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The Guardian, Weekend. September 17,1997


Dea Birkett

No one attracts more odium than paedophiles, nor more virulent campaigns against them. How can they imagine that they are justified in their desires? How does it feel to be accused of craving sex with children when you believe you are innocent? Dea Birkett talks to some of society's ultimate lowlifes to find out. Pictures by Jenny Matthews

Gil is a nice old man. He lives in a small seaside flat where he offers me tea in a china cup and a digestive from a worn biscuit barrel showing scenes of rural England. At 75, he is still trim and neatly dressed. His home is sparsely decorated and meticulously tidy, with framed photographs of his two grown-up daughters and their children displayed proudly on a small glass-fronted bookshelf by the tassled lampshade. As he fills his pipe from a leather pouch, he tells me of his adventures as a young man in the Royal Navy, of his swimming awards, of his recent amicable divorce after nearly 50 years of marriage, of his trip yesterday to the local library - the chatter of someone in their late years. And then he tells me something else, confounding my impression of this gentle, dapper man before me.

He tells me he wants to have sex with children. "I would like a loving relationship between myself and a child," he says, his elderly eyes watery with the thought. When I ask how old the girl should be, he says eight or nine, preferably blonde, with a nice personality. He is not ashamed of his desires. "I just feel bitter at the rest of the world for looking at me with disgust."

Paedophiles are the most feared and loathed men in our society.

All over the country there are groups, some no bigger than a coffee circle of concerned mothers, whose sole aim is to hunt down and hound out paedophiles in their neighbourhoods. The names of these ad hoc campaigns - Campaign Against Paedophiles, Parents Against Child Abuse, People Power, Know Your Neighbour, Parents Aiming to Right Abysmal Sex Offender Laws, Unofficial Child Protection Unit - reveal their simple missionary zeal. It is a movement from the streets upwards. Local newspapers often provide them with the raw material; trawling through back numbers, they turn up details of long-past child abuse cases.

The Oxford Mail and Bournemouth Echo keep informal registers of sex offenders, and the Scottish Daily Record published a "Gallery of Shame" of 38 convicted paedophiles. The Sunday tabloids devote pages and reporters to doing nothing else but hunting "child sex monsters".

Paedophilia has become a national obsession.

Such outings inevitably lead to violence. In May 1994, the home of Dennis Butlin was firebombed and a young girl inside burnt to death; in February 1995, Lawrence Leydon was stabbed to death in Edinburgh; last August in Teignmouth, 44-year-old David Moist was severely battered after vigilantes broke into his flat brandishing a fire extinguisher; in the same month in Belfast, 53-year-old Desmond Moonan was found strangled in his flat. They were all vicious attacks. But when we insert "paedophile" before these men's names, our hearts harden: they got what they deserved.

Whatever has been done to them and however they are treated, we have no sympathy for paedophiles. What they do strips them of any possibility of redemption. Who could defend the rights, the life even, of a man who wants to bugger a four-year-old? Schemes are continually proposed to provide indefinite monitoring, from electronic tagging to chemical castration.

Just last month, the Sex Offenders Act made it an offence for a convicted paedophile not to register with the police; failure to comply carries a maximum six-month prison sentence or (UKP)5,000 fine. Last week, the president of the Police Superintendents Association asked the Home Secretary to post on the Internet the names and photographs of those who had failed to register, in the style of an FBI "most-wanted" list. The pressure group Action On Child Exploitation has called for a second register - of "suspects". There is no such thing as an innocent paedophile.

I was watching the television news one night in January when the picture of a man came on, his head hooded, his shoulders hunched. Using a child's karaoke toy as a loudhailer, a woman led the chant: "Beast out! Beast out!" Police were hustling this faceless man down the stairs and into a car, away to a place of refuge, somewhere where nobody would know him, where he could return to the shadows in which men like him live. His name was Alan Christie, a former kitchen porter, and he had just been housed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation after spending six months in prison for molesting a four-year-old girl. But although he had served his sentence, this man had committed a crime that can never be "spent". He would always be a paedophile.

