What do Jimmy Savile and Jeremy Forrest have in common?
Well, on the face of it, a taste for young girls that has appalled the nation this week.
You could say, too, that both have been aided by the complicity of the organisations they worked for. Forrest, who fled to France with his 15 year old pupil, had not managed to keep the affair entirely secret. At the very least, the senior management team at his school failed to act quickly enough; but it seems likely that they turned a blind eye to this and other child protection issues, too.
Savile’s abuse of teenage girls was an open secret in the BBC – every journalist I know had heard the rumours. And yet it appears that no effort was made to properly investigate, let alone to protect the children who appeared on his shows.
But the real thing that unites the two cases is what they reveal about British society. We’ve changed, and we’ve changed quickly.
It is shocking now to imagine that our values could shift so fundamentally in the space of a couple of generations. But the benign toleration of Savile’s abuse is unthinkable now. We have, as a community, learned to be properly appalled by child rape, rather than issuing free passes to the great and the good, as long as they’re doing some charity work on the side.
If further evidence were required, we need only look to the continued unearthing of abuse in the Catholic Church. It seems extraordinary now that sometimes even parents of the abused wouldn’t challenge religious authority in the light of such suffering.
What’s more, we have a better understanding of how sex and power interact. When I was at school (and I’m only 35), our physics teacher was allowed to openly date a different sixth-former each year, with seeming impunity. How times have changed.
We’re often wrong about the way we treat teenagers. We’re so keen to protect them that take away their agency, and leave them feeling impotent and frustrated. Meanwhile, we demonise them to the extent that they don’t feel welcome anywhere in adult society.
But, here, for once, we have cause for optimism. Because, in recognising the vulnerability of those newly-formed identities, we are finally understanding how we need to protect our teens.
Our next challenge is to extend the same understanding to challenging teenagers too, because the appalling treatment – by the police and social services – of the young women groomed for forced-prostitution in Rochdale reveals yet another nasty underbelly to our attitude to young people.