Could A Rotherham Happen Here?

What happened in Rotherham, a large town in northern England, is appalling.  For more than a decade, local authorities looked the other way while gangs of men of Pakistani origin “groomed” young girls and then systematically raped and abused them.  At least 1,400 — 1,400! — children were sexually exploited.  The victims’ stories about their own personal hells of fear, rape, and hopelessness are harrowing and heart-breaking.

One question in this disturbing story is whether fear of being labeled a racist affected how authorities responded to reports of abuse they received.  The report that outlines the abuse and the massive failures of those charged with protecting the victims, criticizes the authorities for downplaying the issue of the race and ethnicity of the men who were committing the crimes.  Some believe that concerns about being called a racist or being accused of cultural insensitivity prevented the police and council members from actually doing their jobs.  (Of course, by not holding the perpetrators of the crimes to the same standards as everyone else, and by not properly acting on the complaints of the victims, the police and council members were in fact engaging in racist behavior.)

Could a Rotherham occur in the United States?  It’s hard to believe that a criminal enterprise of such scope and magnitude, with so many child victims, could happen here — but it’s hard to believe it could happen in England, either.  The British aren’t fundamentally different from us, and the circumstances that gave rise to the decade of abuse in Rotherham — in particular, the desire to “not upset the apple cart” that caused authorities to turn their heads — could be replicated in America.  Our own history is forever marred by instances where townspeople supported, or at least consciously ignored, murderous criminal gangs like the Ku Klux Klan.  Whether it is concern about running afoul of those in power, or just following along with the crowd, or trying to avoid being publicly called a racist, prevailing social conventions can be powerful motivators.

An African proverb states that “it takes a village to raise a child,” and Hillary Clinton later wrote a book about that concept.  Sometimes, however, villages like Rotherham fail.

When Adults Fail Children

Today I checked the BBC website and the top two stories on the “US & Canada” tab both dealt with sexual abuse of children — the guilty verdict in the Jerry Sandusky trial and the guilty verdict in a trial of a Philadelphia priest accused of covering up sexual abuse of children by the Catholic clergy.  Ugh.  Obviously, it’s not the kind of image of America we want to present to the world at large.

Although Sandusky and Monsignor William Lynn have been brought to justice, the overriding theme of their stories is of institutions and adults that failed to stand up for children.  It’s bad enough that there are sexual predators and abusers lurking in the dark corners of society, but it is inexcusable when people who could stop the criminal acts of those twisted individuals do not do so.

Children are among the most vulnerable people in society.  Parents know this, and also know that they must trust adults who interact with those children on any given day to protect and help them.  When those adults abdicate that responsibility — and instead seem to look the other way, or even worse, actively enable the sick abuser — it is frightening and infuriating.

We need to figure out how the Sandusky and Catholic priest horror stories happened, and how to stop them from ever happening again.  We have to determine how to restore the basic notions of right and wrong that should have caused the adults who failed to act to instead fulfill their obligations as members of a civilized society.