Would a university hide a scholar who had committed a crime?

An academic’s conviction as a paedophile was kept under wraps in the 1990s. Would a cover-up happen today, asks Geoffrey Alderman

January 29, 2015

Source: James Fryer

The mindset of the university community at that time was to keep the facts of this scandal within as small a circle of academics as possible

On Tuesday 12 June 1990 I received a phone call from a then very close friend, who held a prestigious professorial appointment in the University of London. “Something” had happened, my friend told me, and he needed to see me urgently.

The earliest I could see him was at his North London home the following Thursday evening. Over the phone my friend refused to tell me what precisely he wanted to see me about. Unknown to him, I already knew.

After an early morning police raid on his home my friend had spent the night in the cells of a local police station. The following morning he had appeared before magistrates charged with three counts of indecent assault on young boys. A few weeks later my friend made a second court appearance. He pleaded guilty to the charges and was given a two-year prison sentence, inexplicably suspended. Neither of his court appearances was ever reported in the media.

Make no mistake. My friend was a first-rate academic, the author of numerous tomes, many of which are still standard works of reference. He was also an acknowledged pioneer in the use of computers in the humanities. He was more than a decade my senior. But he and I grew up in the same area of “Jewish” Hackney, and attended the same secondary school. By an odd coincidence he had actually taught me (as a primary-school supply teacher) in 1954. When he returned from the US to take up his professorship we renewed our acquaintance.

My friend was an unmarried and lonely man. My wife and I – in common with other Jewish families in North London – shared his hospitality and companionship. He abused this friendship in a despicable manner, using it to insinuate himself into the confidence of families with young boys, whom he would invite to his house, unchaperoned, for free “tuition”. And there the assaults took place.

The continuing revelations about the historic paedophilic activities of numerous celebrities, politicians and other establishment figures have inevitably reawakened in me these deeply unhappy memories. That no member of my own immediate family was numbered among his victims I owe entirely to my wife, who confessed to me after his downfall that she had seen him for what he was. I was completely taken in by him – the scholar and bon viveur, the trusted friend and colleague. He groomed me. I see that now, but I could not see it – or perhaps did not want to see it – then.

What I also see now is that, instinctively, the mindset of the university community at that time was to keep the facts of this scandal within as small a circle of academics as possible. My friend actually put it to me that he had never abused any of his students – he had, he proclaimed proudly, kept his professional life and his private life quite separate. So he did not see why he should have had to resign his chair. When I put it to him that the university could not possibly retain him in a teaching position while he served a prison sentence – albeit suspended – he blamed his victims’ parents, who had “made a fuss over nothing”. Besides, he urged, this sort of thing was unlikely to do any of his victims any “lasting” damage.

My friend had to resign his chair. But there was, nonetheless, a cover-up. The university remained silent and simply announced that he had resigned on personal grounds. A non-teaching post was found for him and his career was saved, or at least salvaged. When he died, the encomiums followed thick and fast.

I would like to think that this would not happen today. I would like to think that, today, all institutions of higher education have policies in place to address the question of convicted paedophiles on their payrolls. I would like to think that the continued presence of such individuals on campus, cosseted and celebrated, would simply be ruled out. But I cannot be sure.

Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris operated, of course, on far grander canvases. The fact is that on television they entertained millions of people – adults and children alike. And the question has been asked whether, in view of this, society has been quite fair in attempting to erase their good works from history. Personally, I do not think it has. Perhaps it is the historian in me, pulling in a different direction. By all means tell the truth, but let it be the whole truth. And the whole truth is that my friend was indeed a great scholar. He was also an evil man.

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