At first sight, the figures are jaw-dropping: police in England and Wales are preparing to deal with 30,000 new cases of child sexual abuse. Reports are being passed to the police at a rate of 100 a month by the Goddard inquiry, which was set up after the exposure of Jimmy Savile. One senior officer told the Guardian he predicts that police will be investigating 200,000 cases across the country by 2020.
Some critics will regard these figures with scepticism, pointing to the botched inquiry into allegations of historical sexual abuse against a number of public figures, which has now been wound up. But the mishandling of that investigation does not mean we can ignore a mounting body of evidence that the scale of child sexual abuse is much greater than most people ever suspected.
The figure of 30,000 comes from Simon Bailey, chief constable of Norfolk and head of the national coordinating unit, Operation Hydrant, which is handling reports passed on by the Goddard inquiry. Justice Lowell Goddard is in charge of 13 investigations involving a number of institutions, including the Church, Westminster, the borough of Lambeth and a detention centre in Durham, along with allegations of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale, Devon, Cornwall, Oxford and Rotherham.
Two thousand victims have already contacted the Goddard inquiry and 600 have said they are willing to speak to its ‘truth project’, which was set up hear detailed testimony of childhood abuse.
Bailey says he is surprised and shocked by the extent of the abuse being exposed. He’s right to be – we should never lose our capacity to be shocked by crimes against the most vulnerable individuals in society. But this is not the first indication that the scale of child sexual abuse has been hidden from sight for decades.
In November last year, the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, published a report which estimated there were between 400,000 and 450,000 victims of child sexual abuse in England between April 2012 and March 2014. The NSPCC estimates that for every child known to be in need of protection from abuse, another eight are suffering in silence.
This is a very dark picture of childhood and it is not surprising that some people are reluctant to acknowledge it.
But two things have come together to tear away the veil of secrecy. Operation Yewtree, the inquiry which uncovered the staggering extent of Savile’s crimes, concluded that he had targeted 450 victims and committed more than 30 rapes.
At the same times, the activities of gangs of men who sexually exploited under-age girls have been exposed in Rotherham, Derby, Rochdale, Oxford and other towns. None of these problems was on the radar 10 years ago, and a handful of people who told the police they had been assaulted by Savile or tried to expose ‘grooming’ gangs were ignored.
The idea that there is a pool of thousands of victims of child sexual abuse up and down the country is all too plausible, I’m afraid. In London, senior officers are already contemplating the possibility that they may have to handle as many as 15,000 new cases as a direct result of the Goddard inquiry.
But the implications for victims and the criminal justice system are even wider.
Child sexual abuse is not the only crime that has been vastly under-reported for decades; senior police officers believe that only one in five rapes is ever reported, and the same is likely to be true of serious sexual assaults. More women are going to the police than ever before, but low conviction rates and lack of confidence in the prosecution process still deter many victims.
They are more likely to contact a rape crisis line to ask for advice and support, and organisations that work with victims see many more women and girls than the police. They have argued for years that most rapists get away with their crimes, creating a pool of women who never see their attackers punished.
In London, almost 16,000 sexual offences were reported to the police last year, along with 5,410 rapes. If those figures represent only a fifth of the total, the true picture is likely to be very different: more like 80,000 sexual assaults and 27,000 rapes. The true number of rape victims in London alone each year is probably around the size of a small town, while a staggering number of perpetrators are walking around, free to commit further offences.
Like the failure over many years to properly investigate child sexual abuse, this is nothing short of a scandal.
The Goddard inquiry is finally beginning to make amends to children for years of neglect, but what it is uncovering applies just as much to adult victims of rape and sexual assault. The time for a public inquiry into how those cases are investigated is long overdue.