Strange as it may seem for an old atheist, one of my all-time favourite TV shows is Highway to Heaven, a somewhat ludicrous show in which a trainee angel, Jonathan Smith, played by Michael Landon (Little Joe from Bonanza) teams up with grumpy old codger called Mark Gordon (Victor French) to carry out God’s work. It’s so far-fetched, so unbelievable, so nonsensical that it should be unwatchable. Except that I quite like the idea of nice people doing nice things. It does not take religion to good things because everyone can do good things, so I can easily separate the fact from the fiction and the good from the bad. An episode I watched the other day, happy and uplifting though it was, made me very sad. It involved a lot of children in summer camp, being supervised, cared-for and occasionally hugged and cuddled by adults. It was a world of innocence, but that world has long gone.
Jonathan and Mark drift from town to town, usually getting jobs which involve close contact with very young children. Close physical contact too. It was all very touching. They plainly loved the kids, they encouraged them, nurtured them, they looked after them, they kept them safe. To this day I see nothing wrong about the show, even though the USA seems to have somewhat lower DBS checks than we do. The children, many of whom were “handicapped” and “retarded” (the actual words used in a show unfailingly sympathetic to them), were treated just fine. But things are not fine and dandy anymore.
I am quite sure that there are anymore paedophiles around than there used to be. No more gropers, perverts or dirty old men as we once called them. They were always there. But thanks to mass media and the internet, we now hear so much more about everything. Speaking for me, I have always been someone who doesn’t hide from physical contact. I don’t mind a hug, a cuddle a kiss – and that’s just from the lads in the pub. That’s how I am. Not with children, I hasten to add. I’d no sooner do that than make friends with children on Facebook.
We are more fearful these days than we once were. In the days of dirty old men, we regarded them as almost harmlessly eccentrics. It has taken us generations to realise that they were anything but. But can we risk taking this a bit too far?
With the end of the innocence, where trust has been broken, we now have, we now need, systems in place, not so much to thwart paedophiles – the most important aspect – but also to re-assure ourselves that our kids are safe, even when they are in the presence of people we know and trust. A few evil people have made all this necessary, just like a handful of islamic fascists have made aircraft security measures painfully slow and irritating. It only takes one pervert or one terrorist to change everything.
If Highway to Heaven came out today, I can well imagine the outcry from people asking why the hell these two grown men – both bachelors, so plainly gay paedophiles because all gays are paedophiles, right? – are travelling around the USA together, working closely with impressionable children? They’d probably get run out of town. And if Jonathan told the baying mob he was an angel, he’d probably get lynched.
The end of the innocence was, I suppose, necessary. The 1960s and 70s when I grew up weren’t regulated like things are today, lots of stuff went on behind closed doors. Didn’t it? I was never abused and have never met anyone who was (although I was forced to sit on the headmaster’s lap at senior school, as were many other boys. Nothing happened but it was very, very odd.) but I heard about boys were. Or maybe I heard stories from other boys who said they were abused by dirty old men (abused was not a word they used: it was a two word description ending in ‘off’). Anyway, I was never convinced the stories were true (they were, I found out later) and I maintained my innocence.
I am innocent no more. Like most of you, the very thought of child abuse makes me squirm and I know that I would, very probably, hurt someone, or worse, if I came into someone who was at it. I want a world where we really can trust and rely on each other, to preserve innocence and prevent abuse.
I am innocent no more and I sometimes disbelieve what and who I see. Almost everyone is sound when it comes to safeguarding children and it’s only a dirty handful who give the rest of us a bad name. And I thank an elderly TV series about a fictitious angel, and by-passing DBS rules, for reminding me.