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Sympathy for the Devil?

Focus: The paedophile threat

Angela Neustatter, The Observer, October 20, 2002 

Pervert, monster, evil. That is our gut reaction to men who harm children. Yet evidence shows that, to contain the menace of paedophilia, we need to understand what drives the abusers

Charles winces when he recalls the bullying his physical appearance brought from girls when he was at school - the things they said about his pale fleshy body, his painful shyness. Now 27, his voice is hesitant, and his dark sunken eyes seem to beg for approval. Not that he expects it. He knows that after trading on the internet in images of children being sexually abused, the label paedophile put him beyond public acceptance. Since coming out of prison he has lived in fear of the lynch mob: 'Every time I walk down the street or go to buy food, I wonder if the person coming towards me is going to attack me. Or I expect a petrol bomb through my door.'

This is unlikely to elicit sympathy at a time when it seems the paedophile threat grows ever greater, fuelled by a series of high profile murder and abuse cases. And the facts are indeed alarming. One in six children will be sexually abused in his or her life, some 80 per cent by people they know, figures brought sharply into focus last week with publication of a report by the inspectorates of eight children's services, showing how they are failing to protect children.

There are many more horrifying statistics. Recent findings from Huddersfield University show that one in five children has been the subject of unwanted sexual advances outside the home. Home Office figures last year showed that of 37,300 sex crimes recorded by police in England and Wales seven per cent involved children. And there are more than 18,000 people on the Sex Offenders Register (although that includes offences against adults).

But if this at least makes the risk seem calculable, the sinister threat of an increasingly sophisticated and devious internet trade is not. It is a business that relies on images of children being abused, many in front of the camera - toddlers manacled to beds, blindfolded babies being tortured, children raped and buggered. And most chillingly, as the ongoing police investigation into 2,000 middle-class professionals including police officers, magistrates, teachers and civil servants demonstrates yet again, society's caretakers probably pose a greater risk than the seedy man in the white van.

Donald Findlater was director of the Wolvercote Clinic which provided sex offender treatment and was judged exceptionally successful by the Home Office. It has now been closed because of public objection. He says: 'I am sure the internet could lead to a substantial rise in offences. It delivers material into the home, putting ideas into people's heads. At Wolvercote we learnt how quickly, using the internet, men moved from fantasising about abusing adolescents through to baby abuse and bondage. The fact that what they are watching is an abuse actually taking place can make them think about doing it themselves.'

An American survey found that some three-quarters of people using child porn were also abusers. In such a climate it is hardly surprising that parents react to the threat with fear and loathing, and with vigilante justice, driving known child sex abusers from their home towns.

But perhaps protecting our youngsters means we should make more effort to understand what motivates men to abuse children. That is the message of Innocence Betrayed (Polity Press, published 24 October) a book by David Wilson, Professor of Criminology at the University of Central England, and journalist Jon Silverman. They examined who child sex abusers are, the threat they pose, what can be done about them, and what role society has in dealing with the problem. Their research is based on interviews with paedophiles themselves, those working with them, police and parents.

Wilson, a former governor at Grendon Underwood prison, where he worked in a therapeutic community with some of the country's most serious sex offenders, describes how paedophiles, when they are identified and hounded underground, become loners or mix with their own kind. Thus marginalised, they see themselves as victims. In this frame of mind, they feel they have little to lose by re-offending, and so pose a real threat.

And, however unpalatable they know the idea of sympathy for the devil may be, the Government is putting money into a variety of projects and programmes which put child sex offenders at their centre, based on the premise that with the right help and under standing, they may choose to alter their abusing behaviour.

The newest of these is 'Stop It Now!', a Home Office-funded project based on a helpline and public education campaign which aims to prevent abuse happening in the first place, or to get it stopped as soon as possible. It is based on the project started in America by a child sex abuse survivor, Fran Henry .

Campaign co-ordinator John Brownlow said: 'The way society deals with what is talked of as the paedophile threat is by demonising them. They are not seen as having a conscience. So our project avoids the word paedophile. Already our phone calls show us, just as has been found in America, that there are people who are worried about their inclinations and where they are leading but who have no idea where to go for help. The confidential helpline is a place they can seek guidance, find out where there is treatment.'

They have had 103 calls since June, some from men thinking of abusing and wanting to talk through their inclination to prevent them from continuing. One man who had been viewing child images on the net and finding himself aroused by his children's friends, called three times. He was advised to talk to his wife and ended up going to the police with his computer.

The helpline is also for families, friends or strangers worried about somebody's behaviour and for abuse victims who need support.