The man's head was hidden by a grey hood, his body bowed over, shrinking from the screams. The women's calls were furious, unreasoned, medieval, braying for blood. My natural place was alongside those irate mothers, but I couldn't stand next to them. Where was the place within this picture for me? Underneath that hood was a human face. I wanted to see it, question it, confront it. I would feel safer if he came out of the shadows, if I could look into his eyes. I wanted the shouting to cease so that I could walk up that garden path, climb the stairs, knock on the door of that house, cross the threshold of our greatest fears and speak to the man inside. I wanted to unmask this devil among us.

Gil is one face of the devil. The National Criminal Intelligence Service has a database of around 4,000 paedophiles, of which he is one. But because paedophiles are so closeted, nobody knows exactly how many more there are. Nor does anybody really know why some men are attracted to pre-pubescent children. But the unpalatable truth is that they are, and that we have to learn to live with that knowledge.

Much has been written about these men, whole university departments are dedicated to the subject of child abuse, and the study of paedophilia is a flourishing industry. Yet while all this research is undertaken, the men involved are never interviewed in a non-coercive environment. A researcher at the Child And Women Abuse Studies Unit at the University of North London, whose Splintered Lives is the most influential report on child abuse yet published, told me, "We never talk to perpetrators. I'd just get out the Kalashnikov."

The database for all our knowledge on paedophiles comes from studies of offenders on probation or in the prison system, where convicted paedophiles attempt to conform to their jailer's vision and thus win their release. These men are, therefore, utterly ashamed of who they are and what they did. To conform to the academic orthodoxy of what causes them to abuse children, many confess to having been abused themselves. It's a circular argument; we believe they abuse because they've been abused, attract such confessions from them, then use those confessions as "evidence" for the causes of their own pattern of behaviour.

Few, if any, of the men in these studies admit to being an unrepentant paedophile. But Gil is one such man. His story is both unique and typical of the two dozen men I met. Each remembers how they came to know that they were different, unacceptably different. Gil believes his "sexual development clock stopped" at 13, when his mother walked out on the family; since then, he has been attracted only to pre-pubescent girls.

For many years, he tried to redirect his longings; at 21, he got married. "It wasn't long before I realised that I had made a terrible mistake. Although I was affectionate towards my wife - caring, I hope - I knew that she was not the answer to my sexual problems. I did the best I could for her benefit. But there was no enthusiasm on my part."

Nevertheless, Gil and his wife had two daughters, of whom Gil boasts continually. "They're smashing," he says, "Just smashing." He attempted to carry on with family life, got a new job in engineering, bought a house in the suburbs, joined the Conservative Party. But as his daughters grew up, his day-to-day role as a father to them became intolerable. "I had a normal father's attitude towards my daughters," he says. "It never occurred to me to do anything in anyway reprehensible with them. But I couldn't say the same for their many friends and acquaintances. Some of them even stayed the night and that sort of thing. And to meet an attractive child semi-nude in the middle of the night did turn out to be a temptation I didn't think I was going to resist". Gil felt suicidal; something had to be done. He decided, after 15 years of marriage, it was time to tell his wife. She must have been about the same age as I am now.

I tried to imagine how it would feel if I were married and my husband told me that he was a paedophile, that he would like to fuck our ten-year-old daughter's best friend. I would have been disgusted with my husband, and disgusted with myself for ever touching him. But Gil's wife, remarkably, stuck by him. Together, they worked to try to cure Gil of what he called his "affliction".

He volunteered to check himself into the residential psychiatric unit of a local hospital. Here, he tried psychiatry, aversion therapy using electric shocks, cocktails of potent drugs, and group therapy. After six months, the doctors admitted defeat: "You are a natural paedophile," they told Gil, and signed him off.

Gil retreated into his fantasies. He began to write short stories in which the central character was a paedophile, inevitably involved in a loving relationship with a young girl. For sex, Gil went to teenage prostitutes who dressed as young girls for him. Only when he confessed these visits to his wife did she eventually ask him for a divorce.

