Child abuse is nothing new

16:00, Feb 25 2013

Remember the old public service announcement catch-line: "Break the Cycle"? Hardly suggested domestic violence and child abuse was a new phenomenon, did it? Rather, it was a warning in two parts; the first bit about a present-day problem, the second about how it tends to perpetuate from one generation to another - as our behavioural habits often do. "Like father, like son" doesn't only apply to facial resemblances, after all.

Was struck this week by just how many people are still in denial about this - willing to argue that child abuse and (for want of a better term) domestic violence are some type of modern affliction; something utterly foreign to generations of the more distant past. Whether it's Garth McVicar or the equally rancid Family First, you could be forgiven for thinking that compared to now, previous generations of women and children had things much better.

Certainly, the scaremongers haven't lacked for case studies. Barely a week passes in which we're not shocked by stories of ugly, reprehensible abuse committed against minors and women. What some of us refuse to admit, though, is that it's nothing new; that the further back you go, the more it was the norm rather than the exception. Only difference now? We've finally reached a stage where (some) women and children feel safe enough to report it.

How can you prove the non-reporting? You can't, of course. But you can still read the signs; the anecdotal evidence is compelling enough. The proliferation of historic cases brought against today's grandfathers and great uncles et al speaks volumes of not only their values, but the values of their generation. Over in the United Kingdom, the child abuse scandal involving the late BBC personality Jimmy Savile continues to send the same message.

And even then, it seems we're eager to miss the point. People have been talking about Savile's nauseating behaviour as if it was something to do with the particular generation of his time. Seems someone else; something else had to be blamed so Savile's offending was quickly put down to the newly permissive and liberal culture of the 1970s and 80s. See, it's the era's fault. Guess it's much easier to accept that than the reality.

The reality? Well, the Catholic Church's on-going child abuse scandal tells us how entrenched the offending has been. But even leaving aside that sickening business, isn't it (to borrow from John Cleese) stating the bleedin' obvious? I mean, wasn't so long ago that children were being put to work as five-year-olds. Over in the States, the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded in 1874 - in a response to a desperate need.


Don't get me wrong; it's right we're outraged by the stories of children and women being hideously betrayed by those in positions of trust. But it's even better we've reached a stage in our evolution where the most vulnerable members of our community feel they have the right to report the offending; to do something about it. It might not feel like it, and the rose-tinted-glasses brigade will always disagree; but it's a mark of progress, not decline.

Funny thing, though; many of those who disagree on that point will also be tut-tutting about today's declining standards and young people's lack of respect for elders. Must say, I don't see that lack of respect; just a lack of fear. In fact, the less authoritarian and hierarchal we've become the better life has become for women and children. At least, better than it used to be. True, there's still a long way to go. But at least we're moving in the right direction.

» Read more of Richard Boock in the Sunday Star Times.
» Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardboock.

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