Police have adopted new tactics to trap hundreds ofusers of child pornography and force them to seek treatment before they physically abusechildren.
Officers believe that many attacks on youngsters have been prevented by the programme which, controversially, allows the offenders to escape going to court. Instead they are cautioned, DNA tested and put on the sex offenders register.
Many of the offenders are outwardly respectable men, often with families. Probation officers said many regarded their offences as victimless but after therapy accepted that they could lead to physical attacks on children.
The new programme, known as Caution Plus, will be highlighted today at an international conference on dealing with paedophiles. More than 100 experts are gathering in Birmingham, where the Caution Plus scheme has been developed by West Midlands Police and the local probation service.
The West Midlands Probation Service programme for sex offenders is being promoted by the Home Office as a model of best practice, which should be adopted nationwide.
Detective Inspector Cath Hannon, head of the paedophile and pornography unit at West Midlands Police, said many British forces were interested in similar tactics for tackling child sexual abuse. She said: "We identify people who are developing this [sexual] interest in children and divert them into treatment programmes, which challenge their behaviour and make them understand that it's an activity that could potentially develop into them abusing children."
Det Insp Hannon said most of the men were "very shocked" when confronted. "Their world disintegrates before their eyes. All the implications for their family ... people who know them ... whether they will go to prison. They never think they are going to be identified," she said. "This is Mr Respectable in every other aspect of their life. Apart from that, they have this deviant thought process which if not checked at an early stage could develop into the sex abuse of children."
David Middleton, of the probation service, said most offenders on the scheme denied they would ever physically attack children. He said: "But most of the men we work with who have abused children have started with pornography. We believe there is a definite link. What we know is that the use of child pornography for these men is addictive. The more they have, the more they want."
None of the men who has completed the Caution Plus scheme has been rearrested.