Alex Renton decided to speak out about the abuse he suffered at one of Britain’s elite private schools after reading an article in 2013 that made him realise his abusers could still be teaching – and hurting other children.
Renton says he had made a sort of peace with his horrific schoolboy experiences but decided that day that he nevertheless owed it to others “who might need revenge, relief from the history – or money” to speak out and give them his support.
Since then, Renton has helped fellow survivors through direct support, his books and articles, and now a BBC Radio 4 series, In Dark Corners, which gives a platform to those who suffered abuse in British independent schools.
But still he is not finished: he has, he says, a database of more than 800 criminal allegations from former schoolchildren of 300 mainly private boarding schools.
The allegations keep coming. This Wednesday, on a podcast inspired by Renton’s series, the TV presenter Nicky Campbell spoke with the journalist about the “horrific” abuse he experienced and witnessed during his days as a private schoolboy at the fee-paying Edinburgh academy in the 1970s; revelations that have prompted even more survivors to get in touch with Renton.
“I have 50 new emails containing criminal allegations that require serious attention from me,” he says. But it is not just the numbers involved: Renton continues to be shocked by the “vicious” lengths to which schools go to avoid being held to account for the historical sexual abuse that went on behind their gates.
“What I still find absolutely shocking is that grand and often self-regarding institutions – and the grand men who ran them and can still run them – agreed to what I think of as the worst crime of all, which is not being someone who grooms a child and abuses them but of knowing that that is happening under your watch and letting it continue or allowing that person to go to another school and continue their career of abuse,” Renton says.
As if to prove his point, Renton reveals he spent Wednesday morning responding to a letter from one of the schools he named in a recent edition of In Dark Corners threatening legal action. “It’s hard not to conclude that for many schools, including the most eminent, reputation still comes before child safety and transparency,” he says.
Alex Renton at Ashdown House school and (left) there as a schoolboy. Composite: courtesy of Alex Renton. Composite: Courtesy of Alex Renton
Rather than work to understand what has happened and how to prevent it happening again, schools too often act to protect themselves and their reputations from accusations of historical child abuse. “In this context,” Renton says, “‘historic(al)’ can mean something that happened just five years ago”.
He adds: “The schools first try to placate parents, while not admitting any responsibility. If the case goes to court despite their efforts, they use very expensive lawyers to keep the school’s names out of the court papers on grounds of protecting the children. What that means is that the school’s failings in tolerating an abuser don’t get revealed so they can avoid addressing it.”
Richard Scorer, the head of abuse law at Slater & Gordon, who represented many of Jimmy Savile’s victims, has had many similar experiences. “Many private residential schools have changed their legal status over past decades – dissolving the company through which they operated and becoming a new legal entity, in some cases more than once,” he says.
“In some instances, it appears that this has been done deliberately in order to escape legal liability for past abuse. Where liabilities are not transferred to the new entity, and no insurance existed for the old one, claims for damages can be stymied and victims are left uncompensated.”
Part of the solution would be to have mandatory reporting of sexual abuse in schools. Tom Perry, founder of Mandate Now and the first complainant in the Caldicott school child sexual abuse scandal, has long campaigned for those working in schools, healthcare and faith settings to have a statutory obligation to report known or suspected abuse.
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“It sounds incredible but reporting of known or suspected abuse is discretionary,” he says. “All we have – unlike other countries including France, America and Australia – is an expectation that a report ‘should’ be made.”
Perry dismisses claims that “it’s all different now”.
“The foundations of institutional safeguarding, which we are attempting to overhaul, remain unchanged since the 50s,” he says. “The current law is an unwieldy patchwork of inconsistencies with hundreds of different rules in different places.”
In the absence of a legal overhaul, Renton believes boarding schools are simply unsafe. “I’m the first person in my family in about seven generations not to send their children to boarding school,” he says. “I just wouldn’t do it. I think it’s perfectly clear that there is a type of person who likes to prey on children in organised institutions and the law doesn’t protect children from those people, nor does it protect whistleblowers who try to help.”
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