Cruel world of the paedophiles Children whose tales aren't told

We don't know much about them, and we like it that way. Yet even the little we think we know is probably wrong. By Andy Beckett
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Anne Bannister is a cheery middle-aged lady from Manchester who has spent the past 20 years meeting child abusers. For the past nine, she has run a consultancy compiling profiles of paedophiles for the NSPCC; before that, she sat with offenders for thousands of uncomfortable hours as a psychotherapist and a social worker.

She knows precisely how they operate: "I could take a paedophile into a school playground and say, 'Show me the vulnerable children.' In two minutes he would have picked them out: 'This child is lonely, that child is a bit isolated, that one is not going to scream and shout and run home to Mum...' "

This is how we think of paedophiles: male, predatory, snatching victims at random. Last week the Old Bailey heard allegations of just such a case. In October 1994 Daniel Handley, a nine-year-old boy from Beckton, east London, was out playing on his BMX bicycle when Brett Tyler and Timothy Morss allegedly pulled up in their car, bundled him in, and drove him across the capital to a flat above the office where they worked.

There, the court heard, they took turns assaulting him, filmed the act, and drove off down the M4, where Handley was strangled in a lay-by and his body buried in a wood near Bristol. On Thursday the evidence was such that jurors wept.

Yet, for all the familiar horrors of stories like this, so guiltily compelling to newspapers and their readers, we are far less clear about their context. As a result, responses to tales of child abuse swing wildly between paranoia when the practice is uncovered, as it has been recently in the children's homes of Clwyd, and denial that it exists at all whenever an investigation collapses, like the infamous inquiry into satanic activity in the Orkneys in 1991.

Slowly, however, an approximate science of child abuse is being developed. Anne Bannister has been one contributor to it; Art O'Connor, a forensic psychiatrist at the Central Mental Hospital in Dublin, is another. Their developing conclusions, as Dr O'Connor explains, do not tally at all with the picture of paedophilia suggested by, say, the news pages of the tabloid newspapers: "What's reported is the dramatic abuse, the murders, and everyone assumes that's the norm. But cases like those are very rare."

In trying to discover what "the norm" for abusers is - by examining their numbers, methods and motivations - Dr O'Connor and his fellow psychiatrists first face a problem of definition.

By law, any adult having sex with someone under 16 is committing paedophilia. But it is clear that many teenage sex lives, whether involving peers or older partners, start a year or two earlier - without automatically being considered paedophiliac. In practice, therefore, psychiatrists now believe that the common characteristic of victims of paedophilia is that they have not yet reached puberty, rather than simply that they are under 16.

Yet uncertainty about the act of abuse itself still reigns: "Child abuse spans a whole spectrum, from inappropriate touching to penetration," says John Rea Price, director of the National Children's Bureau. In addition, victims are often sexually ignorant and, whether through fear or shame, reluctant to describe their experiences. Thus the incidence of paedophilia has proved difficult to catalogue and quantify.

Last year the NSPCC tried, interviewing 1,032 people between the ages of 18 and 45 about their sexual histories as children. One in six of them recalled "sexual interference", one in nine actual physical contact (the rest remembered incidents of indecent exposure). Currently, the charity's helplines receive around 15,000 calls a year reporting suspected child abuse.

The number of tormenters of children remains equally vague. The National Criminal Intelligence Service inherited a card index of convicted and suspected paedophiles from the Metropolitan Police when it was set up in 1992; with information from other forces added, the service now has a database of between 3,000 and 4,000 names. But this includes publishers of paedophiliac pornography, too - the 1978 Children Act made it an offence "to take or permit to be taken, distribute, or show, or possess with a mind to distribute any indecent photograph of a child under the age of 16" - and they may in turn have hundreds of customers.

It is in dividing these tentative figures into types of paedophile that psychiatrists are making headway. Dr O'Connor identifies three categories. The first is the "incest offender", typically a father who abuses his daughter while maintaining an outwardly "normal" relationship with his wife. In about half of these cases alcohol plays a part, although less so as the pattern of abuse is established. The second type Dr O'Connor calls the "standard paedophile", an abuser whose entire sexual history has involved assaulting children. The third is the "young offender", often a teenager abusing a younger sibling.

