as a trustworthy, responsible 21st century youth movement, and consign the sick jokes, the smears and the suspicions to history, once and for all.

On the psychology of domestic violence

Just before Christmas, Dr Ben Hine gave a public lecture in London entitled ‘Challenging the Gendered Discourse on domestic violence.’

The lecture is now online in two parts, totalling about 90 minutes, and if you are interested in the social psychology around domestic violence it is absolutely essential viewing. I’m a big fan of Ben & his work, we’ve collaborated in bringing together the Men and Boys Coalition and generally I think we couldn’t be much closer together on the same page, politically.    [Read more…]

From the Home Office to the Independent: crying out for gender-inclusive policy

This week has offered us a couple of vivid illustrations of why gender-inclusive policies are so desperately and urgently needed across the political and media strata.

Just to put what follows in context, please consider the story that has dominated headline news for the past four weeks. At the latest count, police are investigating allegations of child sexual abuse by 83 suspects with involvement in 98 football clubs, on the basis of reports made by (or about) more than 350 men.  One might think this alone would be enough to remind officials and commentators that boys and men are far from immune to crimes of intimate violence. On top of the raw numbers, evidence is mounting that the sport as a whole was steeped in a culture of (at best) systematic indifference to the welfare and human dignity of boys and young men in their charge. [Read more…]

My coach, the child abuser

At the current count as I write, eleven men have now contacted Cheshire police to report sexual abuse committed against them by Barry Bennell and/or other paedophile abusers from the world of professional football. Everyone who understands the dynamics of these cases fully expects the reports to keep coming. Once the seal has been broken, the lid will rarely go back on the jar.

When I was around 11 to 13, I played in a kids football team which in one respect was very, very different to Whitehill FC or Crewe Alexandra Juniors, where Bennell first met Andy Woodward, David White and other boys he abused. They were a hugely talented group, some of whom who would go on to play for top professional clubs and even the national team. We were abject rubbish. Really. If the circumstances were different I could tell you some hilarious stories about our incompetent blunders. Right now I don’t feel like laughing.

We did, however, share one significant detail. As with them, our coach was a serial and prolific child abuser. [Read more…]

Why we brought #1BlueString to the UK

A couple of years ago I came across the US-based organisation 1 in 6 which works with and campaigns for male survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation. I was particularly taken by their campaign #1BlueString, which invites guitarists to show solidarity with the 1 in 6 men and boys who have lived through sexual violence, by replacing one of the six strings of their guitar with a blue one.

As an enthusiastic amateur fret-botherer myself, I emailed the campaign at the time asking if they could ship to the UK and was told no, for the time being it was strictly a US initiative. Shortly after, during one of my regular chinwags with Duncan at Survivors Manchester we found out that we had both, separately and independently, been badgering the team at 1in6 to bring their blue strings to the UK. [Read more…]

Abuse, disclosure and speaking ill of the dead

Last night the comments on my previous post had drifted far enough off topic that they were skipping between Donald Trump, Jimmy Savile and the disclosures made in Peter Hook’s autobiography about his abusive marriage to the late Caroline Aherne.

Marduk left a comment which I’ll repost here uncut, because it leads nicely onto something I had wanted to write about anyway.

 

It’s weird Savile and Aherne are coming up here because the two are fairly linked in my mind.

This is in part because the story broke the morning after the Theroux documentary was screened, and for me at least there was a certain connection. Theroux was trying to explain how Savile got away with his crimes, how people were so obstinately unwilling to think ill of him (and in some cases still can’t) and how being a popular national figure protected him. Part of the problem in understanding this, and why Theroux was having to actually argue for events that happened in the lifetimes of everyone watching the show, is that in retrospect it seems completely unthinkable.

And the next morning I woke up to read another popular figure had done some bad things she’d almost sort-of confessed to anyway (there were several interviews about ‘things she did that she regretted’ and so on) and people aggressively didn’t want to believe it and certain papers didn’t even want to report it, let alone discuss it.

She did very different things, I don’t believe she hid deliberately behind stardom and I think the reasons for her doing bad things were arguably a bit less about evil and a bit more about mental health (although DV campaigners would generally argue against that distinction) but still.