Gil's life has been consumed by his continuing struggle not to offend. He has no criminal convictions. But for Gil, every saunter along the seafront is an unbearable temptation. "I met a child, about nine years old, on the beach a few years ago. She approached me, wanted to chat, and asked me to take her into the sea. She was supposed to be with her brother, but he had scarpered off to climb the cliffs. Afterwards, we went back to get her clothes.

"She changed - in front of me, with no attempt to cover up - and seemed to get some pleasure out of my interest. When she was dressed, I suggested she came back to my home for tea and so on, but she said she was expecting her brother back. So that was the end of that. But there wasn't much doubt in my mind that this child looked upon me as a promising lover. She had stripped off in front of me! Made no attempt to cover up!"

When this encounter took place, Gil was 70 years old. Yet he could not accept that this nine-year-old couldn't possibly be sexually interested in a grey, frail, old man. We think the body language of children is clear; but Gil's vision is utterly different from ours. Every sign that we take as an innocent action by a child - accepting the offer of a sweet, a request to help button up her cardigan in Gil's mind means something else, something more. Every unconscious childish gesture is a come-on. In Gil's mind, that girl on the beach wanted him.

Gil obviously enjoyed telling me the tale, remembered with fondness. A slight twinkle came into his eye as he spoke, as if recalling a lost opportunity for genuine love. There was something very unsmutty about the story. It is an odd word to use about a form of desire we find repellent, but it seemed almost "innocent". It's as if Gil hoped to recreate the sort of sexual play children have between themselves when he was 70. "Big boobs and pubic hair don't do anything for me. I like to have fun." When I asked Gil what sort of sex he would like with a girl, he said his favourite would be peeing games, "like children do".

Sitting in his shipshape flat, taking a second cup of tea and more biscuits, it was easy to feel for a moment that, perhaps, being a paedophile wasn't so reprehensible. Here was a man who had learned to live with his sexual nature; perhaps we should learn to live with him. But, as his front door clicked shut behind me, the comfort of being in his company seeped away. I abhorred the desires he had expressed, and their explicitness.

These were feelings I had several times over the next few months.

Every encounter was followed by waves of emotion from acceptance to repugnance. When I was with a paedophile, chatting, eating, watching the television, going to Safeway, I felt completely at ease. These were men, not monsters. Only after I had left them, as I turned over our conversation on the way home on the train, or when I saw my next-door neighbour's child playing on a bike in the front garden, did the implications of what I had heard rush through me. These men wanted to have sex with that tiny child. And most perversely they thought that tiny child wanted to have sex with them.

One night while babysitting, I found myself checking the blinds in a child's bedroom. Could anyone peep in? Was it overlooked by the flats opposite? It was an irrational, unfounded fear, but I could not suppress it. I had noticed that the tabloid newspapers often pointed out that a paedophile's windows provided views over a nursery or playground. I had read about one such man. "Kids Play in Shadow of Pervert's Lair" was the headline. "Alone in his one-room flat, a twisted sex offender spends hour after hour gazing lecherously at nursery-school children playing innocently on the swings across the road.

"Parents fuss about their happy toddlers as they drop them off - unaware of the warped watcher at the window above..." What if there was a man like that looking in on this girl?

When I met the "twisted sex offender" of this article, he was wearing a knitted tie and soft cotton shirt, just as he was in the photograph of him in the newspaper. Dick was instantly recognisable, except that this time he did not have the look of a startled animal. He smiled and said he was pleased to meet me.

Like all the men I met, most of whom had received substantial press coverage, he had never actually spoken to or even been approached by a journalist.

His outing in the newspaper set off a train of events that had happened to similar people in similar situations up and down the country.

"It was nine o'clock in the evening and I was coming back from the local shop. They were waiting for me in an alleyway by my square. They smashed my glasses and shouted, 'Are you a pervert? Are you?' I was beaten heavily about the face. My tooth broke. I didn't know whether I was going to get out alive. When it happened the second time, two days later, I had to go into hospital for treatment." He has since had to move homes twice, for fear of more violence.