All three categories of abuser are usually male, although the proportion of women is rising. Beyond this, their collective profile differs sharply - indeed is the opposite - of its popular conception. "There's a lot of suggestion that it's homosexual men who attack boys," says Anne Bannister, "but the vast majority are heterosexual, and the gender of the child is immaterial."

Far from being dark strangers, most paedophiles know their victims, and vice versa: assaults usually come from within supposedly protective institutions such as the family.

When they occur, they are carefully planned: "Paedophiles rarely pick off children at random," says Ms Bannister. "That's the paedophile's excuse: 'I don't know what came over me.' " Instead, abusers identify likely victims and draw them closer by "grooming" - offering gifts, favours, and friendly company over what may be weeks or even months. Sometimes the treats they offer are illicit, like cigarettes or invitations to play truant, giving the paedophile an ability to blackmail their victim into keeping quiet in the future.

A similar malign ingenuity frequently marks paedophiles' efforts to gain access to children in the first place. Ms Bannister has encountered abusers befriending mothers and fathers of desired children, and even marrying single parents: "When I see those advertisements for dates with 'children wanted', my heart sinks."

Paedophiles also favour infiltrating public institutions. Schools, children's homes and even in one case, as Mr Rea Price recalls, the National Children's Bureau, have all been used as cover for obtaining victims. Once ensconced, abusers may form networks, exchanging information about "available" children - "They can be meticulous in the details they keep," says Mr Rea Price - and, if investigated, providing each other with alibis.

These networks can be horrifyingly complex. In one, discovered by a Liverpool psychologist, children who ran away from homes were lured to London by a "safe" name and address, forced into a paedophile ring, then, as they grew older and more knowing, were co-opted into silence by being made to abuse the most recently arrived victims.

The abusing careers of individual paedophiles can have a grisly professionalism, too. A few may assault hundreds, even thousands of children during a lifetime.

"Most child abusers are emotionally as well as sexually drawn to children," says Ms Bannister. "They convince themselves they're doing no harm ... that the child led them on."

Last month, this newspaper received a letter from a "frustrated paedophile", complaining that coverage of police operations against child pornography ignored the "fact" that "the 'stars' are only too eager to take part in whatever is required of them

Such sentiments usually seep from a variety of psychological wounds. Many abusers have been abused themselves, often repeatedly (although most victims, of course, do not become paedophiles). Paedophiles can lack the sexual confidence to approach other adults, or simply find a mature sexuality repulsive and an immature one attractive. Or, as Anne Bannister explains, "Anger comes into it; people want to punish their existing partner or they've been rejected by their existing partner."

There is also a category known as fixated paedophiles, men who abuse only boys of a certain age, and this is usually the result of some experience they themselves suffered at that age.

Like the whole subject of paedophilia, the motivation of abusers is still only dimly understood. The reasons for being a paedophile may be almost as numerous as the paedophiles.

Given the strength of their desires, and the sheer numbers of available victims, measures to prevent paedophiliac activity are not advanced with confidence. Imprisonment is not favoured, as it often creates new rings of abusers, passing child pornography around behind bars.

The National Institute for Social Work has been lobbying the Government to create a central register and code of conduct for professional carers, so that their backgrounds can be more thoroughly checked. The Government is moving towards the more populist solution of a national paedophile register, along the lines of the existing police database, including compulsory tracking of addresses. But this has problematic civil liberties implications: should suspects as well as those convicted be watched? And if so, how could the system guard against smears, blackmail and the victimisation of innocent people?

There is more support among those examining paedophilia for educating children earlier about the threat. "You can teach them not to get into strangers' cars, to say, 'No. This is my body,' " says Mike Berry, a clinical psychologist who works with abusers. In Ireland, a successful "Stay Safe" campaign has been run in schools for five years, with teachers passing on warnings and advice to pupils about how to avoid abusers.

But it is hard to be too optimistic. In Britain the emerging academic consensus about paedophiliac behaviour has yet to achieve popular credence. Indeed, there are still signs that we prefer to fear the largely mythical random pervert than confront the real enemy closer to home. In 1993, for instance, an American professor called James Kincaid was hounded across British newspaper columns for suggesting in a book on Victorian literature that child abuse sprang from the same culture of "child-loving" as more acceptable forms of affection.

Yet Anne Bannister agrees with him. "Inside us all there is an abuser, a bit of a bully. A vast amount of us never let that surface, and like to think that the abuser is totally different, an absolute weirdo ... He isn't."