Are we living at peak paedophile? No, we passed that a few years ago. But we do live in a culture saturated by paedophile panic. You’re practically not allowed to have contact with kids unless cleared by the Disclosure and Barring Service. Nary a day goes by without a paedophile somewhere getting banged up. We’ve had dear old Rolf, ex-cuddly crying man for Animal Hospital jailed. The horrifying crimes of ex-Lost Prophets singer Ian Watkins and the beyond imagining criminal depravity of Jimmy Savile. Added to the mix is the appalling goings-ons in Rotherham and the historic investigation of paedophilia and murder allegedly involving Members of Parliament.
Thankfully, still, child sex crimes remain relatively rare. According to the NSPCC, there were 23,000 child sex offences recorded last year, of which 5,500 were against kids under the age of 11. However, they maintain that abuse is underreported and as many as five per cent of all children have been sexually abused. That’s far, far too many children living in fear of (mainly) a parent or relative. Words just do not exist.
As sentences catch up with public revulsion, lengthy jail terms do not appear to be acting as a deterrent. How can we ensure kids are protected from abuse? This is something Channel 4 have asked a self-confessed paedophile yesterday evening in their The Paedophile Next Door.
Headed up by Steve Humphries,the documentary filmmaker who uncovered child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, the programme turned around three stories and expert talking heads. The first belonged to Sarah Forsyth, an abuse survivor who was attacked regularly by her father from the age of three. What made her experience all the more harrowing was that she was sent to a children’s home when it all came to light. And there she was abused by a gang of paedophiles who were supposedly her carers. When she was discharged she had the satisfaction of seeing her dad locked up, but subsequently ended up doing sex work in Amsterdam. It was unclear whether the gang were ever brought to justice. However, she is now retraining as a social worker to help keep at-risk kids safe from abuse.
Ian McFadyen has risen to some prominence in the media as one of the leaders of abuse survivors involved in Theresa May’s botched enquiry into an establishment cover up. He attended Caldicott prep school where he came to the attention of a group of predatory teachers around the deputy head, George Hill. Again, in a series of graphic descriptions Ian tells of how he was groomed, initially treated with some tenderness and – at the time – felt he had become complicit with the abuse inflicted on him. As it carried on and more teachers became involved, Ian got heavily into drink and drugs, and used to skip to London at weekend to sell himself to other men. Ian, however, was fortunate enough to see his abusers imprisoned – Hill himself committed suicide as the net closed in on him.
The third guest was a man called Eddie. He is 39 and admitted that since his mid-20s he’s been sexually attracted to children, sometimes kids as young as four. He was also quick to add that he has never acted on his feelings, has no intention of doing, nor ever wants to. Eddie typifies the “virtuous” paedophile – those who have sexual feelings toward children, but are simultaneously horrified/disgusted by their proclivities. He was also typical in the sense that your average paedophile is a heterosexual man who is also attracted to women. His preferences were “non-exclusive” allowing him and many others to carry on otherwise outwardly normal, law-abiding lives.
Asked why he had decided to come out publicly, he recognised he was leaving himself open to abuse and physical attack. Yet Eddie also thought that responding to him violently merely underlined the status quo, a situation where paedophiles are left to their own devices until they commit an offence and then the weight of justice and public opprobrium falls upon them. What is needed is help before an offence is committed.
Dr Sarah Goode, an expert in paedophiles and child sexual abuse concurred. She argued that paedophiles are moral people just like the rest of us who make moral choices. Instead of going overboard with the demonisation of paedophiles before they’ve abused a child, society needs to make that appeal and tell them that they can choose to keep children safe. They are not prisoners of their impulses, but this has to be balanced by society’s recognition that it needs to make help is available.
Humphries, who began the programme with some scepticism came round to this view as well. The crackdown on the notorious Paedophile Information Exchange, the increased number of reports referred to police after 1986 (the year Childline was set up), the documenting and tracking of abusive images and films, and the opportunist campaign by News of the World to name and shame released paedophiles on the sex offenders register. Not only has this stopped an epidemic of abuse, the latter brainchild of Rebekah Brooks may have contributed to an increase of abuse by driving sex offenders underground and back into their networks, which increases the likelihood of reoffending.
If the old, draconian methods don’t work, what can we do to keep kids safe? For retired copper Jon Taylor, a former specialist on child sex abuse cases, we need more online safety at home – parents must supervise the online world of their kids. Survivors like Sarah can also help in the detection of abuse. Yet, what the programme explored is a radical approach. One such initiative is Circles. Here volunteers monitor but also support released paedophiles to prevent them from reoffending. Acting as a friend/social support to these people had a reportedly 70% success rate (i.e. 30% on the programme reoffended). Again, this only engages with paedophiles after a child’s life has been blighted. The programme briefly touches on a German initiative that does just this. It combines a residential course combining counselling and treatment, and it turns out that Eddie has enrolled on similar therapy regimes. Interestingly, Ian Macfadyn agrees with this approach.
The Paedophile Next Door wasn’t an easy watch. It was uncomfortable because the tone it adopted to Eddie was sympathetic, which is something of a cultural first considering only condemnation has hitherto been permissible. Perhaps there is a change in public attitudes though, at least if this hashtag is anything to go by. Nevertheless what Channel 4 have done is inject some much-needed debate into dealing with paedophiles and protecting kids. If we want to stop child sex abuse by any means necessary, it’s got to mean just that.