Victims of abuse must be encouraged to speak out

John Freeman
Monday, October 15, 2012

The allegations about Sir Jimmy Savile sexually abusing adolescent girls have reminded me of a case, well before the 2004 Children Act, when I was an education director.

Essentially, a woman with learning disabilities disclosed to her carers that, 15 years before, she had been sexually abused by a teacher, X, while on a school residential trip. I authorised an investigation, which eventually took very many days and involved both the police and social services. X was still in post but close to retirement, while the senior staff at the school and the local authority from that time had all retired and proved to have very hazy memories.

The investigation revealed that there had been an earlier multi-agency investigation around similar allegations. X had been found to be at best stupidly negligent and at worst seriously abusive. At this point, the matter had been left to the local authority and the head teacher, and he was given just a written warning.

Since X had run residential trips alone, and it was alleged that homesick children had been invited to share his bed, I couldn’t leave it at that. But a decade on, no one, including parents who had made complaints at the time, was prepared to come forward in public. X was now a well-connected pillar of the local community and involved in voluntary activity, including being a swimming coach.

Worst of all, I discovered that X was about to be appointed as a magistrate. So I wrote to the Lord Chancellor, and ensured that the new head teacher and the voluntary groups knew the facts from the investigation. At this point, the council and I were threatened with legal action – my response being “see you in court” – which never happened. Eventually, X retired and gave up voluntary work. My sad conclusion was that historical cases like these are almost impossible to prove unless victims are prepared to speak out. 

I hope that the Savile case will encourage victims to complain more quickly – and we must encourage that by treating them with respect, taking what they have to say seriously and acting rapidly.

John Freeman CBE is a former director of children’s services and is now a freelance consultant  Read his blog at

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