How do we deal with paedophiles?

Published by The i paper (6th March, 2017)

Two years ago, I sat down with a pair of Britain’s most senior police officers, both then serving at the National Crime Agency. One a former chief constable, the other head of the child exploitation unit – and between them half a century in the ranks seeing the worst of human behaviour. Yet, over coffee, they explained how nothing had shocked them so much as seeing the scale of male sexual desire for children.

The statistics they quoted were scary. Some studies suggest that 3 per cent of men have sexual interest in minors, although they worked on the more conservative estimate of 1 per cent. Yet even this meant there are 750,000 men with this deviance in Britain, of whom perhaps one-third are ‘true paedophiles’ as defined by attraction to pre-pubescent children. ‘Whatever the exact figure, it is big,’ said one of the officers. ‘The reality is that we are all living not far away from one.’

Little wonder that the criminal justice system is clogged with sex offenders, as the authorities start to cope better with child abuse and unravel terrible historic offences. No crime provokes greater fear or revulsion, often leaving young victims damaged for the rest of their lives. During her time in the Home Office, Theresa May was profoundly moved after meeting tormented survivors – and deeply shocked as she began to see also the extent of child abuse in our society.

This is what made the recent intervention by Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, so important. He suggested that police, courts and prisons were reaching ‘saturation point’ and should focus efforts on people posing a physical risk to children, whether through direct contact or directing online activities. Lower-level offending should be decriminalised and dealt with through counselling and rehabilitation, he proposed.

Cue inevitable furore. ‘This is a great day to be a paedophile,’ said the Internet Watch Foundation, demanding ‘zero tolerance’ towards offenders. Parents of victims reacted with understandable outrage. MPs united to express alarm. ‘For many decades, institutions have put children at risk because it was seen as too difficult, not a priority or resources were insufficient to keep them safe,’ said Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee. ‘I would not want to see the same happen over online child abuse.’

Yet Bailey was right to raise this issue. The number of child abuse reports has near doubled in three years, with police running more than 70,000 investigations a year. Another 40,000 abuse reports are expected to arise from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which has finally started hearings. Before this digital age dawned, paedophiles were found in possession of an average of 150 images; today, many caught have downloaded thousands from 100 million available online. Each computer, each phone, can take several months to sift even with specialist software.

It is a significant advance if more victims feel able to step forward to the authorities and more abusers are apprehended, however slow this progress. The number of sex offenders sent to prison has more than doubled this century. This surge, with those found guilty getting far longer sentences, means they now comprise one in eight prisoners (where an ex-inmate claimed in a recent letter to me that abusers get left in unsupervised areas by officers to be ‘battered’ by other offenders, ‘like bear-baiting’). Almost one-quarter of Crown Court time is spent on sex cases, rising to half in one court in Humberside.

Yet, however strong the drive to punish, it is more important to prevent future child exploitation and the consequent spiral of pain. One study suggested that 3 per cent of British women and 1 per cent of men suffer sexual assault before they are 16. But tough sentencing does not seem to cut recidivism. Mandatory reporting laws that criminalise anyone failing to report suspicions and which are under consideration appear simply to swamp the authorities with false claims in other nations, while charities fear they may deter victims seeking support.

Experts still debate what drives an adult sexually to abuse a child, to most of us simply an unimaginable evil. Consensus seems to be some kind of deviant sexual orientation, which means desires can be controlled or cut with medication but not changed. Those working with paedophiles say they are most likely to attack children when feeling despair or depressed, emotions fuelled by the contempt in which they are held by others in society (although, of course, children are exploited to create any images accessed online).

So what can be done? Distinguish clearly between predatory child rapists, passive paedophiles and teenagers breaking consent laws. Put more pressure on internet giants to clean up the web. Promote existing campaigns seeking to deter sharing of indecent images by directing paedophiles to resources that may restrain behaviour. Perhaps follow the pioneering Project Dunkelfeld in Germany, which permits people troubled by their feelings to get help without fear of being reported to police? Possibly prison is not always the best solution for those caught.

The scale of degradation, the depths of depravity, this dark side of humanity are uncomfortable things to confront. Globalisation and technology inflame an issue that causes great distress, yet we struggle still to comprehend it. Most cases involve trusted adults, which only increases the misery and tragedy. Yet we should debate the kind of questions raised by Bailey, listen closely to experts and, dare I say, try to understand causes of these most terrible acts rather than simply recoil. Punishment of past offences must not take precedence over prevention of future horrors.

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