One of the UK’s leading independent schools – St Paul’s Girls’ School – has received claims of historic sexual abuse after asking ex-pupils to share stories of sexual harassment related to the recent popular #metoo social media campaign.
The allegations were made after the school’s high mistress, Sarah Fletcher, reached out to ex-pupils asking for stories of sexual harassment they had experienced for use in a drama piece. The responses included two pupils talking about sexual abuse they had experienced at the school, while others shared stories they had heard from friends.
According to a statement released by the school, the claims relate to events that occurred in the 1970s and 1990s. Ms Fletcher, expressed the school’s “absolute condemnation of all such behaviour” and asked those who made the allegations “to consider whether they would feel able to identify the individual(s), so they can be held to account.”
A school spokesperson stated that details of the allegations have been passed to the relevant authorities.
St Paul’s is the latest school to become involved in allegations of historic sexual abuse against pupils.
Why children often fail to report sexual abuse when it occurs
Many victims of child sexual abuse take years, even decades to come forward. There are many reasons for this.
Children often lack the language to explain what has happened to them –children don’t necessarily understand when their physical consent has been violated, and don’t know the language to talk about their genitalia. According to a major study, “due to the specific traumatic characteristics of child sexual abuse, children will often delay disclosing abuse or altogether fail to disclose during childhood, deny abuse when asked, and often recant abuse allegations”.
This was demonstrated in an NSPCC focus group study of 56 of Jimmy Saville’s victims in 2013. When asked whether they reported the abuse by Saville at the time it happened, many stated that they failed to realise what was happening to them was ‘sexual’ in nature, as their understanding and knowledge of sexual behaviour was limited. This was especially true of those who had suffered sexual abuse in the 1960s and 1970s, who said at that time, abuse was not openly acknowledged or discussed. They had never heard the word ‘paedophile’, and feared that they would be viewed as ‘bad’ or ‘to blame’ as children.
If the person is in a position of power or is famous, victims doubt they will be believed. The deterring effect of an abuser’s power was clearly highlighted in the NSPCC report which stated that when asked why they did not report the abuse they had suffered at the hands of Saville at the time it occurred, an overwhelming majority said it was because they feared they would not be believed.
“Jimmy Savile was a powerful and influential adult, who was seen as a ‘charitable, good guy’, raising a lot of money for charity” the report stated. It went on to say, “This led to feelings of helplessness and inferiority in his victims, who felt there was no way that their word, would have been believed over his. This was true for those victims who had been adults when they were abused, as well as for those who were children”.
Many victims, especially older teenagers (16-17-year olds) fear going to the police or court. According to a report by the Children’s Society, entitled, ‘Seriously Awkward’, many support services who could assist young adults in reporting sexual abuse lack awareness of the needs of this age group, often having a “they are old enough to look after themselves attitude”.
The report also identified clear gaps in legislation to protect young adults. For example, the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 does not include 16–17-year olds in protection from child cruelty, despite other laws reflecting the determination in Article 1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that a person is a child up to the age of 18 years. It is therefore, perhaps unsurprising, that 16-17-year-old sexual abuse victims have a distrust of authority, especially if they lack support at home.
What to do if you were a victim of sexual abuse at school
If you or someone you know experienced sexual abuse at school, it is not too late to pursue legal action, even if you did not report it at the time. Our child abuse solicitors are highly experienced in helping children and adults deal with both recent and historic allegations of child abuse in schools, so please get in touch to find out more about taking action.