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25 March 2002updated 24 Sep 2015 12:31pm

The sad truth about child molesters

Johann Harimeets paedophiles at a sex offenders' treatment centre and reaches what, for liberals, wi

By Johann Hari

Almost any discussion of paedophilia in Britain degenerates into expressions of the paediatrician-bashing mob mentality that has swept across this country for the past few years. Yet we need to cut through the revulsion we feel towards child molesters in order to find out the hard facts about these men and women.

It is in order to do just this that I visit Maidstone Prison, where the sex offenders’ wing houses some of Britain’s most notorious paedophiles, including Jonathan King and members of the infamous Wonderland Club.

I am led through the wing by Jan Evans, who runs and co-ordinates the Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP) at Maidstone. The SOTP was launched nationwide in 1991 as part of an integrated strategy for dealing with sex offenders. Paedophiles and rapists are treated alongside each other for a few hours each weekday for up to six months. Any sex offender who volunteers for the programme is accepted on to the course.

Evans is frank about the toll of working with men who have committed hard-core sex crimes. “You’re absolutely emotionally drained after dealing with these people . . . But when you see somebody change, and genuinely change, then it’s amazing and it’s worth it.”

She does not see paedophilia as an incurable sexual orientation. Evans explains that “most of the paedophiles have some sort of inadequacy, some inability to relate to adults. They often lack intimacy and the social skills that go with it. You can often trace it back to disruptive parenting. Of course,” she says, “there are some that have a definite sexual preference for children, but I still usually think that’s tied up with not engaging with adults.”

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Participants in the SOTP attend four or five long meetings every week. These group sessions are structured and led by supervisors such as Evans, who uses techniques like “victim empathy role-plays”. This is where the sex offenders act in pairs, with one offender playing the part of the victim. Other techniques include asking the offenders to make collages of the factors that they believe led to their offending, and writing unposted letters to their victims.

As our interview progresses, Evans becomes painfully candid about one of the people her programme failed to treat successfully, a man she counselled almost every day for six months. “I identified areas [in the post-treatment assessment] that were still of concern. He was particularly into sadism . . . I did identify those areas, but he had a short sentence. So we sent him to another establishment . . . and the decision was made [by them] that he should get parole.” A few months later, he elaborately planned and enacted the rape, torture and slow murder of a woman.

She admits: “I remember saying, ‘This guy, he did really well’. And he did have a good report after the treatment. He was so aware of the factors that led to his offending . . . But at the end of the day, he wasn’t motivated to seek fulfilment of [those desires].” She has cut straight to the problem with cognitive approaches to sex offending: thought patterns can only be restructured if there is a huge effort of will on the part of the individual to do so. If the will isn’t there, cognitive therapy can actually enhance the self- knowledge and effectiveness of some very frightening individuals.

Evans continues: “Everybody here was really shaken. We started to really question whether we were . . .” At that point, the Home Office press officer present interrupts her, sensing that she has strayed into impolitic areas.

I am quickly led through to meet my first sex offender. Frank looks almost like a caricature of a paedophile: big glasses, a slightly hunched, wiry frame and a slow, careful way of speaking. He is very positive about the SOTP, and explains that “Before, I never understood how the victim feels. But now, I’ve had to talk about how it [sexual abuse] wrecks their lives.” When he was in prison before, he did not go on to any programme, and when he left, he knew he “would probably do it again”. Now, when he is next released, he says he firmly believes he “won’t do it again”, and he is reassured that he has been guaranteed regular, high-quality aftercare, which will continue the SOTP counselling work when he is out in the community.

At times, though, Frank seems to fall back on to a script, and uses language that jars with the way he normally speaks. His talk of “victim empathy” seems a little forced, but most worrying is when he begins to describe the pattern of how he abused kids – in the present tense. “I befriend them. I don’t just grab them off the street. I take them shopping and buy them things.” When I mention the murder of Sarah Payne, he says: “I never did really serious things like that. That’s wrong.” Is this a carefully fitted mask slipping? Or is it an honest slip of the tongue?

The second sex offender I meet, Joe, is serving a seven-year sentence for a gay rape. He shows similar traits. A man of limited vocabulary, he none the less has a series of phrases he has clearly heard in the SOTP – “victim narrative”, for instance – which he uses repeatedly. This could be evidence that the programme has restructured the men’s thought processes, but equally, it could be that the SOTP has drilled them in how to sound repentant. “It’s quite easy to spot the people who are just giving you what you want to hear,” Evans explained. “It’s a very long programme, so you can break that down.”

I am not so sure: the offenders I spoke to – who were both at the end of the SOTP – were still speaking in a muddled way about their crimes. In the case of Joe, even the basic narrative of his offence contained factual contradictions.

A Home Office study in 1998, however, claimed to find that the programme is effective in reducing the rate of sex-offending. Offenders were tested before and after the SOTP (and again nine months later), and virtually everyone claimed to have fewer distorted thoughts about children and a better understanding of the effect abuse has on kids. But worryingly, even by the end of the programme, very few of the men were giving test answers that were in line with the responses from your average man in the street.

The study also found that those who had been released into the community had rapidly deteriorating “relapse prevention skills” – which means, in everyday language, that they were finding it hard not to go out and abuse another child.

The Home Office research used no control group – a flaw that plagues the academic literature on sex offenders. Because it had nothing to compare its results to, we do not know how a group of similar men who did not go on the SOTP changed during that time. As a result, the study and many others like it are of very little value – yet our practitioners and policy-makers rely on its findings.

In contrast, a unique study was conducted with a control group. The psychologist J K Marques and three colleagues wrote about the findings for the journal Criminal Justice and Behaviour. They monitored paedophiles who were part of a very extensive programme of both individual and group treatment and, after they were released, of a year-long aftercare programme. These offenders were given the highest-quality treatment known for paedophiles, and it might have been hoped that there would be impressive results.

Yet the treatment made no difference at all. Those who had been through the programme were just as likely to reoffend as those with no treatment at all.

It seems, on this evidence, that Sigmund Freud might have been right after all when he judged paedophilia to be an intractable sexual orientation, entirely unresponsive to treatment. In the mid-20th century, we moved away from this view towards a belief that we could treat paedophiles sufficiently to release them into the community. There were honourable experiments conducted by people like Jan Evans. But judging by the available evidence, these experiments are shown to have failed.

Most paedophiles are, as the child abuse expert Dr W F Glaser of the University of Melbourne argues, “long-term recidivists. The oldest offenders in the clinic where I consult are in their eighties . . . Burglars, car thieves and brawlers all appear to give up in their thirties, but paedophiles just keep on offending.” Combine this with the knowledge that sex offences against children have a negligibly low detection rate, and it becomes clear that the stakes, when a paedophile is released, are unusually high.

Some on the hard right, especially in the United States, have argued for a very different approach to treatment. They advocate “treating” paedophiles with drugs that drain them of sexual desire (“chemical castration”), or even actual castration. Yet study after study has found that these “treatments” never stop sex offenders. Shorn of the ability to maintain an erection, the molesters simply continue their abuse by using objects instead of their penis.

The sad conclusion to which all this cold evidence leads is that paedophiles can never be released safely because the risk of recidivism is so great. Perhaps this disappointing statement could be twinned by a brave politician (David Blunkett?) with the less palatable, but no less true, assertion that almost all paedophiles have been sexually abused themselves. These are not satanic monsters, but tragic, pitiful figures.

Once we conclude that they can never be released, but nor are they evil, we could begin to talk about treating them humanely.

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