My neighbour of nearly ten years has been committed to Crown Court accused of sexual offences against children. Whilst it is in the local paper, let's just call him Mr X. Mr X is a public servant. I have always had a good relationship with him and his wife - they have no children. We laugh and joke together, we've been known to sit with a drink (a non-alcoholic one for him) either in a neighbourhood garden or the local cricket club bar. We've exchanged emails and we've watered each others' plants. I've driven them to catch a holiday coach in the early hours of the morning. It seems to me that we have been involved in an implicit good-neighbour pact. I have often spoken proudly to friends and family of the lovely local community which has enabled me as a single-mother to feel safe. And now I feel devastated.
I have been involved in sexual violence services for over 25 years. So I know full well that sexual abusers and sexual predators look like the rest of us. They don't have a mark on their forehead proclaiming the fact. My Mum reminded me that about ten years ago a near neighbour of hers, who was a senior administrator with a national professional association, was convicted of taking sexualised photos of his own daughter. As with my neighbours now, my Mum and her neighbours were in complete shock. However in that instance the man's wife threw him out and she got tremendous support from everyone. Mrs X is reportedly denying that there is any foundation to the charges. Perhaps there aren't. But my experience of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in sex abuse cases is that they will not take them to court unless there is sufficient, credible evidence.
In my nice, rural idyll of a neighbourhood I have believed myself to live in a safe community with like-minded people. It is not a wealthy area - we're just ordinary working people. I believed that we shared not necessarily a political outlook but a common sense of what one might call decency. Throughout her childhood I have let my daughter wander around on her own down the rear service road of our terrace of fifteen houses. When she was little she would disappear to her favourite neighbour, Mike, who lived with his wife Helen down the road. I would never have imagined that Mike would have done her harm and I am sure that he never would. But I would have felt the same way about Mr X. I am not sure what the charges actually involve but another neighbour suspected that Mr X had exposed himself via the internet to his daughter some years ago. Mr X and this neighbour have been, to my eyes, good friends.
I continue to be absorbed by this. Mr and Mrs X are nowhere to be seen. Indeed I am not sure if both of them are there - if they are then they are not talking much as I usually hear the muffled sound of voices some time during the day. They move the car each morning from their garage so that they can get into it without being seen. I am anxious as to what I should do or say to either one of them. In this instance I cannot separate the act from the perpetrator. I cannot see a fellow human being. I do not believe in innocent until proven guilty. This is not about the law but about the morality of behaviour. If he has abused a child then he is guilty of that. I would like to be supportive of Mrs X and feel some sense of the pain that she must be feeling.
And what of my beloved community? It is the first time in many years that I have considered the possibility of moving. I guess that this is the response to the shock. How will other neighbours respond? It is not about endlessly gossiping about this but about how to heal our small neighbourhood so that we once again feel safe and trusting.
All communities can be harmed by one of its member's behaviour. Within faith communities at least we occupy a common space for some time each week or month and, if we are brave enough, we can discuss any issues that arise. Each time something like this happens, it is like losing ones innocence again. I am reminded of other people's lives, people who live in areas where they cannot trust their neighbours or perhaps even their family members. The underbelly of life can be closer than we imagine. Ultimately we need to commit to grow to be bigger people than we imagined we could be. We need to respond.
For now I will let the shock and the anger have their day. I will wait for the time when compassion takes the lead and then talk with my neighbours. Not sure what we will talk about but whatever it is I need to re-establish my sense of trust in those who I share a neighbourhood with.