We live in an era of knee-jerk judgments and instant outrage, and there is no topic more likely to provoke them than child sex abuse. On one level, that’s understandable. As a society we are still struggling to comprehend the scale and the legacy of crimes committed and covered up over the last 50 years.
When you contemplate the many scandals, in schools, religious institutions, care homes and showbusiness; the hundreds of thousands of damaged young lives and the perpetrators who got off scot-free, outrage is the only legitimate response. Yet, when it comes to finding a way forward, it is not a particularly productive one.
We witnessed its limitations last week in the backlash to Simon Bailey’s comments. Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s lead on child protection, suggested those who view indecent images online should not necessarily be charged and taken to court; that alternative approaches to “low-risk” offenders – such as counselling and rehabilitation – would free up officers to focus on those who posed the greatest physical threat.
The reaction – predictably – was to shout him down. Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee Yvette Cooper wrote that she would be alarmed if these “changes in approach” were implemented straight away, even though many offenders found to possess indecent pictures of children are already cautioned and placed on the sex offenders register (so Bailey’s suggestion is merely an extension of the status quo).
It didn’t help that his comments came as the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse in England and Wales – which threatens to buckle under the weight of its own remit – finally held its first public hearings more than two and a half years after it was set up. In such a heightened atmosphere, any move that could be seen as underplaying the impact of child sex abuse was fated to attract fierce criticism. “Every paedophile should face the full force of the law,” blasted the Daily Express.
The trouble is, Bailey is right about one thing: our police officers are struggling to deal with the “mass triggering” that came in the wake of Jimmy Savile’s death. The Chief Constable of Norfolk, who heads Operation Hydrant, the over-arching inquiry into allegations of non-recent child abuse, claims 400 men a month are now being arrested for viewing indecent pictures. The number of child abuse reports in England and Wales has increased by 80 per cent in the past three years, with police receiving an average of 112 complaints a day.
Inevitably, the burgeoning number of cases is having a huge impact on the prison service. The total number of sex offenders housed in Scottish jails has risen from 600 in 2000 to 1,100 today, which means they now represent a seventh of the total prison population. Where once they could all be housed in Peterhead, they now also fill a hall of Barlinnie, a hall of Saughton and half of Glenochil.
On Thursday, Police Scotland’s Chief Constable, Phil Gormley, said if every person who viewed online images of children was given a custodial sentence we would need to build jails on “an industrial scale”. This at a time when Scottish government policy is to reduce the prison population and shift the emphasis from incarceration to community sentences.
You would have to be an idiot to argue that possessing a “low-level” image of child sex abuse was a trivial matter. Not only is the person viewing it complicit in the act it depicts, but there is a chance that looking may be a precursor to taking part. As grown-ups, however, we ought to be able to have a measured discussion about limited resources, risk assessment and whether prisons act as an effective deterrent. Clearly, where an offender poses an immediate danger, jail is the only answer, but isn’t it possible those desperate not to offend would be better helped through monitoring combined with some kind of community project, like the Stop It Now! programme, which works closely with those worried they will abuse?
Programmes like Stop It Now!, run by the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, are contentious. They challenge us to shift from viewing all paedophiles as “beasts” to seeing them on a spectrum, from those determined not to abuse to inveterate offenders. Last year, more than 1,500 people from Scotland visited the Stop it Now! Get Help website in relation to their own viewing of online sexual images of children, or that of a loved one. Over the same period, a further 78 men from Scotland called the Stop it Now! phoneline to get help to stop viewing sexual images of children online. Perhaps if the stigma were less, the figures would be higher. At the Dunkenfeld project in Berlin, strict confidentiality rules mean paedophiles who seek treatment know they will not be reported to the police. There is no similar facility in the UK.
None of this is easy; there are obvious pitfalls in Bailey’s approach, not least of which is that – however rigorous the risk assessment process – mistakes will be made. But there are also pitfalls in assuming those who view indecent images online pose a greater threat than those who sit fantasising on a beach.
We have witnessed the terrible damage child sex abuse can inflict, often rippling down through the generations, and the dangers of not acting when we should. And we ought to learn the lessons of the past. On the other hand, even conservative estimates suggest 1-2 per cent of the male population is sexually attracted to children: that’s up to 43,000 in Scotland alone. We can’t (and shouldn’t) lock them all up.
It behoves us, then, to seek a better understanding of the triggers that lead to offending. That means more investment in prevention programmes which work to stop paedophiles acting on their impulses. It means resisting the temptation to shut down unpalatable, but potentially valuable, opinions, and remaining open to radical solutions.