It is all too easy to believe that there is a paedophile on every street. The lengthy series of arrests under Operation Ore of men like Who star Pete Tonwshend who visited a paedophile web site in the US, together with the revelations about sexual abuse in the Catholic church, suggest that the phenomenon of paedophilia is more prevalent than previously thought.
Certainly, the continued revelations are of great concern but it is important to keep a sense of perspective. While the viewing of pornographic pictures of children is rightly an offence, because it shows an illegal act being committed for the purposes of publication, only a small minority of those who visit such websites will go on to abuse children. The internet has undoubtedly created a new outlet for people interested in pornographic pictures of children but that does not mean the amount of abuse has increased.
It is very hard for politicians and even those working in the field of child protection to keep a sense of perspective in the face of the media panics which inevitably follow high profile operations like Ore. Attempts to find out the extent of child sexual abuse are hampered by the secrecy and lack of reporting of offences. According to a recent book, Innocence Betrayed the Home Office research that between 3,500 and 72,600 children are abused every year in England and Wales – in other words there is such a wide margin of error that the figures do not provide a sensible basis for policy making.
While it is easy to despair and to resort to simplistic campaigns like the outrageous ‘naming and shaming’ campaign by the News of the World two years ago, the prevalence of child sexual abuse can be reduced by attacking its root causes. As I argued in my book*, the sexual abuse of children will only happen inc circumstances where the preconditions are right. Institutions with leaders who are either naïve or deliberately turn a blind eye to what is going on, such as children’s homes in the 1970s and 1980s and the Catholic Church provide just such opportunities. As a result of much greater awareness of the problem and the creation of a regime in which children’s complaints are listened to rather than ignored, children’s homes and similar institutions are now much safer. Even the Catholic Church is learning from its past mistakes and no longer simply moves on priests who have been the subject of complaints, though it has long way to go before regaining its credibility.
Paedophiles are always helped by the fact that child sexual abuse is a hidden phenomenon whose existence is not even recognised except in stranger danger campaigns. And these are counterproductive since they focus on the risk from strangers when, in fact, it is relatives and friends who are much more frequently abusers. The best protection is a readiness by society to accept and even publicise the fact that child sexual abuse exists and, most important, damages children.
Targeting known offenders, as the News of the World did, is entirely misdirected because the vast majority are unconvicted. All the News of the World did was to drive those who were likely to offend further underground and to damage the efforts of the many offenders who are seeking to reform.
Therefore any campaign aimed at reducing child sexual abuse must look at in the same way as other public health programmes. Donald Findlater, the manager of the Wolvercote centre which treated sex abusers until its closure last year, argues that it is possible to achieve dramatic changes in public attitudes through such campaigns: ‘What we need is a preventative philosophy for child sex abuse and over time you will see attitudes change’.
That has already happened in the US state of Vermont where the ‘Stop it Now’ was launched eight years ago. The aim of the campaign is to publicise the existence of the phenomenon and to ensure that both potential abusers and victims can get access to help through a phoneline. The publicity campaign not only led to much greater awareness of the problem but crucially, meant that victims had access to immediate help which helps to prevent long term abuse. For victims, the widespread acceptance that they are having their well-being damaged is a powerful weapon in exposing the abuser.
The Stop it Now has now only changed perceptions, but it has led to more guilty pleas by offenders because evidence from victims is taken more seriously by the authorities. Most important, such campaigns offer hope that it is possible to tackle the issue head on, just as say drink driving or smoking was a generation ago and ultimately reduce the number of victims.