Who gets believed?

Recently a lot of people have been retweeting a tweet by one Amanda Brown Lierman, “political & Organizing Director for @theDemocrats” (not sure if she means the whole party or a local branch of it), which moans:

A lot of people retweeting it don’t stop to think because if they did, they might realise how factually wrong, inappropriate and offensive it is.

A small walled garden with a stone wall at the front, broken by a metal gate with a large cross mounted on its grille. At the back of the garden is a shrine. Behind the garden's rear stone walls are two pairs of semi-detached houses.To begin with, it’s not a competition; one should not complain about one group of victims being believed when another isn’t. Second, it was not only men who accused priests and other churchpeople of abusing them; particularly in Catholic countries, boys and girls, and some adults (particularly women) suffered abuse of many different kinds from all kinds of religious (priests and members of religious orders) and the facts, although they were widely known of at the time, came to be talked of openly years later. It was not just men complaining of being molested as boys by priests: it was girls being sexually abused and even raped, children being exploited in church-run industrial schools and beaten and otherwise physically abused in schools, children’s homes and other institutions. One of the scandals being exposed now involves babies who died in a Catholic mother and baby home in Ireland whose bodies were disposed of in a septic tank.

There has been a long history of young people of both sexes not being believed when they complained. In one case, young men who told the police that they had been sexually abused in a young offenders’ institution were told that it was a criminal offence to make such accusations against prison officers and roughly expelled from the station. When they were finally believed, the perpetrators were in most cases no longer in charge of children and in some cases were very old or dead and very few have been brought to justice — a few bishops have had their chances of becoming pope derailed but that’s about it. In the highest-profile abuse scandal in the UK, in which a celebrity gained access to hospitals, prisons and other establishments and sexually abused people (one of these places was a spinal injury rehabilitaiton centre), accusations were not made public until after he had died. Despite his fame having waned considerably, he was still very wealthy and the media feared litigation if they made any of it public. One or two of the accusers’ stories has not stood up and, although they have not been named, they have been characterised in the media as fantasists and the media have reverted to effusive sympathy for the well-heeled accused.

I spent four years in a ‘special’ all-boys boarding school in England. Physical abuse was rampant, particularly in the first year or so but throughout, staff used inappropriate restraint methods and overlooked physical violence among boys and some used violence in response to trivial personal slights or when shouted at. Complaints were made early on, but were not acted on despite police involvement in 1992. Nobody was prosecuted until 2006 and that was for sexual abuse early on in the history of the school; there was no serious investigation until after the celebrity scandal I mentioned earlier, which was nearly 20 years after the school closed and, crucially, nobody had a vested interest in keeping anyone at the school and even then nobody high-up in the school’s management was prosecuted, only a few old teachers and care staff. If we had been listened to then and the school had been closed, as it should have been, local authorities and parents would have had the headache of finding new schools when they thought the children affected were ‘settled’.

My point is that it’s not whether the complainer is a man or a woman that determines whether they are believed or not. It’s whether the person complained of is still powerful and whether acting on the complaint will be costly or inconvenient. In the case of Christine Blasey Ford, who accuses the US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of a sexual assault when he was 17 and she was 15, whether people believe or not seems to divide mostly along partisan lines. There is a huge difference between those situations and this: these were children, their abusers were their adult carers or people they were forced to live with, the abuse went on for years and was not a single assault at a party, people had lost years of their lives in some cases. So it’s unfair and distasteful to show resentment that people abused over years as children are believed, often without consequences for the abusers, just because a single accusation against a person running for high office is being questioned.

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