It was weird how people couldn’t put the two together but of course their failure to be able to do so ultimately proves Theroux correct. Because of course, at the time the well-loved figure is well-loved, they look nothing like those other people we know are despicable criminals and how dare you try to tar them with that brush. Caroline Aherne was lovely, all her Guardian guest columnist friends say so, she doesn’t sound like the person who’d do those things.

It’s very hard to learn the lesson except in retrospect unfortunately.

[Read more…]

How the Labour party just kicked domestic violence survivors in the teeth

Only two people know what happened on the night Sarah Champion and her then-husband Graham Hoyland were arrested and cautioned for domestic violence. It is likely that even those two people have very different memories and perceptions of events, and of the eight-year marriage which preceded them.

In the absence of hard facts, this weekend the shadow minister for preventing abuse and domestic violence and her ex-husband used rival tabloids to present their versions of historic events, and to deny the claims of the other. In the Mirror, Champion described the arrest as occurring in the midst of a bitter, acrimonious marriage breakdown, when she ‘felt very vulnerable’ after ‘months of tension spilled over.” [Read more…]

We know domestic abuse of men is a problem. The real question is, what do we do about it?

This week at Manchester Crown Court, Sharon Edwards was convicted of the murder of her husband David. His death was the end of a short but horribly violent relationship. Pathologists found sixty different wounds at the post mortem, including older stabbing injuries all over his body. Friends and colleagues told the trial how he had regularly used make up and a litany of lies and excuses to cover up his injuries. After the jury’s verdict, it emerged that the murderer had a series of previous arrests and convictions for domestic violence against her ex-partners.

The verdict sparked a flurry of media commentary and discussion of varying levels of accuracy and insight. The most depressing exchange of the week came on BBC Woman’s Hour which invited Mark Brooks from the Mankind Initiative to explain that men being murdered by their female partners was a bad thing, and radical feminist violence researcher Marianne Hester, apparently to argue the opposite.  Hester responded to questions about female-perpetrated domestic homicide by saying it happens because women need to use weapons because they aren’t as big and strong as men, and suggesting repeatedly (and without a hint of a shred of evidence), that women who perpetrate deadly violence against male partners are usually doing so out of self-defence – in effect slandering the victims of domestic homicide and blaming them for their own deaths. (For the record, the only UK research to have investigated women’s motives in intimate partner homicides found that a fewer of a quarter of offenders cited self-defence as their motive. Most killed out of anger or jealousy.)   [Read more…]

A case of marital rape and the limits of legal protection

A horrible sexual violence case has collapsed in Exeter, in the south west England. Last year a woman reported to police that her husband had repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted her. After he spent four months on remand, the wife has now decided that she wants to move on with her life and is now unwilling to testify in court.

Because it is a case of marital rape allegations, the accused cannot be named as that would identify the alleged victim. [Read more…]

The left must speak uncomfortable truths about migration and sexual violence

I have mostly spent January eye-rolling so hard I’ve practically detached my retinas. It began when news first crept out from Cologne after New Year’s Eve, as across the media and the internet vast swathes  of anti-immigrant right-wingers and racists who had never in their lives uttered a word of concern or complaint about sexual violence suddenly  reinvented themselves as the bestest feminists in town, for whom nothing was more important than ensuring that never again would an innocent (ie white) woman be mauled by a disgusting, patriarchal (ie brown) man.

Well, racists gonna racist. But I was eye-rolling too at my peers on the broad left, the manner in which they continue to squirm and tiptoe around the extraordinary, horrific accounts from Cologne. I thought this had peaked last week with the remarks of Jess Phillips MP on Question Time that equated those events with any Saturday night on Birmingham’s Broad Street. The criticism she has since received has mostly focussed on outraged residents, coppers and civic leaders from the city saying “how dare you malign our city?” while simultaneously denying, downplaying or disbelieving women’s experiences of the extent of sexual harassment and assault on a typical British night out. I saw it the other way around. I was stunned that Phillips could so easily deny or downplay the statements from nearly seven hundred women that they had been sexually assaulted and/or robbed within a few city blocks in just a couple of hours, and so blithely dismiss the unique severity of that. I’m sure Phillips did not intend to suggest Cologne was really no big deal, but that was the precise effect of her words. [Read more…]