We've since learned that Pete Townsend was abused as a kid. And of course there was that business a few years back where he was caught researching paedophilia on-line and got into the most awful trouble.
But back in 1975- when Tommy was released- it was bad form to talk about paedophilia. And when it was talked about the tone was exactly the one Townsend adopted with Uncle Ernie- sinister but comic.
There's a paedophile character in Evelyn's Waugh's Decline and Fall. Captain Grimes. What a card, eh? A dreadful rogue, of course, but you can't help loving him.
And then there's Auden's Uncle Henry- another lovable rogue. A little sad, perhaps. "Here's to women for they bear/ such lovely kiddies."
Of course everyone knew about the dodgy scoutmasters, schoolmasters and priests. We had a flagrantly paedophile teacher at my school. All the boys hated him. First night of the new school year he'd go round the junior dormitory before lights out "introducing himself" to the new intake. I understood that the school authorities kept him on a shortish leash. There'd been a hushed-up scandal a year or two before and he'd been told to control himself or face dismissal. But he was the best maths teacher going and they didn't want to lose him.
This is just the attitude that the Roman Catholic Bishops are now getting sued for. Father X has an unfortunate predilection for choirboys. There have been complaints. Tch, tch, better move him to another parish then.
I don't want to let the bishops off the hook, but their hugger-mugger, snigger-snigger, brush it under the carpet attitude was the attitude of a whole society. No-one was in the business of exposing paedophiles.
And then, suddenly- in the 90s- came the explosion. Uncle Ernie, Uncle Henry, Captain Grimes, Father O'Bubblyfun- those slightly pathetic, sinister-comic characters- are dragged out into the light and revealed as the worst men in the world. I don't understand quite what happened. It was as if the suppression and repression- the muffled anger of centuries- had finally burst the dam.
The victims were being heard and a good thing too.
Except that the current hysteria sheds more darkness than light. OK, child abuse is "evil" but that's a word that stops debate and exploration and any kind of understanding. It turns the loonies loose. Townsend decides to research the issue and finds himself being witch-hunted. An angry mob breaks a paediatrician's windows because they don't know the difference. A photographer gets her show censored because it contains images of her own children naked.
And what about the evidence that many offenders started out as victims?
When I was a kid I was allowed to wander at large- all day, on my own, round town, through the woods. The old culture of pretending the danger didn't exist had its up-side. Kids were raped and murdered then as now, but it was always-still is- an infinitesimal risk.
And most kids who get raped and murdered get raped and murdered in the home. The offenders aren't strangers but friends and relatives. Most child abuse is also incest. We know the statistics but we're in denial.
Anyone can be a paedophile. It's not merely a crime, it's a sexual orientation- a human behaviour.
Can I honestly say that anything human is alien to me?
Don't go there.
Another, lesser reason why we avert our eyes from the problem- not an honourable reason, but humanly understandable- is because the scale of it is so huge. Trawl the internet for down-loaders of kiddy-porn and you scoop-up all sorts- hundreds of them- teachers, police officers, well-loved comedians, husbands, fathers, pillars of the community. Nice people. How many western men regularly take their holidays in countries like Thailand and Vietnam? How many of them are drawn there by the scenery?
We liked to think we were dealing with one or two identifiably dodgy Uncle Ernies and we find we're dealing with a whole subculture.
Only we're not really dealing with it, are we?