Dick has a recent conviction for possession of child pornography, [actually naturist material - Eagle] for which he received a six-month jail sentence. At his trial, he unashamedly called himself a paedophile, and claimed that he kept the photographs to help prevent him committing offences. "I've done everything possible to obey the law. As a result I'm getting prosecuted for it," he argued. The former clerk is now unemployed, but also unrepentant. While undergoing therapy on probation, Dick was encouraged to become gay. "It was absurd, to direct me towards men, when I'm a straight, heterosexual paedophile." We don't "treat" murderers or those that cause grievous bodily harm, but we "treat" convicted paedophiles. Our normal notions of criminal justice, which revolve around punishment are replaced with a vocabulary of near-religious conversion - confessing is called "disclosing", and paedophilic longings are called "distorted beliefs". We are saving, or trying to save, the damned.

With great fervour and commitment, treatment programmes for child sex offenders have proliferated. Currently, 25 prisons run sex-offender treatment programmes, attended by around 600 prisoners; the probation service has established 90 programmes throughout the country, treating almost 2,000 offenders each year. The location of probation service group-therapy sessions are kept secret; buildings from which such groups have been run have been attacked.

The men, usually about half a dozen of them, sit in an encounter circle, awkward, waiting for a sign as to what they should say, how they should repent. Walking into one such group is like entering your worst vision of hell. Pete, 22, had been charged three times for indecent assault on his ten-year-old stepbrother; Bill, 73, had continually abused a young girl in his neighbourhood; Tony, only 17 but looking even younger, like a bespectacled, gawky 13-year-old, had already twice indecently assaulted boys; Ralph, 41, had raped his stepdaughter from aged four to 12, blindfolding her with masking tape and smearing jam over his penis, telling her to suck it like a banana. All these men are, at this I moment, living peacefully in our streets.

There is a remarkable uniformity among I the sex offender treatment programmes offered nationwide, both by the prison and probation services, modelled on those in the US. First, a confession must be extracted from the offender, before he can begin to dissect his "cycle of offending". The first step along his path to paedophilia is believed to be his "illegal sexual fantasy"; a Home Office report on the treatment of imprisoned sex offenders asserts, "the relationship between sexual fantasy and sexual offences against children is well established". The material Dick was charged with possessing counts as "evidence" against his desire not only to fantasise, but actually abuse. "A lot of people think that such fantasy is jolly healthy stuff. As long as they fantasise, they don't offend. I believe the opposite," says Alex Lord, chief psychologist and manager of the sex offender treatment programme at Woodhill Prison. "We talk about dangerous, deviant or illegal fantasy. We believe that fantasising about some things will lead into re-offending."

The "illegal sexual fantasy" is believed to be realised first through a process professionals call "grooming" - befriending the child, offering them presents, taking them on trips, softening their hearts. Then follows the offence. By the end of the programme, it is hoped that the offender treated will realise his own "cycle of offending" and see the true horror of what he has done.

I asked Alex Lord if he would mind living in the same street as a sex offender. "We all do. Everyone has one living next door to them. You've got to assume that - whether it's your local swimming pool, school, youth club - you've got to be vigilant. I suspect that's always been the case - we're just beginning to face up to it.

In the war of vigilance against these modern-day witches, there is no question of degree. A seamless moral line is drawn from looking at photographs of teenagers in swimming kit - an "illegal fantasy" - to wanting, and therefore having, sex with them. Wherever you abide along that so-called circle of offending, you have committed a heinous, unnatural act. You have desired a child. The unforgiving finger points at you, and you are tattooed - pervert, sex offender, paedophile.


