Complaint Ignored for Decades Is Heard at Last in BBC Abuse Case

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

LONDON -- No one listened to Deborah Cogger's story. Not her teachers, who dismissed it as no big deal. Not her social worker, who accused her of making it up. Not the newspapers she called decades later, which said it was too explosive to publish.

It was not until this fall, nearly 40 years after she left a reform school in Surrey, England, that Ms. Cogger finally got anyone to believe her account of how she and other girls there were routinely molested by one of Britain's most powerful celebrities, the eccentric, cigar-chomping television host Jimmy Savile.

"If you moaned about it, you were told not to say those awful things about Jimmy -- 'Oh, that's just Jimmy, that's his way; he loves you girls,' " said Ms. Cogger, 52. If you said he had touched your breasts, she added, "they'd say, 'Don't be wicked, he would never do that.' "

The revelation last month that Mr. Savile, who died last year, was most likely a child sex abuser with perhaps hundreds of victims has profoundly shocked a country that now acknowledges that all the signs were there, if anyone had cared to see them.

The disclosures have spurred a broad criminal inquiry involving numerous police departments and caused institutions, including schools, hospitals and the BBC, to investigate their ties to Mr. Savile. The disclosures have also provoked a crisis of management and responsibility inside the BBC and forced Prime Minister David Cameron to order two new inquiries into the handling of a sexual abuse scandal in Wales several years ago.

Hundreds of people have reported their own experiences to abuse hot lines. In addition, profound senses of discomfort and guilt were felt among those who knew, hired, admired, watched, welcomed, solicited charity from or cheerfully put young people in the path of Mr. Savile. And on Saturday, the chief executive of the BBC, George Entwistle, became the latest casualty, resigning after an uproar over a BBC program on the Wales scandal that wrongly implicated a former Conservative Party politician.

The disclosures have also highlighted how much Britain's attitude toward sexual abuse has changed since Mr. Savile's heyday, in the 1970s and '80s, a time when it was not uncommon for women to be groped and harassed at work, and when show business celebrities openly leered at, if not preyed on, the teenage girls who idolized them.

"There was a massive cultural difference then," said Donald Findlater, director of Stop It Now, which works to prevent child sex abuse. "We hadn't really properly discovered child abuse yet."

But, along with increasingly strict legislation, attitudes have swung drastically in the other direction -- to a fault, some believe. In Britain, police background checks are now required of anyone working with children, including parents who volunteer in schools. Teachers are advised not to be alone with students and to be wary of touching them.

Some playgrounds refuse admission to adults without children. Some schools forbid parents to photograph sports events or plays, lest the pictures end up in the wrong places. In 2000, a tabloid antipedophile campaign led to vigilante attacks in which, at one point, a crowd confused the words pedophile and pediatrician and vandalized the home of an innocent doctor.

Given the current climate, it is hard to believe that Mr. Savile could have gotten away with so much for so long, even in a society burdened by collective, willful blindness. But the account of Ms. Cogger shows how for victims, the abuse was compounded by the realization that anyone who complained would be ignored, scoffed at or punished.

Ms. Cogger is not the only one from the reform school, the Duncroft Approved School for Girls, to have come forward with a tale of what Mr. Savile did and how he got away with it. At least six former students have told the British news media that Mr. Savile assaulted them in places that included his Rolls-Royce and the school's dormitories, and in London on school-approved "treats."

"Jimmy treated Duncroft like a pedophile sweet shop," one former student, Toni Townsend, told The Daily Mirror.

In 2007, the Surrey police investigated Mr. Savile's conduct at Duncroft, even detaining and questioning him. But he was never charged.

Duncroft, which closed in the 1980s -- it is now a luxury apartment complex -- was a privately run boarding school, operating under state control, for academically promising but unruly girls. Ms. Cogger was sent there in 1974, when she was 14.

Her childhood was chaotic. When she was 12, she explained in several telephone interviews, she overheard a shocking family secret: the woman she thought was her mother was actually her aunt. Ms. Cogger's real mother, one of 13 children at home, had given birth at 15 and relinquished the baby to her older sister.

The disclosure sent her into a dark period. "I just kept running away," Ms. Cogger said. "They put me in Duncroft because no one wanted me."

She said the institution was in thrall to Mr. Savile, a wealthy benefactor whose money it depended on and whose picture was prominently displayed on its walls. The girls were encouraged to call him "Uncle Jimmy"; behind his back, they called him a perv.

When she arrived, she related, "they told me: 'If he gets the chance, he'll touch you up. He'll put his hand up your skirt, his hand up your shirt, he'll pinch your bum, he'll stick his tongue down your throat.' "

Carrying armloads of records, cigarettes and candy to hand out, Mr. Savile would pull up in a huge car, greeted by a "little posse of the older girls," Ms. Cogger said. He would have cocktails with the staff before being left free to roam the school -- dormitories, recreation rooms, wherever. He seemed to have carte blanche.

He molested her twice, she said, once when he grabbed her around the waist with a surprisingly tough grip and pulled her backward onto his lap. "I was off balance, and then he just pressed really heavily on me and shoved his tongue down my throat," she related. "I couldn't get away from him. He was very strong and very forceful."

The next time, he cornered her alone in the hall when she was on work duty, mopping the floor.

"He waved his hands at me and made this horrible noise, like 'Woo, woo, woo,' and he said, 'My, you've grown.' " He then grabbed her breasts.

"I backed away from him" and told him to get away, Ms. Cogger said. "He just turned around and walked away. Nothing fazed him."

His behavior was an open secret. "We all discussed it: 'What did he do to you this time?' " Ms. Cogger recalled. But the school did not seem to care, and girls who complained were stripped of privileges. If they became hysterical, they were shut into a padded isolation room, sometimes for days, Ms. Cogger said, until they "calmed down and changed their mind."

This month, The Daily Mail tracked down Duncroft's longtime headmistress, Margaret Jones, 91, who said her students included "well-known delinquents" making "wild allegations." A spokeswoman for the Home Office, which was responsible for supervising and inspecting Duncroft, said Friday that the agency would make no comment "while there's an ongoing police investigation."

Ms. Cogger did not tell any teachers. She did not tell her parents. When she told the social worker assigned to her case, she said, "he laughed at me and said, 'Oh, come on, Deborah.' He thought it was a tactic to try to get out."

The experience preyed on her, she said, and several times over the years she called various newspapers and tried to talk about what happened.

"They just didn't want to know," she said.

This summer, though, a friend spotted an item in a newspaper mentioning Duncroft in connection with Mr. Savile. "I spoke to myself and said, 'This time it's going to come out,' " she said. In August, Ms. Cogger offered her story to The Sun, and this time the newspaper listened. "But they said, 'It's too controversial -- we can't touch it,' " she said.

Finally, the day before ITV, a British television network, broadcast the documentary that exposed the allegations against Mr. Savile, The Sun went ahead with an article about Ms. Cogger. But she is still haunted by what happened, and by the years of having to bear it alone.

"They pimped us out," she said of the teachers at Duncroft. "He was a big, powerful man with a big voice, and we had no voices."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here