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BBC boss: Corporate culture aided abuser Savile

LONDON -- The BBC has become the latest large institution to find itself accused of failing to stop sex abusers in its midst, with its chief acknowledging Tuesday that a "cultural problem" within the broadcaster had allowed the late TV host Jimmy Savile to molest children and teenagers for decades.

BBC director-general George Entwistle told British lawmakers that it is too early to say whether sexual abuse had been endemic within Britain's publicly funded national broadcaster. But he acknowledged there had been "a problem of culture within the BBC ... a broader cultural problem" that allowed Savile's behavior to go unchecked.

"There is no question that what Jimmy Savile did and the way the BBC behaved ... will raise questions of trust for us and reputation for us," Entwistle said. "This is a gravely serious matter, and one cannot look back at it with anything other than horror."

Entwistle's testimony before the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee came a day after the BBC aired a powerful documentary about the corporation's role in the expanding sex abuse scandal involving Savile, who died a year ago at age 84.

Since Savile's death, scores of women and several men have come forward to say the entertainer _ a longtime host of music and children's programs including "Top of the Pops" and "Jim'll Fix It" _ abused them when they were children or teenagers. Police have identified more than 200 potential victims.

Entwistle said the BBC is looking into historical allegations of sexual abuse or harassment against "between eight and 10" past and present employees as it investigates whether Savile was at the heart of a wider pedophile ring within the corporation.

The BBC, one of the world's largest and most respected broadcasters, is under fire for failing to stop the abuse and for pulling an expose on Savile from TV schedules at the last minute in December. The sex allegations were later aired on the rival ITV network.

The head of the BBC's "Newsnight" program, Peter Rippon, has been suspended pending an investigation of his decision to scrap the Savile story.

Monday's documentary, which was watched by more than 5 million people, presented the unusual spectacle of BBC journalists grilling their own bosses about why the piece had been dropped.

In an attempt to get to the bottom of the story, the parliamentary committee spent two hours Tuesday questioning Entwistle, who has been in the BBC's top job for just a month, after years in senior news and current affairs roles.

It may also want to question his predecessor, Mark Thompson, who led the organization at the time the "Newsnight" report was yanked. Thompson was appointed chief executive of the New York Times Co. in August and is due to take up the post next month.

He told ITV News that if "the police inquiry or the select committee want to hear from me, of course I'll help in any way I can."

Few public figures have had as spectacular a fall from grace as the cigar-chomping, platinum-haired Savile, who was knighted for his charity fundraising and praised on his death as a popular if eccentric entertainer.

Since the ITV report aired earlier this month, his family has removed and destroyed his gravestone, and two charities named after him have announced they will close.

It is not just the BBC that is under fire. Schools and hospitals associated with Savile's charity work stand accused of letting him abuse young people during visits. And state prosecutors have acknowledged they investigated four abuse allegations against him in 2009, but did not press charges.

Child welfare experts say there is a sadly familiar pattern_ seen also in the case of child-molesting Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky _ of large organizations failing to act on claims of abuse from young people.

One of the revelations of Monday's documentary was that Rippon had sent an email expressing doubts about the Savile documentary because "our sources so far are just the women" _ Savile's accusers.

Entwistle insisted the BBC was not complacent about sexism, and had hired a senior lawyer to look at how it handles sexual harassment cases.

"I do believe the culture has changed since the `70s and `80s," Entwistle said. "But I'm not convinced it has changed as much as it should have."

He said Savile had been "a very skillful and successful sexual predator who covered his tracks."

"These things are institutionally, it seems, very difficult to deal with," he said.

Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless

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