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Features / Sex abusers ‘place their victims in a prison’

Iain Souter of Victim Support Shetland

 

FOLLOWING on from last week’s article about a man who was subjected to vicious sexual abuse as a child on a Shetland fishing boat, Neil Riddell has been speaking to Iain Souter of the isles’ Victim Support service about why it is so vital for those who have been abused to seek help and counselling.

“THERE are bad things happening to good people,” says retired police officer Iain Souter. Since leaving the police force – where he was often tasked to deal with horrible cases of sexual abuse – he has been working on a part-time  basis for Victim Support Scotland in the islands.

Originally from Barra, the mild-mannered Souter has lived and worked in island communities including the Western Isles and Shetland. He intimately knows the nature of such places and the potential pitfalls (as well as the benefits) when it comes to dealing with those who have suffered from such abuse.

“You don’t air your dirty laundry, and when you do a lot of people tend to think ‘well, it’s none of my business’,” Souter says. “Rural communities tend to be more old-fashioned, the way things used to be in the halcyon days.

“People look out for one another and know one another’s business, to an extent, but what happens behind closed doors is another matter.

“It has so many pluses, an island community like Shetland – I wouldn’t live here otherwise – but there’s an archetype or a stereotype of a male-dominated society. That is changing, but I have found that in some people, where what a husband does to his wife behind closed doors is concerned, that’s [viewed as] conjugal rights.”

A safe place to talk in confidence

The isles-based victim support service has recently moved to Market House, where Iain shares an office with Rape Crisis Shetland’s new support worker Linda Gray.

Previously based in Lerwick Police Station, Souter hopes the change of location will encourage those perhaps reluctant to talk on police premises to come forward and seek help dealing with the aftermath of abuse.

Though it is hoped attitudes are changing, not least in the wake of the Jimmy Saville scandal, there remains reluctance among some victims to report crimes to the police.

Victim Support Shetland, though, offers individuals a safe place to talk in confidence. Volunteers will only involve the authorities in cases where they believe abuse may be ongoing.

Souter says such abuse could take many forms: bullying, harassment, physical, emotional and sexual.

“We cover the entire gamut,” he tells Shetland News. “If you’re a victim of a crime, what mechanisms, and what support they have helps them cope with that.

“The more serious the offence against the person, the psychological and physical impact it has on them, the greater the need there is for an agency like Victim Support, who are discreet, completely confidential, and quite often… it’s easier to speak to a stranger rather than someone who may have preconceived judgements or notions because they know whoever it is you’re talking about.”

‘It’s never about us, it’s about them’

Cases of sexual abuse in particular are something people often really don’t want to know about, Souter believes. If every victim of abuse were to come forward the small service would be overwhelmed: “We couldn’t deal with them – we’d be swamped.”

“Some older folk wouldn’t like to countenance the fact that that could actually happen in Shetland,” he continues, “and if it does, it’s come through the sooth mooth and it couldn’t be something homegrown.”

Does he believe there are a significant number of undetected victims of sexual abuse living in Shetland today? “It wouldn’t surprise me. Maybe not hundreds, but I know quite a few people who I suspect, or who have indicated to me, that they have been victims of abuse at one time or another, but have never been able to tell the police.”

Souter is not a trained counsellor, but both as a police officer and with Victim Support Shetland, he has long experience of dealing with victims of “the worst abuse you could imagine, and that has instilled in me a desire to help those who are abused at any level”.

“There’s nothing anyone could tell me now which I haven’t dealt with in the police, and I always maintain in my mind that however I feel is only a small fraction of how that victim feels. It’s the little maxim that my volunteer and I both have: it’s never about us, it’s about them.”

He works with a “fabulous” unpaid volunteer who has kept the service running almost single-handedly for six months, with telephone support from Inverness, while also supporting a husband who is dependent on her.

Victim Support Shetland can act as a “lynchpin or a gateway” to other services including Rape Crisis, Women’s Aid, local drugs services, counselling, rehabilitation and the NHS’s psychological services.

