Carol Sarler

The shameful truth is that we love our sex crimes

Carol Sarler says that the enquiry into Catholic child abuse made the headlines because of a pervasive hypocrisy: a fixation on sex that lets us be both prurient and puritanical

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In Ireland, some 2,000 adults who gave evidence of assault at the hands of Roman Catholic priests and nuns are, probably correctly, spitting tacks. The inquiry into their treatment when in children’s institutions has ruled that, although they did indeed suffer, no charges may be brought, no names shamed and, for what it’s worth, no bank balances swollen by damages sucked from the Vatican’s already depleted coffers. The decision might not seem just; on the other hand, it was all a very long time ago — so why, do we think, in recent weeks has this been one of the few stories to knock duck islands off their moats at the top of the news?

The clue, I suggest, is not that we all suddenly feel a burning need to sympathise with the suffering victims, but that sex was involved. So all anyone had to do was pick on that, splash it big, and they were on to a winner: even the BBC’s report put ‘sexual abuse’ into its opening sentence, leaving systematic, ritual beatings down at the dull end of its tale.

By the same token, when a Kentucky court recently convicted ex-private Steven Green for his derrings-do in Iraq, up came the headlines: ‘Soldier guilty of raping and killing 14-year-old girl’. Well, yes, he was. He also murdered the rest of her family, including her six-year-old sister. The papers weren’t even deferring to chronology, given that the family massacre took place first; it’s just that rape is a better draw, so it got first mention. Now, I concede, it’s not the easiest of league tables to draw up — but wouldn’t you have put a small child’s slaughter a few points ahead of a rape?

The Times, apparently, wouldn’t. A leader last week on the subject of rape was tersely headed ‘The Vilest Crime’. That’s it then. Finitely ruled: the vilest. So by definition more vile than, say, beating babies to a pulp or flying into tower blocks.

Meanwhile, one City lawyer might prove to be luckier than the indignant Irish above. Patrick Raggett, now 50, has been granted the right to claim damages from the Catholic Church because, he says, his life has been blighted by the childhood sexual abuse he received from a long-dead priest. Therapists have helped him to realise that certain things that have gone wrong in his life — work, booze, marriage, you name it — can be laid at the feet of a priest who ‘touched him inappropriately’. No physical pain or penetration, you understand, but the sum he seeks in damages is a whopping great £5 million. Golly. You wouldn’t get that if a masked loon with an axe had broken every bone in your body before tying you up and setting you alight.

We love our sex crimes; we are intoxicated by them; we are in salacious thrall to them. Few words are as captivating as ‘paedophile’, even or especially among those who cannot spell it, while anybody convicted of any sexually oriented crime is understood to serve a particularly interesting prison term. We separate sexual assault from all other assault even though, intellectually, we should know better; it’s all about power in the end and I cannot see why we should pay further homage to the power of the penis, which, frankly, cannot achieve half the dominance and control contained in a crazed fist. And all because?

All because, I’d say, of a pervasive, grubby hypocrisy; that which includes the presence or action of a sexual organ allows for the prurient dwelling upon images thereof — while at the same time it allows for pole position on the higher moral ground because, look at us, we are at one with our disapproval. We are agreed, are we not, that this is the ‘vilest’? When Mr Raggett’s case comes to court, thousands will most likely pore over every reported scrap of who-touched-who-and-where, before cleansing their own debauchery by nodding approval at a pay-off worth millions.

In fact, a result like that would presents dangers. If you pay damages for sexual assault far in excess of damages usually granted for one person’s ill treatment at the hands of another, what you are saying is this: first, that sexual assault is, indeed, the ‘vilest’ — the single worst thing that can ever happen to you — and second, that your life will be permanently damaged as a result. Neither is necessarily true.

It happens that when I was young I was abducted for a couple of hours and sexually assaulted. At knifepoint, no less. It was, of course, frightening, humiliating and disturbing. But thanks to my parents’ determination that what I needed most was — as we would say today — to be allowed to move on, that is what happened. No therapists, no wrap of cotton wool, and these days, if I remember it at all, it is only when other cases remind me. The enduring legacy is a nervousness around knives, not silly willies.

I have a friend who experienced the nastiest of rapes: hooded stranger, breaking in, grisly trial. Yet if you asked what was the worst thing that ever happened to her, way ahead would come the break-up of her marriage.

The point is, not everybody is the same. But if the undiluted, unequivocal message, from therapists or courtrooms or the press reaction, is to tell women and children, as the most likely victims, that they must expect the result of sexual attack to be a whole life spent as damaged goods, then you do no one any favours. First of all — and this applies especially to children — you inculcate fear where it is not necessary; they will start (actually, have started) to see paedophiles on every street corner and even in every classroom; they will no longer enjoy the life-saving trust that means, if in trouble, you ask a grown-up to help you; they will become sexually aware at too young an age and, by extension, sexualised too.

Further, when you listen to the grievances pouring from the Irish victims (which, no matter how justified it might be, often ends with a catalogue of lifelong disasters, attributable to kiddie-fiddling) and then you turn to Patrick Raggett’s similar catalogue (without a control running on this experiment called life, how can he know he wouldn’t have screwed up his marriage anyway?), it is as if personal responsibility did not exist.

Not for a moment do I suggest that we lighten up on the criminals. Catch the buggers; throw away the key. But we could lighten up on the victims. To make less of what happened to them might well involve sacrificing our own prurient interest in any crime that involves genitalia. It might, nevertheless, be better for all of us if we did.