Analysis: How one clinic managed to curb the deviance of paedophiles

Even the inmates of pioneering Wolvercote Clinic wonder why ministers are closing the one place that can reform their attitudes
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Who can blame the residents of Chertsey? After all, few of us would want a clinic treating sex offenders in our neighbourhood. Yet a deep contradiction lies at the heart of the case of the local action group that has opposed the opening of the treatment centre for paedophiles, proposed for the old Silverlands Hospital site at Chertsey in Surrey.

Who can blame the residents of Chertsey? After all, few of us would want a clinic treating sex offenders in our neighbourhood. Yet a deep contradiction lies at the heart of the case of the local action group that has opposed the opening of the treatment centre for paedophiles, proposed for the old Silverlands Hospital site at Chertsey in Surrey.

The clinic in question is called the Wolvercote. The Government plans to sell its previous home, at Horton Hospital in Epsom, to a property developer. As a result, the residential unit, which contains some of the most highly deviant paedophiles in Britain, will close indefinitely.

The paradox is that the men, and the handful of women, who leave the Wolvercote are far less of a danger to children than are many of the paedophiles who live undetected in countless neighbourhoods after being freed from prison having had therapy programmes that are far less successful.

There are some 18,000 individuals on the Sex Offender Register, though experts estimate the number of abusers is far higher, with as many as one in 10 children having suffered from serious sexual assaults, most often perpetrated by a family member or friend.

Britain's jails currently hold 5,600 child sex offenders, of whom 786 had some form of therapeutic treatment last year in just under a fifth of UK prisons. A further 5,000 abusers are the subject of supervision orders by the Probation Service, which hopes to have between 1,600 and 2,000 on accredited therapy schemes by April 2003. Yesterday the Home Office could not give a figure for the number in therapy today.

Home Office-commissioned research indicates that about two thirds of sex offenders have their "pro-offending attitudes" reduced by treatment, with one third of men responding more fully. The findings suggest that the longer the treatment, the better the results. Those treated in probation groups do the poorest. The residential programme at the Wolvercote does by far the best.

Monitoring of the 300 men treated at the Wolvercote's existing site over the seven years of its existence showed "good overall success in producing overall change, even in high deviance offenders, with 71 per cent showing reduction in pro-offending attitudes", says an internal Home Office report on the clinic. And that is working with offenders referred on by the prison system, and other authorities, who acknowledge they had failed to make the desired impact on the men. A survey 12 months after discharge showed the improved behaviour had been sustained.

In one sense the results are unsurprising. On average, a patient at the Wolvercote has 765 hours of group therapy, plus more individual and skills therapy. Those in jail get a couple of two-hour sessions a week, totalling between 80 and 160 hours. But more than that, says Donald Findlater, the clinic manager, "the context is as important as the content". By which he means that the corrective therapy gains much of its strength by being reinforced by other patients in an intense residential atmosphere.

"You can leave a man angry, raw and emotional at the end of a therapy session and know that he is in a safe environment," he says. In part that is because of the clinic's secure windows, alarmed doors, perimeter wall and permanent staff presence. But it is also because the residents, being at different stages in their treatment, in effect police their fellows. "When you're treating someone in the community you can't leave them like that at the end of a session because you don't know what they might go out and do," he adds.

The same therapeutic process is used on sex offenders whether they are on probation, in prison, or in the Wolvercote, where it finds its most intense expression.

First the men are tested for their level of denial – the tendency to minimise their offence, the deviancy of their sexual drives and interests, and the harm done to victims. Then their "pro-offending attitudes" are measured to uncover twisted thinking and justifications to excuse their offence. Next, predisposing personality factors are explored: low self-esteem, under- assertiveness, inability to be intimate with other adults and cope with negative emotions are all typical traits.

The second stage is categorisation. They are divided into four groups: low deviance/ low denial; low deviance/high denial; high deviance/low denial; and high deviance/high denial. This helps the therapist to decide who is most dangerous. High deviancy men don't just have nearly three times as many victims, they are also twice as likely to have committed offences outside the family. In prisons, only 43 per cent of this group show a significant reduction in pro- offending attitudes. In the Wolvercote, the rate is almost double that.

