Jean Antoine-Dunne writes a weekly column for the Newsday.
Amidst increasing allegations about long-term sexual harassment and predatory behaviour by public figures, the question arises how do people, in particular those in power, actually succeed in soliciting and hiding their crimes? Since most of the accusations are historical, then how do such individuals get away with it for so long?
Somehow, people such as Kevin Spacey, who has now been edited out of Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World and axed from his Netflix series; and the now convicted Irish Times journalist Tom Humphries, managed to evade detection for long periods.
Sports journalist Humphries, who was a larger-than-life personality with star quality, was recently jailed for two-and-a-half years for grooming a girl from the age of 14, and then ultimately sexually abusing her.
The girl was a friend of his daughter. His position as a father, a coach and as a media personality allowed him to gain her trust and to exert such appeal that he exchanged 16,000 text messages with her over a three-month period.
The issue of powerful public figures gaining the trust of those on whom they prey is well known by now. It has been facilitated in the past by traditional respect for those in authority, whether teacher, priest, or family figure. In fact it is surprising how often abuse is perpetrated by father figures. The new turn, and in particular since the scandals about Jimmy Savile (Mr Fix-It), focuses our attention on the lure of the media and the abuse of power.
It further leads to the question of grooming. The word “grooming” is an interesting one and smacks of correctness. To groom is, after all, to make respectable. According to experts there are six stages to predatory grooming: The victim is first targeted. The target is usually a child or young person, male or female, who is in some way vulnerable or lacking in self-confidence.
This has no social boundaries. The groomer gains the trust of the victim by becoming part of the group; this is often the family group and by singling out the child for special attention. A predator is often one who understands how to behave with decorum so that he or she avoids suspicion.
Having gained the attention and the trust of the victim, the groomer then begins the process of isolation.
This means separating a young person from peers and other family members and creating an exclusive relationship. In so doing the child begins to feel “special.” The groomer is “there” for the child. He or she may be a coach or adviser or caregiver and above all else understands the needs of the child.
One very interesting result of this “special” treatment is that the victim very often begins to idealise his or her abuser.
Those who are abused often can initially see no wrong in the person who is grooming them. They quote and defer to them in quite unique ways. By the time that sexual initiation begins, the victim is already in a snare of having his or her needs or desires fulfilled and enjoying the attention.
Given the natural curiosity of children and the developing sexual drives in pre-teens and early teens, the groomer is able to introduce sexual games or situations that at the least initially give pleasure. But predatory sexual advances also lead to revulsion. However, the child or youth has by this time been co-opted into the belief that this one individual is trustworthy and is looking out for his or her best interests, so revulsion becomes confused by guilt and together lead to conflicted feelings. And silence. The web of secrecy and the fact that many abusers are in positions of authority and are respected members of a community mean that victims often feel no one will believe them.
In the case of Tom Humphries, the Irish journalist, his abuse came to light because his daughter discovered inappropriate text messages on his phone and went to the police. In the case of Spacey as one mother put it, she and her son did not think anyone would believe them.
Had one person not spoken out the accusations now being made would not have been heard. The fact is that so often those who abuse have the gift or training to understand their victims. What is more they have the power.