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Savile sex scandal spurs British soul searching

Associated Press Modified: October 31, 2012 at 9:01 am •  Published: October 31, 2012
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Savile's behavior had spawned whispers and speculation. One former member of the BBC's board of governors said by the late 1990s Savile was regarded as a "creepy sort of character" and barred from the broadcaster's Children in Need charity telethons. But his behavior was never formally investigated by the BBC.

Youngsters made several complaints to police over the years, none of which led to charges. The chief of London's Metropolitan Police, Bernard Hogan-Howe, has apologized, saying police failed to piece together Savile's "pattern of behavior" from the disparate complaints.

British police vow that the Savile case will be a watershed moment in combating child abuse, and child protection authorities have stressed that awareness has increased enormously in recent years.

Scandals within several large institutions — from the Roman Catholic Church to the Scouts — have led to soul-searching and stronger rules to protect children, such as criminal record checks on those who work with young people.

Social attitudes have changed, too. Some of the sexualized depictions of young people produced 30 or 40 years ago make uncomfortable viewing now — think of the child prostitutes played by the preteen Brooke Shields in "Pretty Baby" and Jodie Foster in "Taxi Driver."

But in popular culture, children and teenagers continue to be sexualized. Famous teens and their private lives remain tabloid fodder.

Among the British celebrities who received damages from Rupert Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World tabloid in the phone hacking scandal was singer Charlotte Church, who told a public inquiry that newspapers ran stories about her private affairs and sex life from the time she turned 16. Even earlier, one website set up a "countdown clock" to count the days and hours until she would reach the age of consent.

"That sense that we have sexualized youth is a much broader phenomenon than Jimmy Savile," said David Wilson, professor of criminology at Birmingham City University. "Why are there padded bras for 13-year-olds? Why are there pressures on boys to have six packs?

"We have taken comfort in the idea that we can blame him."

Child welfare groups hope the belated revelation of Savile's crimes will be a catalyst, encouraging more victims to report their abusers. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children says the scandal has triggered a surge in reports of abuse — both from the past and from the present.

But, say some, authorities still too often fail to listen to youngsters who report abuse.

Nelson, the child abuse expert, said the danger was that the Savile case "creates a storm for a few weeks" but changes little.

"In Britain, the child protection system is very bureaucratic," she said. "It relies on children to tell — and most children don't tell. It relies on a criminal justice system that can be very aggressive to victims.

"It shouldn't take something like this to make people able to come forward to say this has happened to me, or this has happened in my family."

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Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless