Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

South London Press column: Victims of child abuse - 25/07/2014

As high profile celebrities – like Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall and Max Clifford – go to prison for sexually abusing children, there's been much talk of "historic" sex abuse.  But for the people who were sexually abused as children and who are now adults, it is usually anything but "historic".  The effects of child abuse can stay with the victim long into their adulthood.  Some say the torment of emotions they are left with give them feelings of inability to trust other people in relationships, despair they were not listened to or believed at the time.  Angry they had no-one to protect them, or to confide in.  Doubts and feelings of self-loathing about why they "let it happen" or "didn't stop it".

If you've suffered sexual abuse as a child, reported it and were not believed or told to keep quiet about it, it is often the case that the accusation of lying makes the suffering of the abuse even worse. 

So prosecuting abusers – even decades later – is vital. 

These trials send out an important message to other abusers, that you can’t get away with it just because the victim is vulnerable and it was long ago.  Even if it takes years, the law will catch up with you. 

And it is only when abuse is proved in a court that the institutions that have been used by the abuser face up to what's gone on and take action.  It took years for the Catholic Church to acknowledge the true scale of sex abuse by priests.  Now, after the Jimmy Savile revelations, the BBC and Hospitals are much more careful.  And it will be the case with other institutions

So, even though trials of offences which took place long ago are more difficult, and the offender is now elderly, it is still important to prosecute.

People often say it’s unfair to name the suspect while the victim remains anonymous.  But in our legal system justice must not only be done but “be seen to be done”.  It is dangerous to let the criminal justice system try a defendant in secret.  So, traumatic though it is for the defendant, especially if they are acquitted, it is important for the accused to be named.  You can’t have one rule for sex offences trials and another for other trials.  That would imply that, uniquely in sex cases, the victim is likely to be lying.  And when the defendant’s name is reported it often gives other victims the confidence to come forward thereby helping the prosecution and ensuring that that victim gets justice.

Some people say that this latest spate of sex abuse trials is a witchhunt.  My view is that it is justice for people who were abused as vulnerable children, will protect other children in the future, and is long overdue.

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