Horror for a senior detective
Published by The Mail on Sunday (21st June, 2015)
During 28 years as a detective, Phil Gormley thought he had seen it all, from vicious rapes to brutal murders. Like other police officers, he has also had to confront sickening evidence of child sex abuse.
Yet the former chief constable – now deputy director general of the National Crime Agency – was horrified to discover just how many British men have a sexual desire for children.
‘Like most people, I am shocked by the estimated number who have this interest,’ he says. ‘It tells us some unhealthy things about human nature.’
Sitting in their London office, Gormley and his colleague Johnny Gwynne, head of Child Exploitation And Online Protection, disclose to me figures that are simply astonishing.
Gwynne says there are no absolute figures given the furtive nature of this proclivity. But based on detailed research, he believes at least one per cent of adult men may have sexual interest in minors. But he adds: ‘Some go up to three per cent. The number I would put on it is 750,000 men in this country.’
Of these, he says, about a third are ‘true paedophiles’, as defined by scientists for having an interest in pre-pubescent children – those under 12.
‘Whatever the exact figure, it is big,’ adds Gormley. ‘Every day another group of young men are coming to puberty and developing this interest.’
The disturbing data is based upon academic evidence and current consensus among experts. The Mail on Sunday has established it is accepted as accurate within senior police ranks, the home office and child protection bodies. Not all the men act on their urges, they say.
A senior Home Office source says such figures seem ‘unfathomable’ at first. ‘But once you get involved in the area you realise this is such a vast problem. It is just incredible.’
Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP and campaigner on the issue, adds: ‘This is just horrifying and gives us an indication of the size of the problem. We have to really come up with a national strategy to handle this.’
In recent years the authorities have been coming to terms with the scale of child sex abuse and exploitation. Prisons are now overflowing with sex offenders, who make up more than one in six inmates.
This followed the slew of historic cases such as revelations surrounding celebrities such as Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall, along with details of grooming gangs in Rotherham and Oxford, plus allegations of abuse at highest levels in Westminster.
Three months ago, Home Secretary Theresa May warned, ‘We will never look at society in the same way again’ once an inquiry she set up into such child abuse reports back. Now it becomes clearer why she made such grim comments.
Gormley admits child sex abuse has not been ‘centre stage of policy’ for most of his three decades in policing, but says there have been huge steps forward in the past two years.
When the National Crime Agency was established to confront organised crime in October 2013, it had fewer than ten cases of child abuse. Today it is investigating more than 150, with 300 dedicated detectives in its child protection unit.
Almost 750 people were caught in one major case involving 520 children, while the NCA is also seeing growing evidence of ‘abuse to order‘ – British men paying as little as $3 (£1.90) to observe sexual attacks streamed online from Asia.
‘Before, you had to go to a place such as Thailand,’ says Gormley. ‘Now you can sit at your computer and type commands for abuse.’
This is a horrendous concept: paedophiles picking out child victims from a line-up and ordering their abuse from the other side of the world. It underlines how much investigatory work now focuses on the dark side of the digital world.
‘I don’t know if there is a massive increase in the number of people with a proclivity for child sex,’ says Gormley. ‘There used to be a physical connection for paedophilia but the internet allows people to pursue that interest without having to go into public spaces.
‘It also normalises such behaviour because there are online communities of such men. And it facilitates an interest in a way that was not possible before.’
Before the internet arrived, paedophiles were found in possession of an average 150 images. Today there are 100 million child abuse pictures online and individuals may have hundreds of thousands downloaded. There could be a dozen digital devices in an offender’s house, each needing intricate examination with specialist software that can take six months to carry out.
Each picture is a potential crime scene. A new computer system was installed this year to co-ordinate examination of child abuse images, which will be linked to Interpol; the NCA alone will have 12 officials whose only job is to identify victims in these unsavoury images.
There are also big projects under way to find fresh ways to track paedophiles online, including using sophisticated software to warn children in chatrooms if there is an adult masquerading as a youngster.
Already if a person searches for up to 1,000-word combinations on Google a warning of illegality pops up with details of help available. It was triggered a worrying three million times last year.
The NCA and police are also starting to spot possible abusers based on their online behaviour.
This opens up two controversial areas. The first – the current row over the ‘snooper’s charter’ – highlights the issue of law enforcement versus privacy.
‘Policing was not looking in these areas 15 years ago,’ says Gormley. ‘We are having to consider how we police the private space.’
The second is how can society in the current fearful climate offer help to men seeking to control their urge to sexually abuse children?
‘If all we have is arrest and incarceration that will not help them come forward,’ says Gormley. ‘If we can reduce the harm done to children by aiding people to recognise and control their urges that must be a good thing. But this is a very uncomfortable discussion for society.’
Simon Bailey, the Association of Chief Police Officers spokesman on child protection, recently suggested ‘non-contact abusers’ – those solely viewing images online – might be treated by mental health specialists on the NHS.
The Lucy Faithfull Foundation in Birmingham offers counselling to potential molesters. Donald Findlater, its research director, says: ‘Right now we have a strategy of waiting until a child is harmed and then we do something. We need to do something before children are harmed.’
The NSPCC agrees. John Brown, who heads the charity’s sexual abuse programme, says: ‘It’s not about being nice to paedophiles but about preventing child abuse.’
Most child abuse takes place within the family, but some offenders prowl for vulnerable victims or exploit positions of trust.
Last week the NSPCC issued a report revealing the number of children in the child protection system had risen 80 per cent in just over a decade to 570,800 – while it estimates that for every one child officially identified as ‘at risk’, eight more suffer abuse.
These are terrifying figures. Most victims were aged between 12 and 16, although more than one in four were younger.
A study by police chiefs into their caseload of child sexual abuse showed a rise in incidents from 66,120 in 2012 to a projected 113,291 cases in 2015. Historic cases have risen by 165 per cent.
Little wonder when I asked Gormley about the odds of living next door to a paedophile, he gave me a chilling response. ‘If these numbers are accurate the reality is that we are all living not far away from one.’