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21 August 2000

You can’t be liberal about sex abuse

Rebekah Wade's campaign has forced us to ask why we continue to give children's rights such a low pr

By Yvonne Roberts

Since launching her campaign to introduce “Sarah’s Law” – a law that would give parents the right to know if a convicted paedophile were living near them, and would tighten the sentencing and monitoring of sex offenders – Rebekah Wade, the editor of the News of the World, has been accused of cynicism, disingenuousness and putting children at risk. Wade has defiantly defended her position, motivated, she says, by “the immense gap between public opinion and public policy” on the issue of child sexual abuse. “Honest people feel the system is failing them . . . ,” she has written.

Wade is right. In the 25 years since abuse survivors first began to talk of their experiences in numbers, ministers have ignored a multitude of opportunities, constantly giving the benefit of the doubt not to child victims, but to their predators, ignoring the recommendations of one official report after another. Wade is also right in her decision to continue the campaign. She should go further. She should call for a national inquiry so that a proper strategy for dealing with child sexual abuse can be drawn up and imposed.

In 1996, the NSPCC’s National Commission of Inquiry into the Prevention of Child Abuse was published. It included valuable suggestions for action, which are still applicable. Among them was a call for more research into the incidence of abuse and the effectiveness of large-scale public education; a study of the characteristics of paedophiles (too often, they are erroneously painted in the media as much respected professionals who have had a single lapse due to stress or depression); a long-term assessment of the impact of abuse; and the establishment of a clearing house to disseminate research and good practice. In the tradition of denial that has consistently damned any clarion call for national action on this issue, The Daily Mail‘s headline was “The survey that makes child abusers of us all”. Politicians ran for cover.

This time, their flight is more difficult. The News of the World carries clout with voters. And Wade has had the guts to go where others have feared to tread. Yes, the campaign has caused violence and damage, disrupted lives and breached human rights. And the News of the World has shown a certain amount of ignorance, under-estimating the subtlety and range of child abusers by labelling them all as perverts and animals. It has also ignored the startling statistics showing that many paedophiles are close to home – fathers, mothers, uncles.

Yet if the campaign for Sarah’s Law has exacted a high price, it is a price worth paying if it succeeds in reversing decades of neglect, disbelief, under-resourcing, appalling Establishment cover-ups and political unwillingness to face up to the extent of paedophile activity and the difficult dilemmas it presents.

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According to Home Office figures, 120,000 British men over the age of 20 have a conviction for a sexual offence against a child; one in five will be convicted again. Academics say that this is only a fraction of those who offend. In the US in the 1980s, 539 paedophiles were given a certificate of confidentiality ensuring that they would not be prosecuted. They confessed to a staggering 243,000 crimes. Some men (and a few women) may offend only once or twice. But many others will molest, rape, bugger, masturbate and control a child for years by a mixture of guilt and fear. I’ve interviewed many survivors over the past 20 years; too many have expected nothing from life except continuing proof that they are worthless, dirty and to blame.

Convictions remain rare – fewer than 10 per cent of prosecutions. In 1997, for instance, there were 582 prosecutions for rape of girls under 16, but these resulted in only 198 convictions. The whole system requires a drastic overhaul recognising that sexual abuse is a unique crime with specific difficulties because of the age of the victims. One child in three receives no support or preparation for court. Sentencing is erratic. Last year, Robert Oliver was released after serving only eight years of a 15-year sentence for the man-slaughter of Jason Swift, a young boy suffocated during a paedophile orgy. Small wonder that the public have lost faith.

How effective is treatment? Nobody truly knows. Paedophiles are self-deceiving and manipulative – as media interviews have demonstrated. George Barrow of the Association of Chief Officers of Probation believes that, even if the success rate is only 5 per cent, it is worth it to spare more victims. “If we don’t have that layer of treatment,” he says, “the odds of reoffending get worse.” Crucially, too, in treatment, offenders are easier to monitor.

Treatment programmes have multiplied. Still, two-thirds of offenders discharged from prison and half of those under supervision in the community (surveillance that, at present, may last for only ten years after release) have not been through one. In the UK, it is estimated that up to 36 per cent of sexual abuse is perpetrated by those under the age of 18. The NSPCC runs 18 projects for young abusers, but little else is on offer.

Improvements are being made, but piecemeal. Co-operation between professionals is much improved. The current review of sex laws includes measures that may halt the tendency to blame the victim. For instance, it will be a serious offence to solicit a girl under 18. In recognition of the consequences of the high rate of divorce, incest will be replaced by familial abuse. Shortly, a national commission for care is to be established, and it will be an offence to apply for a job with children if you have a conviction for abuse.

The emerging “consensus” among politicians has resulted in the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, and William Hague agreeing with the News of the World on the need for indeterminate sentences. But a great deal more is required. For example, 160,000 children a year are considered for at-risk registers – only one- seventh are eventually included. Support for the rest, who include the vulnerable on whom paedophiles prey, is scant.

The issue of community access to a paedophile register urgently needs public debate – although a number of organisations, such as the NSPCC, have backed away from raising it in the past because of its civil liberties implications. Information is already given, in certain circumstances, to families considered at risk – although nobody conferred with those of the Paulsgrove estate when Victor Burnett, one member of a paedophile ring that committed more than 700 offences over five years, was placed in their midst two years ago.

Disbelief and denial have always constituted the common Establishment response to revelations of child sex abuse. In Cleveland in 1987, paediatricians suspected that 121 children had been sexually abused – 32 were under three. But mismanagement by the professionals and a media witch-hunt ensured that most of the children were returned home. Two independent panels later decided that between 70 per cent and 75 per cent of the diagnoses had been correct. Only after six inquiries did the truth emerge about abuse in children’s homes in Clwyd, which had affected 200 young people over 20 years. Like the inquiries into homes in Cheshire, Merseyside and Devon, the voices of the children were ignored.

It must soon dawn on the government that dealing with paedophilia requires more than lock-’em-up populism. It also involves an examination of contentious issues such as children’s versus parents’ rights; the provision of sex education at an early age; questioning the privacy of the family; examining the fondness of the market place for sexualised infants (see page 20, NS Essay); and challenging lenient sentencing of those who enjoy sex with the very young.

Rebekah Wade has forced child sex abuse to the top of the political agenda. However unsavoury naming and shaming has proved, however flawed some of her proposals, Wade has forced the chattering classes to face the uncomfortable truth that, in the treatment of paedophiles, certain liberal tenets simply cannot hold good.

Somebody has to suffer – and for too long, shamefully, we’ve allowed it to be the child.