Helen Martin: Just how many secret paedophiles are there?

FOR the second time, someone I know – or thought I knew – has pleaded guilty and been sentenced for downloading and looking at child porn, actually deriving pleasure from watching children being sexually abused.

The first person was in his twenties; the second in his sixties.

Shock, confusion, disappointment, bewilderment, sympathy for the family, rage . . . on each occasion I didn’t know which emotion to feel first. I think that’s why people say they feel “numb”; it’s like a fuse giving out after an overload.

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But even that is nothing to the inevitable analysis that follows. If someone funny, charming, elegant, well-respected and kind – yes, kind – could do that, how many more are out there? And if there are lots, do they use numerical justification to claim they are somehow “normal”.

Indeed, there must be something to that because one therapy offered is psychological counselling to help perpetrators understand why it is wrong to look at images of children being abused.

Why it is wrong? Who on earth needs help to understand that, let alone one of the men I knew who was sharp, intelligent, sociable, popular – and a father and grandfather.

And if such understanding really does elude them, why are they 
accessing the stuff in secret rather than chatting about it openly in the pub?

I still can’t reconcile this behaviour with the person I knew. I should say “the person I know” but there’s a sort of Freudian compulsion to refer to him in the past tense, and not because I wish him dead. It’s just that I’d rather think of the friend and the abuse-viewer as two separate entities.

So would most people. When the subject arises, as it inevitably does, some frantically try to reach for a redeeming factor, mitigation, some small scrap of defence to convince themselves that a paedophile is somehow not a paedophile.

“I suppose he was only looking at it, not actually doing it...”

“It was just on the computer...”

“He might have been paying for it but he wasn’t selling it on or 

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All, of course, ignore the real abuse of a real child on screen.

And then there’s the trump card, the suggestion – almost the hope – that such behaviour goes back to the individual’s own abusive childhood and therefore relates to a dark syndrome we cannot possibly fathom or understand. The evil wrong-doer becomes a victim – just like the children whose abuse he was watching.

The cycle continues with his demand and that of others, driving the suppliers to feed the market with more children to be exploited for someone’s “pleasure”.

Others who know/knew him are made of sterner stuff and decide there’s little more than a shadow between watching and doing, whatever the history. They call for the death penalty. They think of their own children and want to rip his throat out.

And yet, both these offenders were/are otherwise perceived as “nice” people. It is impossible to believe either of them would knowingly risk being reviled, loathed, despised and outcast for the sake of a sick compulsion. How could they bring such shame on themselves and their families, let alone ignore the evil on the monitor before them? Not the men I knew.

The most frightening conclusion of all is the one we try hardest to ignore . . . that while we may never regard child pornography and abuse as normal, it may well be a much more common drive than any of us are willing to accept. I don’t know two 
murderers. I don’t know two burglars, or even two shop lifters. But I now know two men who are excited by watching children being abused.

Is it a perversion that has always been in our midst? Is it on the rise? Is today’s ease of access on a home computer triggering propensities that would otherwise have lain dormant and left them innocent? Or is the existence of vicarious online abuse of an anonymous child in a far flung “studio” satisfying a lust that might otherwise be directed in person at the kids next door?

Catching the occasional down-loader – even networks of them – and banging them up might satisfy society’s need for revenge or containment. But in the absence of capital punishment, or control of the global internet, unless we have the courage to study it; to find some way to treat the perpetrators; some way – and some understanding – to help those who have been abused from becoming the monster they feared, we can’t stop other children becoming victims.

I just hope to God there are no more surprises lurking in my contacts list.