Another day and the revelations of lives wrecked by sexual exploitation continue to grow. A few hundred more unnamed individuals are added to the list – victims let down by those whose job it should have been to protect them. The revelations of child exploitation and abuse in Rotherham last year were horrific enough. And then there was Oxford, and now we have Sheffield to deal with. Surely the question now is: ‘Where next?’
In just over half a year more than 2,000 individuals have been identified as having been subjected to appalling treatment and then neglected by the authorities. It is truly one of the great scandals of our time. The treatment of the most vulnerable and weak is an indication of how civilised and just our society is, and in this matter we have been weighed and found wanting. Behind these faceless numbers are individuals; many with troubled backgrounds and all with searing scars which they will carry for the rest of their lives. Their stories tell of the continual abdication of responsibility by the adults around them, who by their actions and inaction have stripped these children layer by layer of their dignity and self-worth.
Those in care have not been placed there through choice. Most have already had to endure family breakdown, death, parental addictions and domestic violence. Their care providers have not intervened when the children found themselves being exploited. The worst perpetrators of all, who have deliberately set out to abuse and cause harm, have treated them as nothing more than meat to be thrown about to satisfy their own twisted gratifications. Authorities have sought to suppress the truth, and the police have treated them as an inconvenience best ignored.
The message to these mostly young girls is that they are of no value; they are the dregs that weren’t worth protecting. If they were abused, it was their problem.
In the cold light of day this is sickening stuff. It is a reminder of just how fallen humanity is. Self-interest so often comes at the expense of others. If allowed to consume us it can turn to depravity and that depravity can lead to a complete disregard for the ones we have chosen to hate. For those on the outside looking in, apathy and ambivalence can become just as dangerous as the deviant crimes which others perpetrate. There is little for the offenders to fear.
In this appalling mess, hope is in short supply: a hope that things can be different; a hope that the exploitation will end, that institutions will be places of safety and security and authorities will use their power to good effect. Most of all, hope is desperately needed for those who have had any glimmers of it extinguished.
Next Tuesday, one rare glimmer will shine a bit brighter. The Modern Slavery Bill will finally be approved by Parliament. It is the first bill of its kind in Europe, covering not just slavery in this country, but people trafficking, sexual abuse and exploitation, too – all offences which have been identified in Rotherham, Oxford, Sheffield and beyond. It will not solve everything or ease past hurts, but it will provide the necessary structures and resources to pursue those who commit these heinous crimes against children, and provide victims with essential support.
It is a genuine sign of hope, and, like many places where hope springs up, the source has a divine dimension to it. In the last decade Christians have become increasingly passionate about the issue of people trafficking and exploitation both here and abroad. Organisations including International Justice Mission, Stop the Traffik, Hope for Justice and the Salvation Army have been working tirelessly to combat such crimes. But Christians have also been working behind the scenes. A desire to see wrongs righted is of little use unless our laws permit the police and other bodies to take effective action to prosecute and protect. It is in this regard that members of the Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF) have been instrumental in producing meaningful legislation.
The CCF has worked alongside a number of campaigning organisations, bringing them into Parliament to meet with backbenchers, ministers and secretaries of state. This important work, along with the efforts of Christians on the Left , the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum, CARE and the Evangelical Alliance as well as significant research from the Centre for Social Justice, has allowed the Modern Slavery Bill to gain support across Parliament.
As with all legislation, this Bill has required a great deal of work to ensure it will be fit for purpose. As it has been shaped, the wisdom and expertise of these Christian organisations have been vital in spotting loopholes for traffickers, or highlighting the current gaps in resource for victims. The strength of relationships which have developed between Christian MPs and Christian organisations working in the field, and between both of these and Government ministers, has meant that discussions have been fluent and collaboration valuable. These deepening affiliations have been possible through the ongoing work of the CCF and others. Without the lobbying and persistent work of Christians, the Modern Slavery Bill would undoubtedly have failed to achieved the prominence and fulfilment that it has.
As the darkness of child exploitation and the victims of abuse continues to be exposed, there is a longing for righteous anger. There is an obscene stain on society which needs to be erased, but until those who are in positions of power can see the children for the wounded souls they are, the suffering will continue. The authorities have repeatedly failed in their duty, and we need something more.
When we see the world through God’s eyes, the pain does not disappear. Instead, it cuts to the core. But out of that grief rises hope, because with and through God we see that nothing is impossible. It spurs us on to bring healing and restoration which can result in great things. The Modern Slavery Bill is testimony to that. May it be a divine sign of hope to all those who have been treated with contempt, hatred and disdain that there is a promise of faith and an assurance of security.