Only then does the therapy begin. It starts with teaching them to admit to their minimisation, distorted thinking and specious justifications. Offenders are encouraged to identify and challenge the way they wilfully misinterpret children's behaviour to see them as sexually sophisticated and complicit.

Then they are treated for a deficit typical of sex offenders – inability to empathise with their victims. Working in groups, using role play, they are forced to describe abuse in detail, and are challenged by the others as they confront the impact they had on their victims. They use videos and written statements by victims. They write letters to their victims, which are never sent, but aggressively analysed by the group and therapists.

Since more than half of all sex offenders were abused themselves as children, they are pressed into exploring the buried confusion and distress of their own abuse. Developing victim empathy is seen by psychologists as a key inhibitor of inappropriate behaviour. "The therapists here are tough but they care about you," one paedophile, who had abused eight children, told me when I was in the Wolvercote recently.

Next comes "fantasy modification" in which offenders are taught to refocus sexual fantasies, and hence sexual arousal, away from children or sexual violence, and on to non-deviant sexual thoughts. Techniques include: "masturbatory reconditioning", by timing the appropriate fantasy to coincide with orgasm; aversive therapy (presenting the deviant images with an unpleasant event, such as a noxious smell); and covert sensitisation (in which behaviour patterns that lead to offences are yoked to the negative consequence of the behaviour). This part of the treatment is not part of the prison or probation-based therapy.

Additionally, in the evenings, after a day of intensive therapy, comes training in social skills, assertiveness and anger control, to enable abusers to improve their dysfunctional relationships with other adults. They learn to say the right thing and use the correct body language, and are taught how to rehearse this outside treatment.

Finally, through "risk factor awareness", they are taught to recognise the moods, thoughts, feelings and situations that led to previous offending. They learn how to watch for early warning signs, such as the return of deviant fantasies, excuses and distorted thinking. They rehearse coping strategies to divert themselves from stressful situations where they may be vulnerable to relapse: how to extricate themselves if they are asked to baby-sit or to rein themselves in if they see an "attractive" child while out shopping.

The process takes up to a year. Which is why, though the Wolvercote has been running down its numbers in preparation for closure, the nine remaining offenders there were distressed by yesterday's announcement. As one told me: "They can't close this place. I'm not ready yet. They're whipping the legs from under me when I'm only halfway through. And the irony is that I'm at my safest when I'm here in therapy."

The inmates are coldly aware of the irony. Another said: "We're the people that society is most afraid of – and yet they want to shut down the only place that can put us through the hell we have to go through to change."

They were all the more bewildered yesterday when Mr Benn stood up in Parliament to announce a national review of the provision of residential treatment for sex offenders – and coupled that with the news that the Wolvercote Clinic will cease to operate.

To add to the bleak incongruity, he told MPs he was doing this "in the interests of public protection". Among the grim inmates of Wolvercote, the laughter was bleak as well as hollow.

The statistics of sex crimes

Number of offences

In the year to March 2001, there were 37,300 recorded sexual offences in England and Wales (a fall of 1.3 per cent on the previous year). The total included 1,336 instances of gross indecency with a child, 1,237 of unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 16 and 155 of unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl aged under 13.

Number of offenders

There are 18,000 names on the sex offender register.

About 2,500 men are jailed each year for sex offences, with the average length of sentence being three years for a guilty plea and slightly more than four for not-guilty pleas. There are 5,000 men in jail for sex offences.

Treatment programme

The prison service aims to put about 1,000 people through sex-offender treatment programmes a year and last year managed to process 800.

Treatment centres

a) Residential: Wolvercote Clinic, Epsom, specialises in child-sex offenders
Our Lady of Victory Centre, Stroud, Gloucestershire (run by Catholic Church for Catholic priests only)

b) Non-residential: Probation hostels and other centres through the UK

c) Prisons: Channings Wood; Dartmoor; Littlehey; Whitemoor; Risley; Usk; Wayland; Whatton