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Is fear itself the greatest danger?

There are uncomfortable questions which need to be asked about the growing furore over child sex offenders, says James Heartfield

The news that paedophile killers like Sidney Cooke are being released touches our deepest fears. Fear turns parents' love of their own children into a hatred for the predatory outsider. Such deep, atavistic fears can easily spin out of control, leading to attacks and hate campaigns against both suspected and convicted paedophiles.

Not surprisingly the families motivated to such actions are unmoved by qualms over mob-rule and taking the law into their own hands. The very idea of a balance between the rights of children to live in safety and the supposed rights of the paedophile strikes people as grotesque.

But fear itself is a destructive factor, and one that is destroying communities and families. Already one teenage girl has been burnt to death in an arson attack on a supposed paedophile. Scores of people have been attacked - some of them convicted and released child sex offenders, and others wholly innocent victims of mistaken identities. In Brighton, the parents of one offender have been targeted. In Glasgow a single man with a reputation as a loner was presumed to be a 'beast', and harassed.

These attacks can be spontaneous, but as often they are the work of loosely organised groups. In Stirling Maggs Haney, matriarch of a family of small-time villains, launched People Against Child Abuse with a round-the-clock vigil outside one ex-offender's home. Similar groups have sprung up around the country, especially among working class mothers. These campaigners are marked by their hostility to the caring professionals whom they say have let them down, and a defensive and aggressive need to prove that they are the people who really care about kids. The culture of the anti-paedophile campaigns echoes the prison morality that singles out the 'nonces' (nonsensical offences) for special vitriol. It is a defensive posture that says 'whatever problems we may have, we're not scum like them'.

What does it say about a society that it is preoccupied with the danger posed by strangers? The motif of the predatory stranger is deeply embedded in our culture. The paedophile is only the latest in a long line of folk devils from the Jewish child-killer to the Gypsy child-abductor and the white slave-trafficker. But today's fears are especially heightened, not because there are any more sex offences against children but because of the greater sense of fragmentation and distrust in communities.

Those anxieties are increased by the bizarre cat-and-mouse game that the authorities have played with high-profile killers like Sidney Cooke and Robert Oliver. First they are released into the community, then the police tell everybody they are there so that they have to be taken back into protective custody. The Home Office says that they can go, but then tells everybody that they are a danger to society. This kind of indecision might as well be designed to provoke the greatest anxiety among parents and communities.

Solidarity in the face of the predatory stranger empowers a community for a moment. But very quickly that solidarity turns into a panic, as activists are tempted to spread ever-more lurid tales of abductions, hidden graves, and paedophile rings to shore up their case. The panic breeds a generalised fear, whose effects are even more destructive. Children are kept in instead of being allowed out to play. Children who ten years ago would have walked to school are now driven. We are building a wall of protection around children that risks damaging them, by holding them back just when they need to try out their independence.

At the same time families become distrustful of one another, watching out for signs of abuse. Parents distrust teachers and doctors. These professionals in turn spy on parents. Fear of child sex abuse is one of the most acute problems of a society that is dissolving in mistrust and panic, where our most basic social bond, the love of a child, can be turned inside out into a fear and hatred of others.

Fear of the predatory abuser fixes upon a potential danger. Of course parents should take any reasonable precautions, but at a certain point, the fear itself can become the most destructive thing in life.

It is precisely because these fears are so instinctive that they need to be reconsidered and understood. The belief that paedophilia is an endemic problem is difficult to justify from the evidence. Child sex offences remain a fairly rare kind of crime, according to statistics, with around two thousand convictions every year. Nonetheless, many studies challenge the statistics, claiming that the problem of child abuse is massively under-reported, because of the difficulties that children have in reporting offences and in being believed when they do.

Among childcare professionals there is now a bias towards an assumption of guilt until innocence is proven. Social services operate an 'at-risk' policy, monitoring families wherever there are signs that they decide might indicate abuse. This approach yields a much higher estimate of abuse than conviction figures. But in fact this approach is severely flawed.

In the first instance, the assumption that there is no smoke without fire reflects a morbid view of family life, where everybody is a potential abuser. Second, the presumption that abuse is widespread rests on an unrealistically broad definition of abuse, embracing 'emotional abuse' and even 'pushy parenting' alongside much more serious problems like battering and sexual abuse. Doubtless this approach arises from a genuine concern for young children, but its effect is to blur the distinction between what might simply be an old-fashioned approach to parenting and actually abusive relationships.

The presumption that child abuse is endemic has led to some extraordinary miscarriages of justice. In America the trial of the family that ran the McMartin Preschool led to convictions of three generations of the same family, all imprisoned on the uncorroborated and wildly manipulated evidence of very young children. Years later the convictions were overturned. In the Orkneys, children were taken into care on the basis of social workers' suspicions and later the children were bullied at length into denouncing their parents, only for all but one of the charges to be dropped later on.

