The British like to think themselves a stolid people, but in truth they are prone to spasms of hysteria. One of these is currently taking place, and profoundly ugly it looks. The nation is convulsed about paedophilia. The proximate cause is a torrent of accusations of abuse of minors laid against the late television presenter Jimmy Savile. This, in turn, has triggered a wave of other charges, including claims of systemic molestation in north Wales care homes in the 1970s.

One victim asserts that an earlier official inquiry was a cover-up. A Conservative politician of the Thatcher era, still living, has been accused of complicity, though this is now said to be a case of mistaken identity. On Thursday the prime minister suffered a grotesque onscreen confrontation, a disgrace to ITV, in which he was invited – in a fashion worthy of Senator Joseph McCarthy – to address a list of 40 named paedophiles allegedly circulating on the internet.

Theresa May, the home secretary, has announced a new inquiry into the north Wales care homes. Savile’s conduct at various institutions, some of whose former inmates have made charges that include rape, is also being examined.

When the first wave of allegations emerged, I was among those who believed that an investigation was necessary into the role of the BBC, Savile’s employer, in his sordid career. It seems dismaying that the Newsnight programme commissioned a film probing Savile’s past, then dropped it without a convincing explanation, allowing the BBC to broadcast a string of laudatory Christmas tributes to its old star.

But in the weeks since those charges, claims about paedophilia have become increasingly crazed. Scores of people are making charges against alleged abusers in their past. The police are obliged to lavish overstretched resources on inquiries. Ministers feel trapped: if they fail to respond, they are accused of indifference or, worse, of concealing sexual crimes to shield the mighty. A chain reaction has set in. Every new allegation brings frenzied media coverage, which in turn encourages new alleged victims to step forward.

Mercifully, David Cameron is resisting calls for a so-called overarching inquiry, embracing all current allegations of child abuse against public figures. One might as well propose a royal commission into rape, or into substance abuse by rock stars. At a time when Britain faces serious economic and political problems, other nations gaze in the amazement at the spectacle of its top politicians and policemen forced to preside over what amounts to an archaeological dig. Indeed, Roman excavations are more fruitful, as they involve tangible remains. Who can anticipate useful conclusions about alleged crimes from as long as four decades ago, for which there is no substantial evidence, only unsupported oral testimony?

A brave politician might tell the public some of the following. Savile seems to have been a deeply unpleasant man who behaved appallingly to underage girls and should have been exposed. But, while paedophilia is a repugnant crime, some children make unwarranted and damaging allegations, and all such claims must be investigated with respect for the rights of the accused.

Whatever happened in north Wales care homes 40 years ago, it will be almost impossible to establish the truth at this distance of time, and it is a waste of taxpayers’ money to try to do so. While every reasonable precaution must be taken to prevent men from sexually abusing children, such crimes must be kept in the context of other evils in the world.

But this is hard to achieve in modern Britain. The late Daily Mail editor Sir David English observed 20 years ago that paedophilia had become, in the eyes of the public informed by the media, the only unpardonable crime. Fraud, robbery, mugging, burglary – even rape and murder – may sometimes eventually be forgiven. But no such indulgence is available to child abusers.

This was not always so. In the era when I was at boarding school, and for many decades before, everybody sniggered about the fact that some schoolmasters – and schoolmistresses – sexually exploited pupils. Cynics said: why else would they take the job? In the Church, and especially the Catholic Church, it is now plain that such malpractices have been widespread. What is remarkable is that many victims have gone on to lead apparently normal lives, though of course some do not.

The public obsession with paedophilia now obliges art galleries and auctioneers to exercise extreme care in marketing images of children. Many honourable and admirable people who work with the young must exercise elaborate care to avoid casual physical contact with their charges. Most children have lost the sort of freedom we knew at their age, roaming London streets and country lanes alone, unsupervised – and without fear.

This is madness. Child abuse is a reality, and an exceptionally unpleasant one. But as with all other forms of crime, it demands a proportionate response, such as is entirely absent today. Savile seems to have been a nasty piece of work who made fools out of everybody, possibly with the tacit acquiescence of some senior broadcast executives. But paedophilia remains a marginal social problem, not a national plague. I doubt that I should dare to say that, however, if I was a politician seeking re-election.

The writer is an FT contributing editor

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