Magazine article The Spectator

The Abuse of Child Abuse

Magazine article The Spectator

The Abuse of Child Abuse

Article excerpt

HAVE paedophiles in present-day demonology come to occupy the same role as witches did in that of the 16th and 17th centuries? So far this year there has been disorder in Aberdeen, Stirling and Swindon as a result of mobs gathering outside the homes of convicted sex offenders who had been released from prison after serving their sentences. The Swindon paedophile was driven from his home there and from four other addresses. He felt obliged to seek refuge with the Brighton police.

The hysteria which brought about these unseemly and disturbing happenings has incited the Home Office to introduce restrictions on convicted paedophiles over and above those imposed by the courts when passing sentence. Under the Sex Offenders Act 1997 they are obliged to tell the police where they are living. The Home Secretary has recently announced that there will be legislation to exclude them from places where there are likely to be children playing or assembling. All this has a whiff of the restrictions which were imposed on lepers during the Middle Ages and on Jews in Nazi Germany.

What danger do convicted paedophiles present to young children? Clearly some.

But is it greater now than it was 50 years ago? The criminal statistics show an increase in the past ten years in the number of convictions for offences involving sexual crimes against young children. They provide unreliable evidence of the prevalence of crime in the past because there was not then the same inclination to report crime as there is today. It may be significant that when in 1980 the Criminal Law Revision Committee, of which I was then the chairman, published a Green Paper inviting suggestions for the reform of the law relating to sexual offences, none of our many correspondents suggested that the law relating to sexual crimes against children should be strengthened.

During a professional lifetime of 51 years, ending in December 1986, which I spent in the administration of criminal justice - 25 as a barrister and 26 as a judge -the prevalence of these offences seems to have changed little except for one nauseating development during the past 20 years, the use of children for the production of pornography. There always have been men who murdered and raped children. In the past the law has been able to deal adequately with such offenders. It still can. Before 1965, when capital punishment was abolished, those who murdered young children were likely to have been hanged unless there was reason to think that they were insane, in which case they were kept in Broadmoor for the rest of their lives. Now they receive mandatory life sentences. They will not be released as long as there is any reason to think that they will be a danger to anyone, and then only on licence. Those convicted of raping or buggering a child will receive a long sentence on their first conviction and life imprisonment on a second. By the time they are released their sexual drive is likely to have been considerably reduced.

Most cases of what the press call child abuse amount in law to indecent assault. No doubt for reasons of decency the press rarely report what the offender did to the child. Such an assault can be horrendous, as when there is vaginal penetration by a bottle or forced fellatio (oral sex). A sentence of, or near, the maximum of ten years is likely - more if any physical injury was done to the child. In such a case the conviction would probably be for causing grievous bodily harm with intent. For that offence the maximum sentence is life imprisonment. I never had to deal with such cases. I learned about them when the Criminal Law Revision Committee was considering sexual offences. They are very rare indeed. Most cases of indecent assault on young children consist of acts which come within the colloquial word 'groping'. It was my forensic experience that most of those convicted were middle-aged men of low intelligence or who were suffering from some degree of mental disorder. …

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