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The Abuse of Child Abuse


The Spectator, Nov 1, 1997

Frederick Lawton


Frederick Lawton says there is now hysteria surrounding the whole subject of paedophilia

HAVE paedophiles in present-day demonology come to occupy the same role as witches did in that of the 16th and 17th centuries? So far this year there has been disorder in Aberdeen, Stirling and Swindon as a result of mobs gathering outside the homes of convicted sex offenders who had been released from prison after serving their sentences. The Swindon paedophile was driven from his home there and from four other addresses. He felt obliged to seek refuge with the Brighton police.

The hysteria which brought about these unseemly and disturbing happenings has incited the Home Office to introduce restrictions on convicted paedophiles over and above those imposed by the courts when passing sentence. Under the Sex Offenders Act 1997 they are obliged to tell the police where they are living. The Home Secretary has recently announced that there will be legislation to exclude them from places where there are likely to be children playing or assembling. All this has a whiff of the restrictions which were imposed on lepers during the Middle Ages and on Jews in Nazi Germany.

What danger do convicted paedophiles present to young children? Clearly some.

But is it greater now than it was 50 years ago? The criminal statistics show an increase in the past ten years in the number of convictions for offences involving sexual crimes against young children. They provide unreliable evidence of the prevalence of crime in the past because there was not then the same inclination to report crime as there is today. It may be significant that when in 1980 the Criminal Law Revision Committee, of which I was then the chairman, published a Green Paper inviting suggestions for the reform of the law relating to sexual offences, none of our many correspondents suggested that the law relating to sexual crimes against children should be strengthened.

During a professional lifetime of 51 years, ending in December 1986, which I spent in the administration of criminal justice - 25 as a barrister and 26 as a judge -the prevalence of these offences seems to have changed little except for one nauseating development during the past 20 years, the use of children for the production of pornography. There always have been men who murdered and raped children. In the past the law has been able to deal adequately with such offenders. It still can. Before 1965, when capital punishment was abolished, those who murdered young children were likely to have been hanged unless there was reason to think that they were insane, in which case they were kept in Broadmoor for the rest of their lives. Now they receive mandatory life sentences. They will not be released as long as there is any reason to think that they will be a danger to anyone, and then only on licence. Those convicted of raping or buggering a child will receive a long sentence on their first conviction and life imprisonment on a second. By the time they are released their sexual drive is likely to have been considerably reduced.

Most cases of what the press call child abuse amount in law to indecent assault. No doubt for reasons of decency the press rarely report what the offender did to the child. Such an assault can be horrendous, as when there is vaginal penetration by a bottle or forced fellatio (oral sex). A sentence of, or near, the maximum of ten years is likely - more if any physical injury was done to the child. In such a case the conviction would probably be for causing grievous bodily harm with intent. For that offence the maximum sentence is life imprisonment. I never had to deal with such cases. I learned about them when the Criminal Law Revision Committee was considering sexual offences. They are very rare indeed. Most cases of indecent assault on young children consist of acts which come within the colloquial word 'groping'. It was my forensic experience that most of those convicted were middle-aged men of low intelligence or who were suffering from some degree of mental disorder. A few were inadequate young men in their late teens or early twenties who had difficulty in establishing relationships with young women and tried to do so with small girls. The picture which was usually presented by these cases was not of monsters preying on children but of social inadequates. They were more likely to learn to control their sexual appetites by supervision in the community under a probation officer than by serving a prison sentence. Unless there was some evidence of physical injury to the child, which there rarely was, or the offender had a previous conviction for the same kind of offence, most courts made non-custodial orders. They often required the offender to submit himself to medical treatment. In my experience, few offended again.

Nowadays it seems to be assumed that the victims of these minor kinds of sexual assault suffer long-lasting mental damage. Some no doubt do; but in the opinion of that distinguished and highly esteemed forensic psychiatrist, the late Professor T.C.N. Gibbens, most do not, any more than do women who as children were 'groped' by boys.

The present tendency towards hysteria in relation to sexual offences involving children is bad for the administration of justice. Those who have to decide whether there should be a prosecution may have their judgments unbalanced by any public clamour there may have been about the case under consideration. Then there is the ever present danger of what judges and psychologists call false memory. The witness may genuinely believe that an event did happen when it did not. More frequently an event which did happen but which had no criminal significance is turned by imagination, or suggestion by others, into one which had. This is a particular problem in cases in which schoolmasters are charged with indecently assaulting young pupils. The accused may accidentally have touched the alleged victim's thigh. Other boys may have seen what happened and teasingly have set out to convince him that the master had been 'groping' him. A similar kind of danger exists when over-anxious mothers try too hard to warn their daughters against the dangers which they may encounter. Social workers investigating cases of suspected sexual abuse may unwittingly induce false accusations.

One consequence of the present-day concern to protect the young from sexual abuse, and the publicity which has gone with it, has been to stir up memories of what happened years ago. Men in their thirties have come forward to allege that they were sexually assaulted at school or in children's homes. Prosecutions have resulted. Recently a Roman Catholic member of a teaching order was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for sexual assaults on boys in his care 20 years before. When confronted with the allegations he admitted them and pleaded guilty at his trial. Had he denied what his former pupils were saying he did, it is most unlikely that he would have been charged because of the almost certain lack of corroboration, an essential requirement of the law of evidence in sexual cases. In the absence of an admission the prosecution have to adduce evidence from a source other than the complainant. This materially implicates the accused in the offence. The consequence is that paedophiles who are truthful are convicted. Those who lie go free.

Every paedophile has a place in the spectrum of crime according to the degree of his moral responsibility for what he has done. Those men of sound mind who knowingly and intentionally do evil to children are at one end. They deserve and usually get severe sentences for their acts. At the other end there are those who are sick in mind; for them long stays in mental hospitals are appropriate. Judges and magistrates have to decide where in the spectrum the case before them comes. They are not helped in this difficult task by hysterical outbursts, by whomsoever they are made. The Home Secretary should not meddle with the administration of justice in these kind of cases. He should let judges and magistrates get on with doing what they have experience of doing.

Sir Frederick Lawton is a retired lord justice of appeal


Copyright Spectator Nov 1, 1997

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