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Getting away with it: Jimmy Savile, Laurens van der Post, and Eric Gill

The current furore over the unmasking of the late Jimmy Savile as a paedophile reminds me of two other once-revered figures who also 'got away with it' by dying before their misdemeanours came to light.

One was Sir Laurens van der Post (1906-96). Storyteller, J.D.F. Jones's biography of this erstwhile guru, informs us that his numerous sexual liasons were conducted with little apparent regard for the feelings of the women concerned. More than once, it seems, an unwanted pregnancy was the signal for Laurens to decamp hurriedly and disappear. But the most startling episode of the kind occurred when, at the age of 43, he seduced and made pregnant a 14-year-old South African girl who had been placed in his care. This event, which would have ruined Laurens if it had become known in his lifetime, was not revealed until after his death.

The other figure was Eric Gill (1882-1940). He was a renowned sculptor and designer, a group of whose sculptures can be seen on the front of BBC Broadcasting House in London. Like Savile, he was a Roman Catholic. He was deeply religious but his personal diaries recount repeated episodes, not merely of paedophilia, but of incest. As his entry in Wikipedia states, 'Gill sexually abused his own children, had an incestuous relationship with his sister and performed sexual acts on his dog. This aspect of Gill's life was little known until publication of the 1989 biography by Fiona MacCarthy. The earlier biography by Robert Speaight mentioned none of it.'

The Tibetans, it is said, hold that you should not expect a guru to be a guru all the time. Instead, you should recognise that all gurus are flawed and should try to catch the guru when he is being a guru. This may be true, but these three individuals do seem to have taken matters to extremes.

Note added 24 February 2020: The disclosure of sexual abuse of women over many years by Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, an international federation of communities spread over 37 countries for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them, should he mentioned here. Vanier, who died in 2019, had been praised for his work by Pope Francis and was revered as a spiritual adviser by many; he might even have seemed a possible candidate for sainthood. Unlike the other two people I refer to in this post, Vanier was confronted by one of the women involved shortly before his death, but the full extent of his activities didn't come to light until later.

A full account of this affair has been published by L'Arche International and is available online. See the Wikipedia article on Vanier for more details and links.


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