Psychologist Julia Long says that seeing men 'who society sees as immutably bad change quite dramatically is the reward I get for my work'. She has worked with sex offenders for almost a decade, and now runs the cognitive behavioural sex offender treatment programme at Bullingdon Prison. These programmes, now operating in 27 prisons, have been found to reduce re-convictions. They were started experimentally 10 years ago based on the premise that, rather than just keeping these men in solitary confinement for their own protection, it might be possible to rehabilitate them.

Long begins by approaching the men she works with as equals who deserve humanity, and recognising how many have had 'very sad and damaging backgrounds themselves', but who need to acknowledge that they have significant problems.

'Most have never been able to make relationships or achieve any kind of intimacy with other people,' she explains, 'so we aim to help them develop normal relationships with those of us working with them and other prisoners because that's what they will need to do when they go out.'

Alongside this, the men must examine what they have done, look at the decisions that led them to offend and think about how they could have done things differently. There is roleplay in which they may act out the part of victim and, says Long, 'this can trigger a lot of grief and remorse'.

'Before release they work on strategies to avoid getting into situations where they would be tempted to offend again. We give them goals and a vision of what a good life could be like, and how it's attainable.'

Charles, who did the programme at Bullingdon and has now been out of prison for six months, insists it has helped him get rid of the anger and resentment he felt from a life marked by loneliness and self-loathing. 'Growing up, I thought I was physically repulsive and had nothing of interest to offer anyone,' he says. It got worse living in a house with his younger sibling whose teenage girlfriends seemed to Charles to taunt him with their sexuality but then reject him.

Alone in his room, he sought images of teenage girls being raped, and recollects: 'I felt revenge. The girls who visited had all the power but these girls were being punished, and by watching I was part of it. I wanted more and more. Then my fantasies grew and became very dark. I am sure if I hadn't been caught I'd have assaulted a teenage girl.'

He won't say he will never offend again. 'How does anyone know forever?' But he is determined he doesn't want to. So he never has his computer on in a closed room, has shaped his life with activities and sees every day that he doesn't offend as an affirmation that he can succeed.

'I want to be accepted as a normal person,' he says.

Helping offenders to live normal lives within society is precisely the aim of the three befriending projects that began this summer with Home Office funding. They are modelled on the Canadian experience, which now offers 33 befriending circles for sex offenders.

Helen Drewery who, on behalf of the Quakers, runs one of the British circles, explains: 'A Canadian evaluation showed that less than half the men befriended who would have been expected to re-offend after two years, had done so. And they said the support given had helped them live without offending again.'

The way it works is that a child sex offender leaving prison is offered the chance to become a 'core member'. He makes a covenant with his volunteer as to how they will work together and typically this will mean regular phone conversations, volunteers accompanying him to the benefits office and on shopping trips, and joining the offender for social encounters, such as a coffee or meal together.

Drewery explains: 'This way we help the man develop a normal lifestyle which is the opposite of living as an introvert when fantasies can too easily grow. We help him see that he can make friends and have a different kind of life. The hope is that other people in the community will be drawn into seeing that they too can include the offender.'

Importantly it also means, Drewery points out, that circle members who know the core member well will be alert to worrying changes in behaviour or routine, and 'if necessary we alert the police, but ideally we try to make the decision to go to the police with the core member'.

What these projects do not address is the grim fact that some 500 teenagers a year are convicted of sex offences. So it is vital to identify potential paedophiles and cut into the cycle of behaviour before it begins, insists Dr Eileen Vizard, consultant child psychiatrist and director of the NSPCC's Young Abusers Project in north-London .

Here they see very young children who, Vizard fears, may well become abusers. She sees children as young as five with highly sexualised behaviour who may go on to carry out sexual assaults on other children. Older children come with disturbing levels of sexual talk and arousal, and may be trying to have sex with other children. Once into their teens, these children may begin to fantasise about sadistic acts and abducting younger children to abuse.

Vizard says angrily: 'Without exception these children are victims of appalling childhoods, most often sexual abuse and often physical and emotional abuse too, and nobody has been there to help or protect them.'

So the Young Abusers Project uses therapeutic methods that focus on the way they are behaving - but also gives them an opportunity to explore their own traumas.

Vizard, seeing children change and stop their sexualised behaviour, is convinced that more funding for projects like these would cut the future cost of dealing with the childrens' behaviour.

So are these initiatives, which put precious resources into working with child sex offenders, the best way? Or, in the wake of the report showing acute lack of resources for child protection agencies, isn't this where the money should be spent?

It is a difficult argument, but increasingly those working with child sex offenders are convinced that we must support the work being done that acknowledges the humanity rather than the evil of these men - even those abusers whose crimes against children are unbearable to contemplate.

Primitive rage as a response is understandable and has a comforting absolutism about it. But Wilson - himself a father of two young children 'and as passionate about protecting them as anyone' - says that ultimately, if we are talking about protecting children, we have to take on responsibility for the perpetrators as well as their victims.

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