This may be unpopular, but we must try to understand paedophiles a little better

Far from keeping our kids safe, those who demonise paedophiles are putting children in greater danger
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The Independent Online

On my sister's estate in Lancashire, there is a boarded-up, burned-out house that belonged - until last month - to the neighbourhood paedophile. Most estates combust every few years into a rage against child abusers (or paediatricians - who cares?) and nobody in the outside world notices or cares. As happens with mob justice, it often gets the wrong guy. Only last weekend, an innocent family in Leicester were terrorised by an armed posse of 25 people convinced that Maxine Carr was in their house.

On my sister's estate in Lancashire, there is a boarded-up, burned-out house that belonged - until last month - to the neighbourhood paedophile. Most estates combust every few years into a rage against child abusers (or paediatricians - who cares?) and nobody in the outside world notices or cares. As happens with mob justice, it often gets the wrong guy. Only last weekend, an innocent family in Leicester were terrorised by an armed posse of 25 people convinced that Maxine Carr was in their house.

Even the most secular of societies longs for a Satan, and sex offenders are our sulphur-scented beasts. Yet every now and then a news story will emerge that shows the sad truth beneath the Mask of Evil we have constructed. Stephen West - son of Fred and Rose - was convicted last week of abusing a girl for seven months, beginning when she was 13. She had to abort his child.

As a child himself, Stephen saw his father sexually assaulting his sisters since their eighth birthdays. He was only a toddler when his mother began to sell sexual favours to random strangers. His dad always encouraged Stephen to listen in. Stephen admitted a few years ago that "there is a bit of Dad in me" - and now, it seems, he has acted out some of the sexually aberrant behaviour he witnessed in his childhood.

This does not fit the picture of the minor-abusing monster so many of us love to hate; who could trash Stephen's house without a moment's pause and a guilty feeling in their stomach? His childhood doesn't make his behaviour acceptable - he is a human being with free will - but it adds a hint of moral complexity to our firebomb-tossing, naming-and-shaming rage.

But isn't this an extreme case? True, West's childhood was unusually vicious - but he is more representative of sex offenders than most people realise. Ray Wyre, Britain's leading expert on paedophiles, has explained that two-thirds of the men who assault children and teenagers give accounts of sexual abuse in their own childhood. "Paedophilia and sexual assault are often about learnt behaviour," he explains. "The abuser almost clones himself by taking power over his victim. As the victim gets older, he begins to re-enact the abuse imposed on him on to other people."

So the demonic paedophiles staring wildly from newspaper photofits are victims too. This is an uncomfortable fact; few of us want to see shades of grey, especially when it comes to something as visceral as defending our children. Anybody who does point this out gets savaged. Last time I wrote about this, I was accused by various right-wing journalists of "making excuses for paedophiles" and by one website of "extolling the joys of kiddie-fiddling".

This is so imbecilic it is hard to know how to respond. Obviously, child abuse is revolting, and if anybody touched one of my nephews or nieces, I would want to dismember them. I even reluctantly believe that the Government's current proposals to make previous convictions known to juries in child-abuse cases are justified, given the recidivist nature of paedophiles. But conviction can only be a small part of the solution. The Government needs to be - to borrow a phrase - tough on sex crime and tough on the causes of sex crime.

It is only by having an honest understanding of the problem that we can begin to deal with it. If we think we are dealing with primal evil - cunning aliens with no history and no humanity - then firebombs and lynching would be an understandable response. If we are dealing with severely damaged human beings, then we have to look for other tactics.

Far from keeping our kids safe, those who demonise paedophiles as untreatably evil are putting children in greater danger. Don't take my word for it. Among the academic and medical experts who work with paedophiles there is a consensus on this. Pam Welch, a senior officer who deals primarily with sex offenders, explains: "It's when these people feel isolated and friendless that the risk of reoffending is highest. They feel that if the world considers them a monster they might as well behave like a monster. At least then there will be some feeling of pleasure, and some measure of control."

The most popular policy option - adopting "Sarah's Law" - would be totally counterproductive. Named after the murdered schoolgirl Sarah Payne, this policy would make the names of individuals on the Sex Offenders' Register available to the public. It sounds reasonable - who wouldn't want to know if their child were living next door to a paedophile? - but, by isolating paedophiles from their communities, this law makes it more likely that another Sarah Payne will be slaughtered.

The same hacks and Tory backbenchers who propose this ineffective law feel themselves qualified to savage the social workers and prison officers who really do minimise abuse. I've visited the Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP) in Maidstone prison which was launched in 1991. Few abusers want to carry on having sex with children and teenagers - as victims of abuse themselves they know better than most of us the misery it causes - so the therapists running the programme help them to come to terms with the orientation and to develop ways to avoid reoffending.

I sat in to hear sex offenders recounting horrific crimes - and then saw them slowly learning how to suppress and control their desires. These programmes are, of course, ritually condemned as "government money for perverts". But unlike "Sarah's Law" and other such bogus measures, they really do make your children safer.

As so often with New Labour, Blunkettian right-wingery is concealing (and distracting from) some decent progressive policies. For example, while the Government trumpets its changes to jury trials - a measure guaranteed to upset liberals - they have been encouraging Thames Valley Police to conduct a brave experiment called the Circles programme.

This tests a policy that is the opposite of naming and shaming. People who have committed sexual offences against minors are given trained, specially screened "friends" to help them create a secure environment for themselves. Their volunteer friends will help with their benefits, housing and finding work. They are always at the end of the phone if the offender thinks he is going to relapse.

The results are remarkable: of the 48 sex offenders registered on the programme in April 2003, none has re- offended. In Canada, where the programme has been in force for a decade now, it has halved the re-offending rate. This is a serious policy for a serious problem - not a set of facile slogans playing to our most basic fears. Why isn't the Government rolling the Circles Programme out across Britain, and countering the inevitable right-wing hate-and-lie campaign that would be launched against it?

Sex offenders like Stephen West and thousands of others are pitiful, abused human beings, not monsters. Giving them long-term therapy and support in the community has been proven repeatedly to be the best way to keep kids safe. Lobbing petrol-bombs at the Bad Man might be fun, but it only puts our kids in greater danger.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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