The news that more than 20 former footballers have come forward with allegations of historical child sex abuse raises the prospect of multiple police investigations. With five police forces already involved this scandal is set to dominate the news for months to come.
While no one can doubt the extreme distress that the victims must have suffered, the way that the police and prosecutors have handled all cases of historical abuse so far have on occasions left a great deal to be desired.
Since Savile, there has been an almost breathless scramble to pursue potential suspects, to the exclusion of any normal standards of justice. Time and again we have seen the names of suspects released and lapped up by a ravenous media. In a short time a feeding frenzy ensues and those named find themselves in the spotlight with their personal lives laid bare. No one can blame the public for believing that ‘there is no smoke without fire’ but often little or no work is undertaken to test the account of the complainants.
The police know that this publicity will lead to more people coming forward. This in turn will make it more likely that a prosecution is brought and the police will be praised for having done their job.
This may sound like lazy police work, but the background is cuts in funding, initiated by the former Home Secretary, Theresa May. Historical sex abuse cases are extremely hard to investigate and take a lot of man hours to do so thoroughly. It is little wonder that the police try to save time and money.
But is this the way forward for justice?
Where a person is a public figure, a celebrity, or just well known in their local community because of their job, the need for thorough policing becomes an imperative requirement of our justice system.
Naming people who are alleged to have been perpetrators of historical sex abuse flies in the face of this. Figures such as Sir Cliff Richard and Paul Gambuccini, have called for anonymity for those accused of sex offences until they are actually charged. Both were on bail for a long time before being cleared, but the impact on their lives has been devastating.
For several years now, people who worked in ‘light entertainment’ have lived in fear of arrest and investigation while their names were dragged through the mud by the police and the media. Now the focus has shifted to sport and, in particular, to the world of football. So far just one figure has been charged with offences. However no doubt it is only a matter of time before others are named in a bid to get members of the public to come forward and the poorly resourced police investigation cycle begins again.
This hysteria has a chilling effect on our system of justice, where people are presumed innocent before they are found guilty by the court. Isn’t it time that we called time on this practice? Both the accused and the victims of abuse deserve better than this.
This article first appeared in The Brief 01/12/2016