Several people came forward late last year to highlight shortcomings in mental health services in the islands. Souter says: “There is a waiting list, but the service is there, it is working and it is helping people, and it’s vital.”

The Victim Support service aids people all the way through the process of dealing with abuse – right up to sitting alongside victims when they come to give evidence in court. It can be crucial to have “that little bit of strength they need to get through the process of giving evidence, particularly important when it’s child witnesses”.

It is essential victims have a safe way to talk to others about what they have been through in order to break the hold abusers still have over them, sometimes years after the abuse has stopped.

“An abuser wants to isolate their victim, have them feeling that they’re alone, that no one will believe them, that it’s pointless to speak out,” he explains. “They’re placing their victim in a prison, an emotional prison. That prison can last a lifetime.

“It can impact on everything down to your relationship with your partner and even your children, but knowing that you can speak out, that there’s somebody out there who believes you, who offers support…

“For every negative aspect social media has, that’s one of the huge positives. Someone in Shetland can put something on Facebook and someone in Australia can say ‘God bless you, I know what you’re going through, I’m sending you my love’.”

Cases can be resurrected years later

The need for corroboration – as in the harrowing case highlighted by Shetland News last week – can present difficulties in convicting offenders, even in cases where the police have no doubt that the victim is telling the truth.

Souter refers to the Moorov doctrine, stemming from a 1930 case in Glasgow’s High Court where it was decided that several victims’ testimonies to a specific pattern of behaviour could be used to corroborate one another.

“An abuser tends to have a pattern of abuse – the way they groom their victim, the type of abuse they go for, the particular way, the things they say… the location might be the same, so you look for aspects which corroborate one another.

“That could be corroborated across the years – if they offended in 1995, 2005, 2015, victims separated by a decade each. If these victims aren’t known to each other, but their accounts match in such a way that it’s as if they were in the same room, that could be held to corroborate one another.

“It has led to some significant convictions. There’s been at least one previous conviction that I’ve been involved in where the Moorov doctrine was successfully applied and the man was jailed for eight years.”

Souter has himself worked on cases where, due to the absence of such corroboration, the procurator fiscal elected not to proceed with a prosecution.

But he stresses that does not mean cases are closed: if other victims come forward with an account containing similarities, they would be “resurrected, reopened and investigated as to whether the person disclosing for the first time tallies with [the original complaint], and if there’s enough points of similarity”.

People tend to be understanding

Police officers are, of course, aware that allegations can be made against innocent people. But Souter believes the Moorov doctrine protects the innocent, because if allegations are false, you wouldn’t expect similar, detailed accounts from other victims.

He says people in Shetland tend to be “rather understanding” when victims do come forward – “if anything, a lot more so than I would have expected of a small island community”.

But that does not change the fact that abuse is almost certainly going on under the radar.

“Abuse can be perpetrated in the home, in the workplace, in schools, anywhere,” Souter says. “You can’t look at somebody and say ‘that is an abuser’. There’s no mark that they wear, no sign around their neck, and similarly there is no sign around the neck of a victim.

“But there can be indications – changes in behaviour, erratic behaviour, self harm, withdrawal from family and friends, and a descent into substance abuse. These are all signs that can manifest when particularly young people have been abused.”

He has dealt with cases of domestic physical and emotional abuse stretching over decades. Such behind-closed-doors abuse can take the form, for example, of husbands who “feel they can raise their hands, control who they [their wife] talks to, where they go, what they wear…”

“There are traditions whereby in Western society a husband still dominates his wife. That has changed dramatically in the last few decades, but there are still vestiges of it left, still people who feel they can act in that way and victimise their spouse or partner, so domestic abuse in a place like Shetland can be very serious.

“More so because the victim rarely feels as if he/she can tell anybody – if they feel they’re being judged by anybody, it’s drilled into them that they’ve done wrong, they don’t want their friends, neighbours and family to look upon them as lesser, and they tend to withdraw and bottle it up.”

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