when the ‘saviour’ abuses: Simon Harris, charities and sexual abuse

News media on Tuesday reported that Simon Harris had been found guilty of sexually abusing Kenyan boys in Gilgil while running an education charity. He was accused of luring the boys, who all lived on the street, into his home in Kenya by promising food, money and school education and threatening them with death if they told anyone what he had done to them. The jury convicted him of five cases of sexual assault, three indecent assaults and possession of four indecent images. One of the boys who survived this sexual violence was six years old. Another boy killed himself before the jury reached its verdict.

Police say this sexual abuse went on for more than a decade and that these children are likely to be only a few of potentially hundreds who were abused. According to Mary Coulson who heads a charity to support street children in Gilgil, ‘We learned the street kids, the vast majority, if not all of the boys, had been involved in some way with Simon Harris. This has been going on for 20 years.’

A former teacher, Harris started the charity VAE in the mid 1990s after organising school expedition trips to Kenya. Its aim, to give British young people opportunities to do gap years teaching Kenyan children, is hardly one I support given my view that these gap years benefit the usually privileged people who do them much more than those they are supposed to be helping – but that’s an issue for another post.

Harris started VAE shortly after he was barred from teaching in Britain – because of his history of sexual abuse against boys. In the 1980s, he pleaded guilty to six charges of indecent assault against three boys at boarding school Shebbear College at which he was teaching Latin. He spent 15 months in jail for possessing indecent images of children. The parents of the boys did not want to prosecute but the Secretary of State for Education was informed and Harris was banned from teaching in British state schools.

The sexual exploitation and abuse came to light due to a Channel 4 team making a documentary about Restart, a charity working with street children in Gilgil. Filmmaker Wael Dabbous and social worker Dan Nderitu started gathering evidence from street children who spoke of being sexually abused by Harris. Their testimonies was gathered and the West Mercia Police started investigating as a result.

All kudos to Wael Dabbous, Dan Nderitu, Cathy Newman and Channel 4 for investigating this when the possibility first occurred, going back to follow up and bringing this to light. Well done to those involved, including the West Mercia police, for their investigation and prosecution of what is landmark case: the first time a British man has been convicted for sexual offences that took place in Africa. Investigation, arrest and prosecution here are important signs that international borders (although serving as other kinds of barriers) are increasingly not preventing the pursuit of justice for crimes of sexual and gender based violence.

It is an incredible story, seemingly made for the Hollywood treatment – of course from the point of view of the suitably charismatic A-list actors (Nicole? Angelina? George?) who would be portrayed as swooping in and ‘saving’ Kenyan street children.

However, reading about this case raised serious concerns for me. I have four main sets of questions.

What mechanisms are in place to support the survivors of abuse? No matter how gentle the criminal justice process may have tried to make it for these children, the whole procedure – arriving at a hotel, the video link with a British courtroom, examination and cross-examination by foreign lawyers, cannot but have added to the trauma of the sexual abuse that they experienced. Indeed, many survivors talk of how they feel re-victimised and re-traumatised by the criminal justice process.

Beyond the court case, I hope the children concerned will be supported by those in Gilgil, in terms of pursuing livelihood options, combating stigma and shame for the sexual abuse and, importantly, in the provision of counselling and other psychosocial services. Given the unknown numbers of street children who may have been sexually abused by Harris, this needs not only to focus on the ones that testified, but also reach those that the police do not even know about.

Why did Simon Harris hold this post in the first place? It is noticeable that the charity for which he worked has not been much mentioned in the news coverage. I have no doubt that this is a deliberate so as to protect their name and reputation. This makes sense, providing they truly bear no responsibility for what happened.

However, reading that Simon Harris is listed on the sex offenders’ register rings major alarm bells. Organisations, when they hire people who will have any contact with children, require them to undertake a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), formerly referred to as a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB), check. The aim of this is specifically to screen out those who are unsuitable for work that involves children or vulnerable adults. I have had to fill out a CRB form at least four times for different jobs and volunteering in my life. When I accepted the offer for my current job, one of the first things I had to do was fill in a CRB check. This was despite the fact that I was actually to have little contact with children in my work. Indeed, the most often way that I interact with children at work is when their parents (mothers) bring them to meetings or workshops.

When reading the story, I kept wondering why, given Simon Harris was appointed by a British charity, did they not require him to fill in a DBS/ CRB form? This would have straight away flagged his previous history of sexual abuse of children under his care. I believe in rehabilitation of offenders and that, once someone has served their time, they should not be penalised for their criminal history. However, someone who has a history of sexually abusing children should not be put in a position where he has power over children. His behaviour, not only amounted to sexual abuse and a crime, but was also an abuse of his position. In this case, the head of an education charity promised young, vulnerable street boys access to education in order to get them into his house.

What seemed to me like an appalling lack of due diligence by a nameless charity became clearer when I read that Simon Harris set up VAE, the organisation concerned. What kinds of regulation or standards are followed when the person in question is the one in charge?

Why did magistrates overturn a ban on him travelling to Kenya? He said he had notified Kenyan authorities of his conviction and that the police there would monitor his actions. It turns out he had doctored these documents, but even if this was true, what was the reasoning of magistrates that a man who had plead guilty to indecent assault against children and been barred from working in state schools in England should continue doing education work with children in Kenya? A serious case review has been launched into the case to see if authorities should have done anything differently. I hope they can learn from this to make sure that nothing similar happens again.

How much of all of this was influenced by the fact that it was Kenyan street children in question? Not only were they African children in a far off land, but also they were street children and therefore some of the most vulnerable and marginalised. Their realities were such that boys were willing to endure abuse to get food and shelter. According to Kelvin Lay, a National Crime Agency child abuse investigator, ‘One victim described it as the difference between heaven and hell. It was like they were suffering this sexual abuse to be in heaven rather than going back to hell.’

Considered ‘vermin’ by many, who would have listened to them? Even if they had tried to speak out before, they would have been highly likely to be dismissed. After all, who would believe the word of boys living on the street against that of a middle aged white British male charity head? Even if they had believed them, very few would have gone up against the hierarchies of whiteness, maleness and Britishness in power.

After all, like peacekeepers before them, charity workers, especially white ones from Europe, North America or Australian, are considered as ‘saviours’, selflessly working for those poorer and less fortunate than themselves. Makua Matua writes of the Saviours – Victims – Savages triad of international human rights discourse whereby (black/ brown) victims have to be rescued from (black/brown) savages by (white) saviours. It is difficult enough to persuade people to interrogate this white saviour complex, let alone think that these ‘saviours’ can be abusers. Sexual abuse and exploitation in peacekeeping forces was exposed many years ago but progress to prevent and adequately respond to this continues to be slow. Let us hope that this case, if nothing else, leads to scrutiny, oversight and accountability of charity and aid workers.

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