Bob Hewitt got away with his sex crimes for thirty years, but this week the cocky, sunburnt Australian tennis pro was convicted of sexually assaulting three children. All of them - Suellen Sheehan, Theresa Tolkien and an unnamed woman - had been his protégés. He coached them tennis. He was in a position of authority and trust. It is apparent, from the testimony of these now adult women, that they had been in awe of him – desiring of his approval, deserving of his care. Hewitt however broke every single bond – legal, social and parental - when he abused them.
(This article first appeared in the Sunday Times 29 March 2015.)
Hewitt is yet another celebrity sexual predator brought to justice by the determination and bravery of his victims. Yet another man who used his glamour and fame to coerce young children to have sex with him – his victims’ court testimony is harrowing – and then to carry his dirty secret for him for decades.
There have been a slew of cases like this one in England since the abuse perpetrated by Jimmy Savile was exposed. All of them against celebrities who, like Hewitt, populated our television screens, newspapers and imaginations. All of them serial abusers who used their status to gain unfettered access to the children’s bodies to which they felt entitled. Like Hewitt, all these men denied guilt, adding insult to injury by forcing their victims to relive the pain and humiliation of the childhood abuse with which they have lived for decades.
Hewitt, Savile, Max Clifford, Gary Glitter, Rolf Harris and others of this ilk, have been felled one after the other by the halting, painful words of middle-aged women and men telling the stories of their lost child-selves, the pain they endured, the terror, the silence. Bob Hewitt’s expression while he sat in the dock was the same as the other famous men who have been put on trial for what are termed ‘historical sex crimes’. The same look of stunned disbelief that this is happening to them, a look of innocence that is echoed in the initial denials of the charges. The aggressive bluster by the accused is that he will sue, that these people are making things up, that they are hysterical, monstrous, trying to get attention or money.
In Hewitt’s trial, as it was with the other celebrity child molesters, the hollow assertions that if anything did happen then it was all just a bit of fun, that he loved children, that he would never do them harm, that he meant no harm, that he cannot remember. The pattern is the same despite the growing weight of evidence.
Then came the women’s heartbreaking evidence, painfully gleaned from wrecked childhoods. “I didn’t know what was happening,” said one. “I was 12 years old.” That testimony – crucial for this conviction – is also the window into the corrosive shame, the fear and the disorientation that those children felt when they were attacked.
Chilling as the thought is, it is quite possible, however, that the celebrity predator does not remember. It’s quite possible that his look of aggrieved innocence is genuine because the perpetrator does not believe that any crime was committed and hey, if it was, times were different back then. And anyway it was all just a little bit of fun between friends – one much older male friend, one young, powerless, female and afraid – but friends just the same. And anyway, if it did happen, it was so long ago that it doesn’t matter now anyway.
But it does. It matters very much. The ‘times’ were never different. The rape of children has always been criminal. These trials are not about shifting social mores. They are about violence, violation and justice.
“He took my innocence.” That is the haunting refrain that ran through the testimony in Hewitt’s trial. That loss of innocence speaks to so many other losses of security – of trust, of that vital sense of bodily integrity, of security in a world where protectors turn predatory. These are life-long wounds that the survivors of sexual violence carry with them in their hearts once the violated body has healed. These are not wounds that heal with time – there is no statue of limitation for pain, but part of the healing lies with legal redress.
In Hewitt’s trial, Judge Bert Bam declared that “time did not erase the crimes”. The well-worn phrase “justice delayed is justice denied” is usually wheeled out in relation to the defendant. In this trial it applies to the plaintiffs. It has taken a very long time for these three victims of Hewitt’s outrages – there were mentions of other girls who had suffered similarly at his hands – to be heard, to reply.
Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel Lolita is instructive – it is the defining portrait of the theft of a child’s innocence, bodily integrity and autonomy. The story of Lolita is told from the perspective of Humbert Humbert, the paedophile who details his corruption of “his” bobby-socked twelve year old “nymphet”, reducing and silencing her, much as Hewitt attempted to do to the girls he abused.
Lolita details both the furtive violence and the deception that sexual predators find so easy to perpetrate and get away with in a world in which adults have power and children do not. In this trial three women fought for their right to reply, for their right to have the truth told. Bob Hewitt’s crimes have garnered a great deal of attention because of his celebrity, but it is important to remember that for a child all adults are “celebrities”. They are big, they are in control, they are competent, they must be obeyed as these women testified. “I didn’t know what was happening, I was 12 years old,” said one woman. “I was extremely scared. I had a respect for adults and I did what I was told.”
This is what makes children such easy victims and it is also what silences them. Hewitt knew this – as Nabokov so clearly did too when he detailed Humbert Humbert’s manipulation and rape of Lolita. “A guilty person should not go unpunished,” said Judge Bam when he found Hewitt guilty. “The scales of justice tip against the accused.”
Hewitt has been found guilty and although that will never return to his victims the innocence of their childhoods, their courage in pursuing this case will hopefully give the still silenced Lolita’s the right to reply and to avenge the wrongs done to them. DM
Margie Orford is President of PEN South Africa. Her latest novel, Water Music, is published by Jonathan Ball.