Dare to Debate: child sexual abuse investigations

Are the needs of victims in non-recent abuse inquiries being overlooked in high profile cases?

What happened

During our 3rd Dare to Debate series, the former operation Yewtree commander, Peter Spindler, told a packed crowd that ”there’s nothing historic about abuse for victims”. Highlighting that only 5% of child abuse cases and 20% of adult rape cases are reported at the time of the offence, he added that in the wake of the Savile revelations, “victims for the first time felt empowered, arguing that it was people like the police and the NSPCC who gave them a voice”. But admitted that the police "got some things wrong" during its investigation into child sexual abuse in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal and that some detectives who worked as part of the investigation "didn't have the skills and knowledge" needed. He argued the media had a "ferocious appetite" but insisted the Metropolitan Police did not release the names of suspects before they were charged.

Peter, rounded off his opening remarks by talking about the threats facing young people today: "I'd like to think it's far less likely that the type of offending we've seen in Yewtree, and some of these other cases, is likely to happen today. Because of social media, people would be exposed that much earlier and that much quicker."

Acknowledging the fomer commander’s and the police’s work, journalist, David Aaronovitch, recognised the empowering effect the high profile investigations had provided victims, but countered that “the pendulum had been moved from neglect to hysteria, without ever managing to stop at common sense”. Often provocative, the journalist argued that the semantics around victimhood often gave credit to crimes that were at early stages, simply unproven allegations and suggested that allegations of sexual abuse crimes had a different credulity threshold both when it came to the police, the public and the media than other reported allegations or crimes.

Chairing the debate was NSPCC, Chairman Mark Wood who opened debate to the floor and took questions in what became a boisterous discussion ranging from the rights of anonymity for victims and alleged perpetrators to the high octane language used in the media and including a discussion about the increase of indecent images of children, dealing with false allegations, police resources and the changing public understanding of child sexual exploitation following the high profile revelations over recent years. The next Dare to Debate will be hosted in early 2016.

About the debate

It’s essential that those that have been victims of abuse, have the confidence to come forward and speak out. We believe that all allegations of child abuse should be thoroughly investigated and the police should have the space and the resource necessary to do this.

But in recent months, a controversial question has arisen in the minds of the public following the media storm surrounding high profile sexual abuse cases involving a host of celebrities, politicians, and other high profile personalities – do non recent sexual assault investigations do all they can to help victims, or have they descended into a media ‘witch hunt’ targeting high profile names?

It’s a question that will be under the spotlight during our latest of a series of Dare to Debate events focused on child protection issues that are current, continuous and sometimes controversial, we believe it’s important to engage with this increasingly prominent conversation, in an open and frank forum.

Debating whether these non-recent investigations are focused enough around the victims is Peter Spindler, former Commander in charge of Operation Yewtree, which was launched following the Jimmy Savile revelations.

Operation Yewtree’s investigation led to the convictions of 9 people, including Rolf Harris, Max Clifford, Gary Glitter, Dave Lee Travis and Chris Denning.

Since then a flurry of other well-known names have been paraded in the papers as more people come forward to accuse them of non-recent abuse that continue to haunt the alleged victims.

Peter will face award winning journalist David Aaronovitch, who has openly criticised the way names of senior politicians have been publicly aired following accusations of alleged sexual offences, arguing investigations, as they’re known today, are an excuse to target high profile personalities.

At the NSPCC, we believe it is crucial for all allegations to be tested, for victims to be heard and listened to but to also ensure that we do not forget that children are being abused now and need protection.

Our Dare to Debate, which will be held at our London headquarters tomorrow, will see our speakers debating the question of whether child abuse investigations have indeed lost their focus.

In the debate

Peter Spindler has now retired from the Metropolitan Police after a distinguished 30-year career, which included him being the main lead for all child abuse investigations in London.

Peter underwent training in counter-terrorism, spending a period at Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, and headed Scotland Yard’s specialist crime investigations into the most serious offences, including murder and rape.

He led Operation Yewtree, which resulted in some 600 people coming forward to give information and more than 200 criminal offences being recorded.

Peter will be employing his vast experience to explain the importance of non-recent abuse investigations.

David Aaronovitch is a journalist, author and broadcaster. During his distinguished career, David has won the George Orwell Prize for political journalism, been named ‘What the Papers Say’ Columnist of the Year, written for the Independent, Guardian, Observer and is now a regular columnist for the Times.

He has authored a book which debunks conspiracy theories and has been critical of the way some politicians have recently been publicly linked with alleged historical sexual offences, likening the furore surrounding this to McCarthyism and a 'witch hunt'.

Previous Dare to Debate seminars

Children or sex objects – where has it all gone wrong?

The first in the Dare to Debate series looked at the sexualisation of children in society today. Our expert panel of speakers included:

  • Nazir Afzal, Chief Prosecutor for the North West. Nazir led the Rochdale grooming gang prosecution.
  • Reg Bailey, Chief Executive of the Mothers' Union, Reg wrote, 'Letting Children be Children' which looked at the commercialisation of children.
  • Dionne Taylor, criminal lecturer at Birmingham City University. Dionne has undertaken research into the influence of pop videos on young girls.
  • Maris Stratulis, England Manager for the British Association of Social Workers.
  • Jon Brown, head of the NSPCC's sexual abuse programmes.

Exploring the issue of drinking alcohol during pregnancy

The second instalment of our Dare to Debate series focused on the issue of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. Our expert panel of speakers included:

  • Julie Brown, Founder and joint CEO, The FASD Trust
  • Sharon Dawe, Professor in Clinical Psychology
  • Judith Masson, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies
  • Raja Mukherjee, Adult Learning Disability Consultant Psychiatrist
  • Peter Newell, Children's rights advocate

For more information about Dare to Debate, please email our national media office