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Why is child abuse suddenly in the spotlight in Britain?

Two government inquiries of decades-old abuses by powerful individuals are underway — spurred by the confluence of a high-profile case, police investigations, and media scrutiny.

London — This is normally a languid time of year in Westminster, with Parliament winding down for the long summer holiday. But this season, it has been anything but.

Last week saw the British government announce a pair of historic inquiries into allegations of sexual abuse of children by politicians and other figures in high authority. The inquiries, which follow a string of celebrity child abuse scandals that has dominated British headlines, point to a dramatic change here, in which many hundreds of victims of abuse by the well connected and powerful are coming forward to report decades-old crimes.

In some ways, it seems surprising that this reckoning has taken so long. But it has taken the confluence of a high-profile case, police investigations, and the media’s pursuit of a good story to create the storm that is now brewing in Westminster.

“It’s a sea change really,” says John Bird, who himself was abused as a child and now works for the National Association for People Abused in Childhood [NAPAC], which runs a telephone helpline for victims. “I never thought I would see it happening in my lifetime.”

Domino effect

Observers believe that the Westminster rumors, which have been quietly simmering for several years, have only bubbled to the surface now because of a string of celebrity convictions for sexual abuse.

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“Every time there’s one of these cases, the volume of our calls [on the NAPAC helpline] goes right up,” says Mr. Bird. “People have been given the impression that they will be taken seriously and that there could be some justice for them.”

Earlier this month, entertainer and television presenter Rolf Harris was found guilty of 12 counts of indecent assault. His adds to a litany of cases of abuse of girls and women by male celebrities, including television presenter Stuart Hall and publicist Max Clifford, who were also jailed this year.

But the real force for change came from the posthumous exposure of television presenter Jimmy Saville. Since his death in in 2011, hundreds of people, many of them children, have reported abuse at his hands, and new victims continue to come forward.

His dramatic unmasking seems to have created a climate in which victims of other celebrities have felt able to report their abuse – often decades after it took place – in the new hope that they will be taken seriously.

And the response by the police, which has set up several inquiries to encourage the victims of abuse to report crimes, has encouraged this. Many of the victims of Harris, Clifford, and Hall reported their crimes as a result of the unmasking of Saville.

Westminster next?

The media have of course played a central role in bringing these cases to light and empowering victims to speak up.

But when it comes to the Westminster reports, the media’s role has been particularly crucial. It may not be coincidence that the story really took off as the trial of tabloid journalists for phone hacking finished. Some media commentators see the many lurid headlines involving the words “Westminster” and “pedophile” as efforts by the press – in some cases conscious, in others less so – to show the government that it cannot be shackled.

Respected child protection campaigners have said that at least 10 and possibly more than 20 public figures, including current and former politicians, should be investigated over allegations they abused young children.

“The same names come up again and again,” says Mr. Bird, referring to the helpline run by NAPAC. “I warn some of the politicians who have called for inquiries that they are across political parties.”

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The long-rumored claims are not yet supported by published evidence. But the renewed speculation, combined with the rash of celebrity abuse cases, has spurred the two government inquiries announced last week by Home Secretary Theresa May.

One of the inquiries will look into reports that in the 1980s, dozens of documents relating to the systematic sexual abuse of children by people in positions of great authority, including parliamentarians, somehow disappeared from the Home Office. The other, larger inquiry will look into how child sex abuse has been handled at the country’s most important institutions: the police, churches, the health service, and political parties.

The first inquiry into the missing documents is expected to take up to 10 weeks. The second will not report back until after Britain’s general election, which takes place in May 2015.

A cautious note

People working in child protection express caution about what either inquiry and the many debates devoted to famous child abusers will achieve. Most child abuse, they say, takes part in everyday domestic settings. Most abused children are assaulted by people known to them. Around 30 percent of perpetrators are thought to be members of their victims’ immediate family.

Bird says that while abuse by the powerful is merely the tip of an awful iceberg, its exposure is helpful if it encourages victims past and present to report crimes.

“It’s all moving in the right direction,” he says. “The calls to our helpline go up every time there’s a famous case, but most of the victims on the phone have been abused by people no one has heard of.”