The Scottish referendum is, of course, of huge importance – but, at some point, the public agenda really needs to get back to the unresolved horror of the Rotherham abuse scandal.

For instance, we barely seem to have noticed that the story made headlines around the world. How we deal with the referendum result won’t be the only thing on which we’re judged as a nation.

In a deeply insightful piece for the New York Times, Ross Douthat argues that Rotherham deserves a “suitable place of dishonor in the waking nightmare that is late summer 2014.” And despite all the terrible things going on in the world right now, he’s not wrong.

Douthat is a conservative and a Catholic and he’s more than aware of the political and cultural dimensions of the scandal:

“Interpreted crudely, what happened in Rotherham looks like an ideological mirror image of Roman Catholicism’s sex abuse scandal. The Catholic crisis seemed to vindicate a progressive critique of traditionalism…

“The crimes in Rotherham, by contrast, seem scripted to vindicate a reactionary critique of liberal multiculturalism…” 

He’s certainly not saying that we should overlook the particular circumstances of what happened in Rotherham, but he implores us to also beyond them:

“The crucial issue in both scandals isn’t some problem that’s exclusive to traditionalism or progressivism. Rather, it’s the protean nature of power and exploitation, and the way that very different forms of willful blindness can combine to frustrate justice.

“So instead of looking for ideological vindication in these stories, it’s better to draw a general lesson. Show me what a culture values, prizes, puts on a pedestal, and I’ll tell you who is likely to get away with rape.”

In Catholic Ireland “that meant men robed in the vestments of the church.” Elsewhere, the hero worship might attach to football coaches, teachers or TV stars:

“And in Rotherham, it meant men whose ethnic and religious background made them seem politically untouchable, and whose victims belonged to a class that both liberal and conservative elements in British society regard with condescension or contempt.

“The point is that as a society changes, as what’s held sacred and who’s empowered shifts, so do the paths through which evil enters in, the prejudices and blind spots it exploits.”

In 2001, a special episode of Brass Eye, lampooned what was presented as a panic reaction to the paedophile threat. The tabloids branded the show as sick and 3,000 complaints were received from the public. Meanwhile, more ‘sophisticated’ types congratulated themselves on their recognition of the programme’s ironic humour.

Looking back, it is clear that it was the supposed ‘hysteria’ that was exaggerated, not the threat from organised abusers. Granted, there will always be people like the idiots who didn’t know the difference between a paedophile and a paediatrician, but that’s unimportant compared to the enormity of what happened in Rotherham and elsewhere.

Time and time again we’ve seen abusers operate in plain sight and on a horrific scale. And on each occasion when the truth is finally exposed, we claim to be shocked and ask why nothing was done sooner.

The underlying truth that we find difficult to accept is that active paedophiles are among us, that they are organised and that they know how to manipulate not just their victims, but our wider respect for authority, celebrity and, yes, diversity:

“…your assumptions and pieties are evil’s best opportunity, and your conventional wisdom is what’s most likely to condemn victims to their fate.”