One day, Charles, a 57-year-old businessman, had this finger pointed at him. "They arrived at six o'clock in the morning one Tuesday in June. They went through all my stuff. The police seized upon two photographs which they said were indecent. One was of a boy whose hands were tied but he was bare-chested - that's all - his trousers were on. The other was a boy having the cane. He was naked, but you couldn't see his private parts. They said those two pictures were indecent. The boys were young, yes. They might have been 13, 14. So I was charged with the possession of indecent photographs of children." Charles is innately conservative, a neatly- folded handkerchief protruding from the pocket of his tweed jacket. He followed in the footsteps of his father's career and his grandfather's before him, was active in local charities, and served in the Territorial Army for over 30 years. He has always voted Tory and, at home, had a photograph of the Royal Family. For relaxation, he enjoyed a round of golf or a drink at his private club. But he had a secret life, which he had successfully kept hidden for 40 years. He was gay, and, like many men, gay or straight, had been attracted to older teenagers. I first saw Charles, wearing a bow tie and dinner jacket, staring out from the national newspaper: "The picture of a pervert that police did not want worried parents to see."

And, although I was beginning to understand that the monster of our imaginations did not exist, it still shocked me when he first answered the phone that he was so conventional and polite. He had been painted as dangerous demon, but he sounded like the local magistrate.

Charles's front garden was rich with rose bushes. "I spend a lot of time in my garden," was the first thing he said to me. "I have a lot of spare time on my hands, now." Since his arrest, Charles has lost his profession, his standing, many of his friends. He is still trying desperately to clear his name. "I have had journalists camped outside my house and my photo in the papers I don't know how many times, but no one has ever bothered to knock on my front door and talk to me before," he said.

"I wish they had. I would have talked to them." I listened to a story that no one else had heard. "I have collected for a long time photographs of good-looking young men. I got hold of a copy of Gay Times and answered an advertisement for photographs of young men and had some sent to me - six different models. The police raided this man's house and found my address and searched my house. They even took away this picture of me with my eight-year-old goddaughter." He holds it up to show me, the two of them beaming as he reads her a bedtime story. "It was madness, madness."

Charles pleaded guilty to two offences: not only possessing indecent pictures, but aiding and abetting their distribution on the grounds that he had answered the advertisement in Gay Times. He was fined a total of (UKP)800. "The policewoman led me to believe it would be a very simple thing. I was not represented in court. I had never been involved in the law before; I didn't know who to ask. And my mother and family didn't know anything about me; I didn't want any publicity, I just wanted to get it over with."

One week later, the first article appeared in his local newspaper. Someone in Charles's office saw it and he was suspended on the spot. "Very foolishly, in front of the boss, I said if I lose my job - I'd been working there nearly 20 years - if the Army get wind of this and I lose my connections with the Territorials, if my mother hears about this - she's 81 - and gets upset and dies, I shall have nothing in the world. I might just as well go out and shoot a few kids and kill myself. And they latched on to that.

"The next day I was flying out to a wedding in Vancouver. The office said I should go and sort out the matter when I returned. Off I went to Canada." His office informed the police. On his way back, he was arrested at the airport and charged with a threat to kill. After a weekend in the cells, he was bailed to a residential sex offenders' clinic for one month. "All the mothers wanted to know who the hell this sex offender in the area was. Then the local newspaper came to their rescue. Photographers came to the door. I went round to my mother's and they started ringing her. We had to flee." Only when he mentions his mother does his composure crack. I am embarrassed that this parody of a stiff-upper-lipped Englishman is crying.

Charles calls his homosexuality his "inner nature". I was the first person he had ever told about it. "I think these things are very private and should remain so. That's partly my problem. I don't go to gay clubs - I find that difficult. I couldn't hang around lavatories trying to get a pick-up. I don't want to be that. I want to be conventional, and well thought of, and proper. And yet I've got my inner nature to cope with. Videos and photographs have been a way of finding that expression yet being traditional throughout the rest of my life."

Was Charles, as the paper and magistrate claimed, a danger to children? "That's absurd. I certainly never have and never would molest a child. I have no desire to. The biggest agony for me has been being publicly exposed not only for what I am - a homosexual - but for what I am not. I am not a paedophile."

Now, Charles visits his home during the day, just to make sure everything is all right and to care for the roses. He makes sure there are fresh flowers in the lounge, and draws the curtains as he leaves in the early evening, as if he were still living there. But he spends the nights with his mother, who has been unable to sleep since the "revelations".

