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The spectre of the paedophile

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Mark Easton | 16:19 UK time, Thursday, 26 June 2008

I remember as a cub reporter attending a committal hearing for a man accused of sexually abusing children. It was a shocking case and I raced back to the office ready to write it up. But the news editor took me aside and quietly explained that "paedophilia", a word I had never heard before, was not a suitable subject for the pages of his paper.

I do recall a sense of puzzlement that a crime with such appalling consequences for the victim should go unreported but I was junior and green. Some areas of life were simply taboo.

Today how different things are: we have Asda supermarket banning a picture of a baby's bottom as "nudity" and a think-tank complaining that routine criminal record checks on those working with children have made adults scared of interacting with kids.

The spectre of the predatory paedophile is everywhere. Last year a Downing Street survey listed a series of concerns and asked what worried people most. The top answer was "paedophiles on the internet". A separate poll found that eight out of 10 people wanted information on sex offenders who live in their neighbourhood.

So have we got our response to child sex abuse in proportion? Or, as the Civitas think-tank argues, are we in danger of destroying the very thing we aim to protect - a trusting relationship between adults and children?

A few years ago the NSPCC commissioned some extraordinary and detailed research to try and get a handle on the scale of child sex abuse in Britain. The findings have never been seriously disputed.

Sixteen percent of women and 7% of men surveyed said they'd been sexually abused involving physical contact before they were 12 years old. That's one in every nine pre-teen children. If non-contact sexual abuse such as exposure is included, the proportions rise to 21% and 11% respectively.

On this basis, literally millions of people in Britain have been victims of sex abuse as a child. Given the difficulties in gaining intimate and personal information from a self-report survey, these figures may themselves be underestimates.

Picture posed by a modelThe NSPCC estimates that at any one time, one million children are suffering sexual abuse.

If the findings are even close to reality, it must mean there are hundreds of thousands of people who have sexually abused children living in the UK right now. Home Office research backs up the estimate. It found that over 40 years the courts have convicted 110,000 child abusers. Most paedophiles, of course, never get caught.

But it is important in understanding our response to this huge problem, to know the relationship between the abuser and the abused.

The perpetrators are usually known and trusted individuals - a third themselves abused as young people. One in a hundred children will be abused by a parent or carer. One in nine by someone they know.

The analysis poses difficult questions in terms of the correct response. Were we to identify the abusers, the criminal justice system would be incapable of dealing with them. The courts and prison system would be overwhelmed.

The response that says "lock them all up and throw away the key" is simply impractical.
Increasingly, even the most hard-nosed professionals are suggesting we look to prevent abuse by offering paedophiles help and support to change their behaviour.

But the medical evidence for success is mixed. And public attitudes are likely to make such an approach controversial to say the least.

Child abuse is ubiquitous. Solutions all too scarce.


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