LONDON - For decades, Jimmy Savile was a fixture on British television — an eccentric, aggressively jocular host of children's shows and a tireless charity fundraiser. When he died last year at 84 — by then knighted as Sir Jimmy — he drew tributes from Prince Charles and thousands of fans.
Now several women have come forward to claim "Sir Jimmy" was also a sexual predator who abused underage girls.
The allegations have set off ripples of shock — but not of surprise. There had, colleagues said, long been rumors. The main question being asked now is: Why did no one do anything?
"Maybe it was just the fact that Jimmy knew everybody," Esther Rantzen, a former BBC journalist and founder of the ChildLine child-protection charity, told Channel 4 news. "We made him into the Jimmy Savile who was untouchable, who nobody could criticize."
Child protection advocates say the case fits a pattern seen in the response to the child-molesting Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and in the English town of Rochdale, where a gang of men groomed vulnerable young girls for sex. Authorities in both places have been criticized for failing to act on claims of abuse.
The allegations against Savile are made in a documentary, "Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile," to be shown Wednesday on Britain's ITV channel.
The program alleges that Savile abused girls in his Rolls-Royce, in a mobile home and at BBC's television headquarters. It includes interviews with a woman who says Savile sexually assaulted her while she was a student at the Duncroft special-needs school near London, and with a former BBC staff member who says she saw the entertainer indecently assaulting a 14-year-old girl.
The BBC said it has asked its investigations unit to make direct contact with police to offer full support for any lines of inquiry into the "serious and disturbing" allegations made about Savile — some of which it said relate to alleged activity on BBC premises in the 1960s and 1970s.
"We are horrified by allegations that anything of this sort could have happened at the BBC - or have been carried out by anyone working for the BBC," it said in a statement. "They are allegations of a serious criminal nature which the police have the proper powers to investigate."
Savile's family has condemned the vilification of a man who is not alive to defend himself.
"The guy hasn't been dead for a year yet and they're bringing these stories out," said Savile's nephew Roger Foster. "It could affect his legacy, his charity work, everything. I'm very sad and disgusted."
Mark Williams-Thomas, who made the documentary, insisted it was right "to tackle this highly sensitive subject and allow these women to have a voice — a voice that for many was not heard whilst they were children."
Savile was, in the words of his obituary in the Daily Telegraph, "an eccentric adornment to British public life," known for his platinum hair, garish tracksuits, chunky gold jewelry and ever-present cigars.
The former coal miner claimed to have organized Britain's first disco and to have been the first DJ to use two turntables — a claim that has frequently been disputed.
He was the original presenter of the music countdown program "Top of the Pops," which ran on BBC television from 1964 to 2006, featuring performances by everyone from The Rolling Stones to the Sex Pistols. For almost 20 years from 1975, Savile also made dreams come true on "Jim'll Fix It," a TV show in which he responded to children's letters by arranging for their wishes to be realized.
Savile championed a host of good causes, frequently running marathons to raise money. He led work to collect millions for the creation of a national spinal injuries center at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in southern England and bequeathed money for a heart unit at Leeds infirmary named the Savile Institute.
He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for services to charity and entertainment, and received a papal knighthood from the Vatican.
Prince Charles was among those who paid tribute when he died in October 2011 and thousands paid their respects at his coffin.
Although he was part of the nation's childhood, Savile remained a distant figure — well-known rather than well-loved. His guarded private life was the subject of a much watched television documentary in 2000 by filmmaker Louis Theroux.
Savile, who never married and lived alone, told Theroux he'd never liked children. Part of his home in Leeds was a shrine to his late mother, whom he called The Duchess. After her death in 1973, he spent five days alone with her body.
In recent days, several people have come forward to say Savile's predatory behavior had been common knowledge in showbiz circles.
Music broadcaster Paul Gambaccini told ITV television that Savile had used his charity work to discourage newspaper stories about his private life.
Gambaccini recalled Savile telling one journalist, "'well you could run that story, but if you do there goes the funds that come in to Stoke Mandeville — do you want to be responsible for the drying up of the charity donations?' And they backed down."
Surrey Police have acknowledged that they questioned Savile in 2007 over an allegation related to the Duncroft school. The file was passed on to prosecutors, who declined to bring charges.
The Crown Prosecution Service is facing questions about its actions, as is the BBC, Savile's longtime employer. The BBC's "Newsnight" program worked on a piece on the abuse allegations late last year but decided not to broadcast it for what the BBC called "editorial reasons."
Chris Cloke, head of child protection awareness at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said if any good came from the Savile saga it would be "a better understanding of how cases like this have happened, a greater understanding that protecting children must be everybody's responsibility."
"There is a concern that children aren't listened to," he said, "and that is something that has been around for a very long time."