Operation Yew Tree’s first conviction – why is it so significant?

It’s been some time since I wrote about the fallout of Savile, and the investigations into the sexual abuse of children. Yesterday, Max Clifford was found guilty of eight counts of sexual assault against young women, and girls as young as fifteen. Within the case heard at Southwark Crown Court, there was an account of sexual abuse of a girl who was twelve, but as this was alleged to have taken place in Spain, it could not be heard in a British court of law.

But why is the conviction of Max Clifford so significant?

It is significant on many levels – for his victims, for all victims of sexual abuse, for Operation Yew Tree, and for us, the public as protectors of our children.

The process of justice is a long and painful one. Clifford was first questioned in December 2012, and arrested in April 2013. A year later his case went to trial. His victims, who would have given their evidence to bring about his arrest and trial, have been in the justice system long before the cold arm of the law reached out and knocked on Clifford’s door. They endured his abuse many years ago, and for most, kept it quiet, but because of Operation Yew Tree, they chose to speak to the police. This might have happened eighteen months ago, perhaps. Perhaps longer. Since their statements were taken, they will have been living with their own stories in a more public domain, not knowing what it might mean, if anything at all. It is a brutalising process, and because of them, their bravery, their conviction, this sex offender has been found guilty. Who knows what the victims feel, but let us hope that they feel that justice has been done to them. I know from my work, as evidenced in the stories in Hurt, this isn’t always the case – because the nightmares, the fear, the repercussions live on. In this, I pray that his victims can feel proud of the strong women they have become. They have helped bring down a monster.

And this is why it is significant to all victims of sexual assault and sexual abuse. Convictions are hard to come by, and against the weight and burden of the justice system, it can be a wholly daunting process. But, this must give hope. The system is changing, with the police and CPS promising more support to those that have suffered under the violent abuse of sex offenders. The criminal justice services want to listen to victims now, which seems a sea-change to where it was only five years ago. Operation Yew Tree has played a major part in this, but as have the victims who are collectively saying ‘this is no longer acceptable’.

Operation Yew Tree has been lambasted as being a celebrity witch-hunt, looking for scalps, and after some unsuccessful cases, here is a massive achievement. Raking over crimes of the past, crimes where there is little forensic evidence makes for challenging convictions. This success will give Operation Yew Tree more credibility, quieten the cynics, and perhaps encourage more victims to come forward. In the absence of ‘hard’ evidence, it is the consistency in the stories (and I don’t mean ‘made up’ in choosing this word, but the lived experiences of the abuse) that help build a picture of evidence beyond reasonable doubt. I remember hearing that this struck the early investigators of Savile, just how extraordinarily similar the ‘method’ of seduction, abuse and subsequent threat. It must have been the same for the jury in the Clifford trial. If there are to be more convictions of these prolific sex offenders, then possibly more corroboration will help.

Lastly, I think that this is extremely significant to us, the public. People who work with the victims of sexual abuse know that most sex offenders and paedophiles do not have the appearance of grimy, scaly monsters. They are ‘nice’ men – caring, considerate, people who you’d want to give your children to. And here we have a very public profile of a sex offender. Charismatic, charming, influential – but also very manipulative, cruel, deceitful and determined. We, all of us, need to recast the image of a sex offender, and look around us, because they will be among our children today, in our schools, our clubs, our churches and possibly, our lives.

Today Operation Yew Tree can celebrate the achievement of this last trial, and today the work must also continue anew, because although it is a landmark, there is still a long road ahead before we can end the sexual abuse of vulnerable children and young people.

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