After his month at the residential centre, the Crown Prosecution Service dropped all charges against him. But Charles's life had already been destroyed. "It wrecked my career. I can't get another job. I'm not even allowed to play golf at the golf club any more. It cost me everything."

The allegation of being a child sex offender both shrivels someone and makes them larger than life. It reduces their humanity and makes them a huge, terrifying monster. And because they are no longer human, we can act towards them in any way we like.

Peter Hamilton-Harvey, 37, a former assistant scoutmaster and Bournemouth philanthropist, was jailed in January 1993 for indecent assault on two young boys. After his release, Hammie, as he was known to the boys in his club, returned to living with his elderly parents in their ramshackle Edwardian mansion. Since then, his 71-year-old father, Michael, a church warden, has had his car smashed up, the window's of their home have been broken by stones and bricks, and a friend's Metro has been set on fire - all the work of vigilantes. Unsigned letters arrive: "Mr Peter Hamilton-Harvey. In view of your being a pervert and a filthy dirty man with children, for your sake or safety you are all advised move away from Dorset." To deter attackers, Hamilton-Harvey has bought two geese that wander around his front garden at night.

Like many of the men I met, Peter Hamilton-Harvey is obsessed about clearing his name. He says he wants to recant, but for child sex offenders that is not possible. Doesn't he realise that such allegations are indelible? The more someone protests against their conviction, the more they challenge their portrait in the press, the more guilty they become.

Such refusals to bow down become still further evidence that they are unrepentant, that somehow they don't take their crime seriously. That they think that there is nothing wrong in being a paedophile.

Tony Sheppard, a former soldier and lone parent of two boys, first saw Peter's photograph in the local newspaper and became enraged. "He seemed to me not to be concerned about what he had done to children. I would describe him as smirking. He had a big smirk on this face and he seemed to be relaxed, with his chin on his hands as if he'd done nothing wrong." Tony decided to start a vigilante campaign against Peter; it was Tony who broke the windows of Peter's father's car and set the family friend's Metro on fire. I asked him how much further he would have gone if he hadn't been arrested. Tony speaks very coldly, very matter-of-fact "The intention was to take Mr Hamilton-Harvey to a wooded area in Wareham and nail him to a tree."

The evidence against Peter was incontrovertible. After a telethon charity event, Peter took three boys back to camp in his family garden. They all - the three boys and Peter - stripped down to their underpants and crept inside a tiny blue tent. According to police evidence, two of the three boys took it in turns to lie on Peter's back and simulate buggering him; then Peter did the same to the two boys. They didn't like him doing it to them because it was prickly. Afterwards, the doctor's report confirmed that Peter shaved his pubic hair.

Although himself a victim of vigilante attacks, Peter's father stands firmly by his son. "If you're a drunken driver and you knock down a whole row of people at a bus stop, kill several people, you serve your sentence and afterwards you're not pursued in the street and called 'Murderer! Murderer!' You're allowed to return to your normal activities.

But in the case of a paedophile or sex offender, they cannot return to this sort of thing." As we sat and had tea in their sunny back garden, nibbling on fairy cakes, a van drove past. From somewhere inside the van, a voice shouted out across the lawn, "Paedophile! Paedophile!"

Peter is horrified to be called a paedophile; Paul is proud to be one. What we call "grooming", Paul calls "courting"; what we call "victims", he calls "boyfriends"; what we call "abuse", he calls "a loving relationship". Paul would be the scourge of every director of a sex offender treatment programme, for he deeply, unshakably, believes that there is nothing wrong with his sexuality.

For more than 20 years, Paul has argued for sex between adults and children, and abolishing the age of consent. If there is a bogey man in the Nineties, it is Paul. He is also a good cook. As he made me a meal of steak pie, he recommended fine walks in the English countryside, of which he is particularly fond, and pretty villages I should visit before the winter fully set in. In between tips as to how I should spend my spare weekends, he tells me that a child of any age can consent to sex. "It's a case of listening to the child and what the child wants. But unfortunately in this society we don't listen to children. This policy that children can't consent basically means that we're not taking them seriously." He sighs out loud.

