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29 April 2019 | Podcasts | Article by Alan Collins

HJ Talks About Abuse: Is child abuse less “forgivable” than murder and rape?

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Child abuse is less “forgivable” than murder and rape – that is the conclusion reported by BBC to a ComRes survey. Today’s podcast is going to try and delve into this a little. The first point to make is that we are not survivors. We respect the thoughts and positions of survivors, and it is not for us to say who is right and who is wrong etc What we want to do is explore and discuss the survey and what lies behind some of the findings.

Below are some of the findings from the ComRes poll:

  • Child abuse is considered “impossible to forgive” by nearly nine out of 10 British adults – more than murder and rape – a poll for the BBC suggests.
  • Eight out of 10 people said sexual abuse, including rape, was unforgivable compared with just over seven out of 10 for murder.
  • One in four women found infidelity unforgivable compared with fewer than one in five men.
  • One in 10 of the 2,042 polled by ComRes could not forgive social media abuse.
  • The poll for BBC local radio asked how willing people would be to forgive someone for actions ranging from swearing to child abuse.
  • More women than men found child abuse impossible to forgive, with 89% of women compared with 80% of men.
  • Women were also more likely to find sexual abuse, including rape, impossible to forgive, with 83% compared with 75% of men.
  • Fewer men found infidelity impossible to forgive, with 19% of those responding compared to 26% of women.

Society has decided that child abuse is wrong. There are very clear laws that reflect this. Punishment has evolved over recent years that reflects the gravity and serious consequences of CSA. Sentences are far tougher than say 20 years ago. Some might say not tough enough, which perhaps feeds into the possibility that forgiveness gets mixed up with punishment.

We have seen on twitter that survivors have a range of positions. Some have forgiven their abusers, others have said that they did not want them punished, others have said they could never forgive, and that prison was not punishment enough.

Murder victims, to state the obvious, are in no position to give an opinion, but their families are. Murder carries a life sentence. It was once a capital offense which meant the murderer went to the gallows. Parliament against the wishes of the general public abolished the death penalty and the trade-off was a mandatory life sentence. The loss of a loved one is profound. Those who have been involved in such cases are only too aware of the loss and the void that seems impossible to fill. Some are able to forgive, others come to terms, many do not.

Are the loss and the consequences the same in a CSA case? Are we in danger of comparing apples with pears?

Possible. It could be a futile comparison and an unjust one to compare the two. Both are tragic with profound consequences for those harmed, their families, and society too.

There is possibly an important difference in that, in a CSA case, there is hopefully a chance for the survivor to rebuild, or there should be. For a murder case there are no chances.

In any undertaking such as this one has to ask whether it is worth it and what it achieves?

The issue which first presents itself is who is being surveyed about what? It is clearly not the murder victim given that the person is deceased. Is it the family of that victim? Is it the survivor of rape forgiving the perpetrator? Is it society forgiving the murderer or rapist on the victim’s behalf (this seems perverse)? Or is it general attitudes as to which is worse arrived at by which is more forgivable? It must be the latter. But the confusion may affect the results.

Moreover, there is no explanation of what that individual considers the definition of “murder” to be. This is a finely nuanced point and it is very likely your average person on the street when facing this question will be thinking of examples of manslaughter rather than murder and comparing it to rape. Of course in such circumstances, the rape is worse. For example, a classic thought will be of the battered wife who kills her abusive husband. Yes, the husband is killed, but the defence of diminished responsibility or loss of control might reduce the charge to manslaughter. Undeniably, a perpetrator breaking into a house and committing rape is worse. But it isn’t a comparison between murder and rape, it’s between manslaughter and rape. Ask the same person to compare the same exact circumstances – i.e. a masked perpetrator breaking into a house and committing rape or murder it’s likely the answer will be different.

Overall, this is surely not a very scientific survey and there may be some skewed results given an understanding of the legal definitions but nevertheless, it provokes interesting debate and almost certainly evidences a sea change in opinion as to CSA. The same survey taken 30 years ago would certainly have seen different results. One might think that religious beliefs and commitment to the idea of forgiveness would influence the results, but interestingly, two-thirds of British adults surveyed said they never attend religious services – surely another societal change from a survey which would have been taken 30 years ago!

One thing is for sure – a commitment to the safety of children and safeguarding ought to be a primary concern of government organisations, companies, charities, and religious institutions because quite clearly – people care.

Author bio

Alan Collins


Alan Collins is one of the best known and most experienced solicitors in the field of child abuse litigation and has acted in many high profile cases, including the Jimmy Savile and Haut de la Garenne abuse scandals.  Alan has represented interested parties before public inquiries including the Independent Jersey Care Inquiry, and IICSA (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse).

Internationally, Alan works in Australia, South East Asia, Uganda, Kenya, and California representing clients in high profile sexual abuse cases. Alan also spoke at the Third Regional Workshop on Justice for Children in East Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok hosted by Unicef and HCCH (Hague Conference on Private International Law).

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.


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