The media noise of the Ghislaine Maxwell trial drowned out victim’s voices. The ‘socialite’s’ fall eclipsed the pain of lives devastated by organised criminal exploitation. Ghislaine Maxwell was found, through due process, to be a groomer and trafficker of vulnerable children.
What does it do to the life of a young teenager to be groomed for exploitation? Groomers have a laser-focused recruitment strategy. They identify, target and exploit the most vulnerable children and young people. Children who are already in pain. Those who feel unloved or unworthy. Those already affected by violence. Girls without a reliable adult to call for advice on an offer of a trip or friendship from an older stranger. Groomers take broken lives and break them further. They are ruthless and heartless.
Our society lacks both understanding of the grooming process and compassion for the victims. The victims evoke misogyny and class prejudice. That prejudice prevents or delays prosecution. Trauma, the lapsed time and absence of witnesses to sex crimes means testimonies can be inconsistent. Former Public Prosecutor for North- West England Nazir Afzal said that inconsistency itself is a sign of the authenticity of the testimony.
From a base of vulnerability, the victims show heroic tenacity in fighting their case. Defence lawyers try to denigrate their character. The strategy is to brazenly play into public prejudice and re-traumatize the victims. The use of a ‘false testimony’ expert was rightfully dismissed by the judge and jury at the Maxwell trial. Do we as a society believe allowing defence lawyers to roast traumatised victims of historic child sex abuse is a pathway to a fair hearing? Is it in the public interest? Does it serve justice?
Maxwell’s defence team requested a retrial on finding a juror mentioned lived experience of child abuse during jury deliberations-as if this was an outlier. According to CDC population surveillance data, between 11 and 20% of adults experienced sexual abuse as children. Data from the Council of Europe shows 1 in 5 European adults experienced sexual abuse as children. Tragically, child sex abuse is not marginal it is mainstream. A jury that did not include survivors of abuse would in itself be an anomaly-and arguably itself an injustice for a trial on organised sexual abuse.
The 2021 prosecution of Ghislaine Maxwell is rare and hopeful. Before Nazir Afzal re-opened a case against grooming gangs in Rochdale in England they had abused an estimated 1400 children with impunity between 1997 and 2013. Hundreds of complaints of systematic abuse were met with fear, incompetence and misguided politics. The eventual successful prosecution was a game-changing breakthrough.
Where do we go from here? Investigate those implicated in this case without fear or favour, regardless of how powerful they are. Turbo-charge the capacity of justice and police systems to detect, disrupt and destroy grooming gangs whether managed by Rochdale roughnecks or Manhattan socialites. Beyond that we need to address vulnerability. The first line of defence is family, friends and community. Investment in services that support families and communities to protect children and help them flourish. This enriches our society and yields an unrivaled return on public investment.
The case in Rochdale was a pre-cursor for the #MeToo movement in the UK. #MeToo later exposed widespread sexual violence against women and girls everywhere. It networked victims and activists to dismantle the structural inequalities and barriers that protect perpetrators and bring them to justice. We can build on that by scaling up action to prosecute the organised gangs that so ruthlessly exploit our most vulnerable children and young people.