Books on children line his walls - Greek Love, The Child Abusers, Loving Boys, Perspectives On Paedophilia - volumes on child abuse, child rearing and paedophilia sitting right next to each other all jumbled up together as if somehow, in Paul's mind, they're about the same thing. Between the books are framed pictures of child stars, from Mark Lester to the actor who played Tadzio in the film Death In Venice. He talks passionately about the benefits of a sexuality like his own, not only to  himself, but to humankind. "Many other societies take childhood sexuality for granted. Why do we keep these words like 'pervert' to describe a human relationship? Why do the tabloid press keep on referring to these perverts, these monsters, these fiends? It's a way of demonising the people, of putting them down and making the public see them as totally negative. The truth is that half these people aren't demons. Some of them are extremely nice people. Some give everything to children in teaching, scoutmasters, whatever. Some of them love children very, very dearly."

There are few things of which we like to feel morally certain, but sex between children and adults is one of those. But is it so clear-cut? Last May, an appeal court overturned a three-month jail sentence on a 55-year-old man for having underage sex with his girlfriend. She had just turned 16 and he planned to marry her. In July, Sean Kinsella, 14, and Tracey Whalin, 33, his mother's best friend, ran away to Florida together, leading to Whalin's arrest, and a barrage of newspaper coverage. Under Florida's penal code, she was chained and could have been incarcerated for up to 20 years. In Britain, people were morally divided, but few would have supported such harsh measures. Would it have been the same if it was a 14-year-old girl with a 33-year-old man? Or if both had been male?

During my research I met Neil, a gay man now aged 40, who enjoyed having sex with adult men from the age of nine. "It seems to be politically correct, even within the gay movement, to be anti-paedophile. But when I ask gay male friends when they first had sex they say, 'Oh, ten, 11, 12, with a bloke down the road who was 22.' He was probably a paedophile!"

Is our line - society's line - of an acceptable age to have sex an arbitrary one? Paul believes he is just more honest than most of us about what he desires. "Perhaps the majority of the population actually have similar feelings to mine at some time in their life," he said. "Some express it, some deny it, but it's there."

I liked Paul; I wanted him to be saved. I asked if he thought his condition might be curable, if his sexuality could be redirected, and he sighed for a second time. "I don't accept the word 'curable' because automatically it connotes the idea that we are sick. Some homosexual people are sick and some heterosexuals are sick, but I don't believe that paedophilia in itself is a sickness. After all, how is it sick to appreciate the beauty of a child?" He looks straight at me. "You take sex for granted. But what would it feel like if someone said that you could never have sex, ever. You'd feel terrible, wouldn't you?"

I went to see the film of The Crucible with three paedophiles - three modern-day "witches". On screen, Prosecutor Danforth summed up the 17th-century Puritan case against those whom the community's accusatory finger had pointed out. "A person is either with this court or against it; there be no road between. This is a new time, a precise time; we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God's grace, the good folk and the evil are entirely separate! I hope you will find your place with us."

I took some more popcorn from the paedophile sitting next to me. Was there really no place in between? If so, where did I stand? Could I take even one tiny step towards a person like Paul? Somewhere, in between, in a no man's land which does not yet exist, there has to be a meeting point. But each day that I open the newspaper and learn of yet another campaign to rid Britain's streets of "perverts" and "child sex monsters", that point seems to be ever more remote. But for Gil, at least the endless struggle to become something other than himself is over. Now he accepts who he is. "I'm not ashamed of being a paedophile. I'm certainly proud of the way I've managed my life over the last 60 years. I've been as positive as it is possible for anyone to be.

"But always with this horrifying feeling in the back of the mind that one could fail to resist the temptations, and that could mean the end of one's life."

Gil may be our every nightmare. But he is not the monster of our imagination. Witches and monsters exist only in children's fairy tales.

Beneath the hood, the men I met had human faces.

The Devil Amongst Us, by Force 10 Productions, is the first in the new Witness series, Channel 4, Wednesday, October 8, 9 p.m. [1997]


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