The paedophile - sick or criminal?

Last week the Catholic Archbishop of Durban claimed that paedophilia was a psychological ‘illness, not a criminal condition’

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Paedophilia and the threat it represents to children has become a permanent feature of public concern and a regular theme of popular culture.

The paedophile personifies evil in 21 century society. The loathing and revulsion that is directed at this symbol of malevolence makes it very difficult to have a sensible and balanced discussion about this subject.

So what are we to make of last week’s statement by the Catholic Archbishop of Durban, Wifrid Fox Napier on this subject? The Archbishop claimed that paedophilia was a psychological ‘illness, not a criminal condition’. His diagnosis of paedophilia as a disorder logically leads Napier to look for a medical cure rather than opt for punishment. ‘What do you do with disorders’ he asked, before answering, ‘you got to try and put them right’. According to this medicalised interpretation of paedophilia as a disorder, those who suffer from it ought not be held responsible for the destructive consequences of their action.

To substantiate his claim Napier suggests that paedophiles are damaged people who cannot help but act out what has been done to them. He gave the example of two priests that he knew, who were abused as children and went on to become paedophiles. ‘Don't tell me that those people are criminally responsible like somebody who chooses to do something like that’ he stated. And to reinforce his point, Napier observed ‘I don't think you can really take the position and say that person deserves to be punished when he was himself damaged’.

So is paedophilia a mental health problem or a criminal condition? The drawing of such a sharp contrast between these two conditions is not very helpful since the drivers of human behaviour cannot be conveniently compartmentalised. Ideas about what constitutes illness, normal as opposed to abnormal behaviour are fluid and continually modified by changing cultural assumptions. Medical labels are not simply based on an objective assessment of a condition. In the seventies same-sex relationships were diagnosed as a psychological problem. Today homosexuality has been demedicalised but numerous psychological conditions have been invented during the past three decades.

Cardinal Napier’s attempt to medicalise paedophilia draws on prevailing therapeutic standards of accountability. The attribution of responsibility and notions of accountability are strongly influenced by prevailing social and cultural norms. Legal concepts like contributory negligence express the widely held view that responsibility for a particular injurious act can be shared. However the contemporary therapeutic ethos goes way beyond the notion of relative accountability to implicitly question the ethic of responsibility itself. Bad habits, antisocial and destructive behaviour are frequently portrayed as the outcome of dysfunctional parenting, family violence or of people’s genes.

The claim that paedophiles can’t help themselves is based on the dubious ‘cycle of abuse’ thesis. Advocates of this thesis represent abuse as an intergenerational disease. The thesis contends that abusers were themselves abused when they were children, and their victims will go on to manifest delinquent behaviour. Thus abuse does not end with a victim; it has a life of its own, which is then transmitted to future generations. Such a fatalistic worldview is often conveyed through the proposition that the experience of psychological damage in early childhood directly determines many of the actions of adults for life.

Research is far from clear about the relationship between experiencing abuse as a child and subsequent paedophile behaviour. Abused children do not inevitably become adult abusers. A review of longitudinal studies of the outcomes of child abuse by Joan Kaufman and Edward Zigler found that more than 70 per cent of all abused children did not mistreat their offspring. ‘Hardly an inevitable “cycle” commented the psychologist Carol Tavris.

Cardinal Napier’s call to lower the bar of accountability for paedophiles has the merit of encouraging a discussion of a very difficult subject. But the issue at stake is not whether they are sick people or criminals. Either way they need to be held to account for the pain and violence they inflict on children. The really important question at issue is how we neutralise the corrosive impact of their behaviour on childhood and on the relationship between generations.

Frank Furedi’s Moral crusades In An Age Of Mistrust; The Jimmy Savile Scandal is published by Palgrave this week

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