What's more, the presumption that abuse is widespread blurs another distinction, between child sexual offences and child abuse. 'Child abuse' is a term often used as if it were synonymous with child sexual abuse. In fact the two are distinct. Parents who batter their children are thankfully rare. But parents who sexually abuse their children are even rarer. Professionals in the field see both species of abuse as equally harmful and so equivalent in moral terms. But it is a mistake to think that there is no such distinction in the minds of offenders.

Dr Bill Thompson is one of the foremost experts in the field, but he despairs of the tendency among professionals to blur the distinctions: 'All abuse becomes sexual abuse' he complains. And according to the false theory that offences against children are necessarily part of a continuum, 'if anyone flashes at someone today, it is assumed that they are going to kill tomorrow'.

In fact the stereotype of the predatory career paedophile featured in the press stories does not match the facts. Sexual offences against children are thankfully very rare, but of those offences, the vast majority are committed not by strangers, but by family members or close friends. 'Paedophile' is a stereotype that does not describe the acts of incest that characterise most sex offences against children.

Many professionals working with abused children and with abusers will object that the current concerns in the newspapers are misplaced. The spectre of the schoolground pervert preying on young girls is the exception. The rule is that where child molestation does occur it occurs in the home. Of the ninety or so child sex offenders who are released each year, the vast bulk will have offended against family members.

Unfortunately that fact is often misunderstood to mean that the home is a place of great danger. For professionals, whose own anxieties about missing the signs leads them to approach families with mistrust, it seems all too believable that every parent is a potential abuser. But that should be put in perspective. Virtually every person in the country was brought up in a family, and virtually every one of them brought up with love and care. Such sexual abuse that does occur generally occurs in the family, but it is still extremely rare.

Childcare professionals are preoccupied with abuse in the family. But for most other people, the characteristic fear is fear of the predatory 'career paedophile', an exotic demon that accounts for a tiny minority of the most extraordinary cases. How is it that our fears alight on the least likely threat?

To answer that question it helps to understand the way that the child abuse panic has developed over time. The first abuse panics were not about sex offences at all but 'baby battering' like the death of Jasmine Beckford at the hands of her stepfather in 1985. Then blame fell on the professionals, the social workers who had failed to take the child into care, despite the warnings. Social workers protested that they were the victims of a 'moral panic', but that did not stop them in turn starting a moral panic of their own.

Put on the defensive by press attacks on them, social work professionals were tempted to deflect the blame on to families. Social work conferences heard of the 'vastly under-reported' problem of child abuse, and, indicating the growing distrust of the family, of widespread sexual abuse. Social work practitioners drew on ideas supplied by feminists about the repressive character of the patriarchal family, and upon Christian fundamentalist ideas about the spread of 'satanic' child abuse. According to Bill Thompson, 'Mum-blaming' became 'the social workers' excuse for not spotting abuse where it did exist', as caring professionals 'armed with the latest silly rote-learned theory' went in search of signs that ordinary parents were abusing their children. It was hardly surprising that children were rounded-up in witch-hunts in the Orkneys and Cleveland and taken into care, usually on the flimsiest of evidence.

After more than a decade of the demonisation of families, those families in turn have now started to point the finger of blame elsewhere: at the predatory 'career paedophile'. Many liberal commentators have been shocked by the violent language of the working class families who have turned on released sex offenders, seemingly having forgotten the venom that they heaped upon working class families in Cleveland. Outraged parents who are fed up with being blamed themselves, have turned the tables on the professionals, the social workers and probation officers for putting their children at risk by being soft on paedophiles.

Social workers and probation officers may not like the finger of blame pointing at them, but the irony is that the stronger the climate of fear over child sex offenders, the greater the demand for regulation and control by those same professionals. Ray Wyre, who first developed the model of psychological treatment of child sex offenders, was widely criticised for being soft on the 'beasts', but with the impending release of Sidney Cooke, Wyre joined in the witch-hunt atmosphere in the Sun ('They're as evil as the Moors Murderers - but could be living in your street soon', 10 March).

The trouble is that where released paedophiles are identified by the police, papers or councils they are very unlikely to be the kind of career sex offender that is the subject of popular anxieties. These names are notified to the police under the register of sexual offenders - or leaked by the press in the case of those who were convicted before the register was made law. The vast majority of child sex offenders appearing on the list are not career paedophiles, but disgraced parents, step-parents and uncles. These might not be the kind of people that you would invite round for tea, but the likelihood of their offending again is lower than that of most other kinds of offenders. Discovered and dislodged from the site of the offence there is little chance for them to reoffend.

