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Historical abuse: witch-hunt, scapegoat, moral panic?

The historical reality of child abuse is being minimised by framing offenders with a cluster of unsuitable terms.

Dr Nick Lee. Dr Johanna Motzkau
27 September 2015
child abuse picture.jpg

Flickr/See Li.Some rights reserved.The scale of the historical child abuse committed by some individuals is startling. The fact that this abuse went unprosecuted for decades raises the question of how that could happen. Many people, us included, are struggling to make sense of it all.

How the issue is framed in popular culture, in policy debate and in academic life will have serious consequences both for further investigation of individual cases and for wider inquiries. We are concerned about the recent use of a cluster of terms in attempts to frame these events: witch-hunt, scapegoat and moral panic. Very recently Harvey Proctor accused police to be conducting a ‘gay witch hunt’ against him, a claim cited again in coverage about sexual abuse allegations against Paul Gambaccini being dropped

These terms can all too easily frame normal processes of criminal prosecution and legitimate inquiries into past abuses as irrational and disproportionate. We can see why commentators would reach for these terms. Historical child sexual abuse is a very complex issue that raises doubts about children’s safety in the past and in the present, and about adults’ failings in their moral and professional duties to nurture and protect them. This is why responses are so often sought with urgency. Given this, readily available framing devices have a strong appeal. They are tools to help us make sense. But what kind of sense do these terms make? Each in its own way ends up minimising the reality of historical abuse and, just at the point where survivors are being heard, suggests we stop our ears once again.

The critical force of the term ‘witch-hunt’ rests on there being a consensus view that there are, in reality, either very few or no ‘witches’ at all. Further, a ‘witch-hunt’ would be conducted using deeply suspicious methods of gathering and testing evidence (including ‘witch dunking’). It is remarkable then that the term is used in the context of successful criminal prosecutions that have established that crimes did indeed take place (e.g. the term is bandied around by the media and commentators in June/July 2014 after Rolf Harris’conviction.

In what sense could a proven sexual offender be understood as a ‘scapegoat’? Perhaps the idea is that as we go about judging the actions and mores of previous decades by our own contemporary standards we select individuals to carry a disproportionate load of blame for our culture’s historical shortcomings. But the actions in question were just as criminal decades ago as they are today.

‘Moral panic’ is, perhaps, the most sophisticated of this cluster of terms. It derives from the work of criminologist Stanley Cohen in the 1970’s. The basic idea was that when a given group of people share the sense that they are losing social influence, they may try to regain their status by campaigning against a putative moral or behavioural trend or event. So-called ‘moral entrepreneurs’ who lead such campaigns can benefit. It’s a strong idea and generalizes well beyond 1970’s UK criminology. Campaigns against nuclear weapons, abortion and GM crops have been just as much shaped by these processes as complaints about swearing on television and banning punk rock gigs. But there is a strong consensus in the UK that sexual offending and sexual abuse of children are wrong. This is not a domain in which moral entrepreneurs can distinguish themselves. Further, the sexual abuse of children comprises activities that are already criminal offences and has done for many years.

To call the current focus on historical sexual abuse a ‘moral panic’ may be intended as a call for a sense of proportion. Historical child sexual abuse cases certainly sell newspapers and generate website ‘clicks’. We would suggest, however, that we are currently witnessing processes of criminal prosecution that are normal and proportionate (if delayed), along with other normal forms of public accountability. The legal system does not get it right all the time. It never will. It is particularly stretched and at times baffled by these cases, and there is consensus that more can be done to improve procedure; but this is indicative of the complexity of these cases and of legal reform, and not a result of moral panic.

It is indeed important to highlight exaggerated and unhelpful reactions by the media, and to remain sceptical towards ‘quick fix’ policy making that monopolises isolated issues (e.g. child sexual abuse in public institutions) only to divert attention and resources from longstanding problems at the heart of child protection (e.g. poverty, inequality, neglect and intra-familiar abuse). But this can be done without referring to moral panics as for example Featherstone, White and Morris show in their recent book . The fact that in the past the pendulum of concern has swung steadily (and repeatedly) from ignorance to alarm does not mitigate the seriousness of the problem of sexual (and other) offences against children; and while it seems impossible to control such pendulum swings, this should not be taken to demean the motives of those committed to do something about child abuse (historical or recent). We might reasonably consider this period of heightened sensitivity an occasion to learn and improve.

Once terms like moral panic, scapegoat and witch-hunt are in play it is difficult to maintain a differentiated view of ‘what really happened’. Talk of witch-hunts and scapegoats implies that all those at the centre of attention are innocent or that no findings could be legitimate or safe. Talk of moral panic stymies analysis by conflating issues and closes down debate, as contributors have to hedge against being seen as moral entrepreneurs.

Declaring a moral panic in this context is ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if this is clearly not intended, it provides traction for those who are indeed keen to play down the problem, conflate issues and point out that there’s ‘nothing to see here’. This does not add transparency or a sense of vigilance and proportion. It takes us straight back to the no win situation where the voice of actual victims is just as difficult to hear as that of those falsely accused.

If you heard allegations that child sexual abuse had taken place in your workplace, wouldn’t you want to know whether and if so how that happened? 

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