An abuse of fame and power

The sex-abuse allegations against the late British television presenter Jimmy Savile have raised disturbing questions about who knew what and when - and why nothing was done.

Police are following more than 400 lines of inquiry regarding about 300 potential victims of Savile over 40 years, which would make him one of Britain's worst sex offenders. The investigation has widened, and former 1970s pop star Gary Glitter (68), who has served jail terms for child pornography and child sex offences, was arrested and released on bail last week in relation to it. British comedian Freddie Starr has also been arrested by police investigating sexual abuse allegations against Savile, according to media reports.

BBC presenter Savile was one of the most famous faces on British television for decades. He also raised tens of millions of pounds for charity. It was only after his death in October last year, aged 84, that allegations he molested under-age girls began to surface publicly. But it appears some allegations were made while he was alive and some members of his family, the police, the publicly-funded BBC and hospitals might have been among those aware of them.

Revelations last week by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe that a number of separate abuse allegations had been made but not acted on and never connected by police and other organisations are chilling in hindsight. It also emerged Savile was barred from any involvement with the BBC's Children In Need charity, with the former BBC governor Roger Jones saying "I think we all recognised he was a pretty creepy sort of character".

The original abuse claims came to light in an ITV documentary, which spurred dozens more claims to police. The allegations included one by a great-niece of Savile.

Revelations an investigation by Newsnight, the BBC's flagship television news show, was shelved last December have increased the heat on BBC management. Former BBC director Mark Thompson is denying he was told about the allegations twice, in May and September, and says he knew nothing about the Newsnight investigation and had no involvement in the decision to axe it. New BBC director-general George Entwistle has been accused of lacking knowledge about the situation and not taking charge of the crisis. Chris Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, which oversees the broadcaster, has promised full co-operation while the BBC conducts its own investigations into the scandal, acknowledging its "reputation is on the line".

Further allegations emerged at the end of the week that Savile was regularly allowed to take young women into the nurses' home at Leeds General Infirmary, that he had abused a patient at the secure hospital Broadmoor, and that his behaviour towards young female staff on visits to Prince Charles' residence, St James's Palace, had aroused "concern and suspicion".

There are certainly many questions to be answered, particularly why such apparently wide-scale abuse could take place with no-one knowing or doing anything about it.

The only possible answers can lie in Savile's fame and power and in the context of the era. It appears the alleged abuse began at a time when such actions and attitudes - towards the children, women and the mentally ill - were often viewed differently by many in society, which is not to say they should ever have been tolerated.

Thankfully, however, such abuses are now publicly - and legally - deemed unacceptable. Of course, in private, horrific acts are still perpetrated.

While the allegations in question are of a historic nature, we cannot pretend such abuses do not still happen - and New Zealand is certainly not immune.

Our record of child abuse is shameful, and Social Development Minister Paula Bennett's recent decision not to make reporting of child abuse mandatory is questionable.

Such abuse does not happen in a vacuum and silence fosters an environment in which criminal behaviour breeds. There is a moral obligation for the public to report such behaviour - and for authorities to act on the information.

While it is appalling to think such crimes might have been committed, and to so many, it is a relief the alleged British victims are at least now finding a voice - and the authorities are finally listening.