The idea that every person convicted of a child sexual offence is a potential Sidney Cooke is a mistake. Most child sex offenders will never offend again. Indeed, according to the Home Office 'reconviction rates for sexual offenders' overall 'are low compared to other kinds of offenders' (Research Findings No. 55). In inflating fears about people who are more often pathetic than dangerous, the professionals are doing parents a great disservice. Fear over the threat of child sexual abuse is also a destructive thing - and the fact is that fear is far more widespread than the threat itself.

The vigilante's tale

Tony Sheppard was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for an attack on a convicted paedophile. A slight man, he is a carpenter who had been a soldier for 12 years. He is proud of the attack and says that he will do it again.

'I got two years, but he only got six months', says Sheppard. What about those who say the law should deal with the problem? 'The law isn't dealing with the problem, so we're taking it into our own hands. The group I'm a part of, we're organised to do it. Yes you could say I'm a revolutionary, but it's a different kind of revolution - a revolution for personal safety.'

Is there a danger that innocent people will be hurt? 'It's a war. Innocent people get hurt in a war.' What about those innocent people who were attacked? 'You should talk to those that did it. We're careful about what we do. We organise it like a military campaign. That's my background, I get everything planned right.' At the same time Sheppard has no qualms about killing 'proven' paedophiles in his campaign.

Sheppard justifies what he does by blaming 'probation officers and social workers', for failing to protect children. While some of his tales of organised vigilantism are a little hard to believe, proponents of vigilantism like him have had an impact - in helping to spread panic and heightening public fears over predatory paedophiles. Listening to Sheppard, he clearly relishes the role of stalwart soldier of justice, which has given an ex-squaddie something to believe in.

The accused

Frank Revill and his daughter Kelly Bradshaw are by no means child abusers - but they did, though no fault of their own, come under suspicion by neighbours. When a woman in Folkestone, where they live, heard that her husband was about to be released after serving a sentence for sex offences against children, she posted details of his former address. At the time Frank was moving Kelly and her children into a new flat near to the address, and seeing an older man moving furniture in people 'put two and two together and made five' says Frank.

Rumours that Frank was the paedophile spread, though he was initially unaware of what was happening. As he moved his furniture in children taunted Frank 'are you the nasty man?', and innocently he joked 'Yes, sometimes I'm bloody horrible', unintentionally fuelling the rumours. Children were warned by their parents to stay away from Frank. Kelly had to put up with 'kids spitting on the floor and looking at you funny'.

As things got worse the house was attacked, the front door vandalised and people tried to break into the back. Then the police received a call from someone claiming that they had broken in and killed the pervert - a hoax, but one that made Kelly fear for her life.

Frank prides himself on his local connections and was hurt that some people he had known for years seemed to have doubts when the rumours started flying. 'It's a close-knit community and it's very supportive if you are on the inside. But it's different if you are on the outside.' Once he found out what was going on, he talked to as many people as he could to clear his name. Neighbours rallied and people started crossing the street to apologise to Kelly instead of avoiding her.

Frank understands why people reacted the way they did. 'It's such a contentious issue. If it was my child, I would have been in the same category' as those who were spreading the alarm. 'They thought they were doing right' he adds, but 'If I hadn't been so well known, if I'd been an outsider, it might all have ended very differently'.

Sexual offences: the facts

There were 6500 convictions for sexual offences last year. Of those, 894 were convictions specific to offences against children (intercourse with a child under 16, intercourse with a child under thirteen, or abduction of a child for sexual purposes).

However, the Home Office cautions that many more of the 6500 sexual offences will have been offences against children, such as rape or indecent assault, that are tried under the broader offence. Despite the public interest in this issue, no figures are collated of specific offences, but the Home Office guestimate is that a third of all sexual offences are offences against children, ie just over 2000.

All Home Office research on reconviction rates indicates that sex offenders as a whole are less likely to reoffend than other kinds of offenders, and that reconviction of sex offenders aged over 30 is 'exceptionally low' (Home Office, 1994). No figures exist specific to offences against children, but one independent study suggests that between ten and 15 per cent of those charged with offences against children will be charged again.

Press reports to the effect that 150 sex offenders are to be released unsupervised into the community in the next two years have been wildly exaggerated. Over the next six years 150 people will be released who have a sex offence on their record, though not all 150 are currently in prison for sex offences. Only 50 will be released in the next six years who are specifically in prison for sex offences against children but who, because they were convicted before the law changed, do not fall under the terms of the sex offenders' register ('unsupervised').

Of those, 'half a dozen' are the sort of predatory paedophiles that the press have taken as characteristic, according to the Home Office.

Reproduced from LM issue 110, May 1998

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