It’s not covered in the Chronicle this week but out in the world there’s been an on-going discussion on an issue that may get more pressing in years to come — where to house paedophiles.
Somewhere in our circulation area (to avoid fanning the flames we’ll be vague) lives a man who has served time for serious offences. He did eight years — so very serious offences — but he came out two years ago and since then has lived with his parents and caused no trouble.
We were told about the issue because some local parents found out and wanted “something doing”. Quite what is not clear. A public meeting was to be called and the police were to attend, though presumably all they could do would be to warn vigilantes to put down the flaming torches and go home.
But then something rather good happened: a number of locals declined to attend the meeting, saying they were not going to be part of a persecution, and they didn’t want to drive the man underground. As far as we know, the meeting has not gone ahead.
After we’d been told all this, the man’s story appeared on Facebook, shared via one of those disturbing semi-vigilante websites called PaedoWatch or similar.
Again, reaction was rather muted. No-one — at least no-one with children — wants a paedophile living nearby but people seem to accept that it’s the best in a number of bad options; it’s better to know where these people live than drive them underground. The man in question has not caused a problem since his release from prison.
All of this raises a number of issues, and a disturbing conclusion.
We are against hounding people once they have done their time.
Our legal system is that you commit the crime, you do the time (or pay the fi ne, or carry out the community service; whatever). It’s done, paperwork and offenders’ registers aside.
Justice is not about sending people through the courts and then hounding them forever more. It’s paedophiles today but it could be drink drivers or wife beaters tomorrow.
We also disagree with people who — as they do on Facebook — complain: “What is the world coming to?” The answer is: whatever it was coming to before. There have always been paedophiles: 100 years ago, we reported such things more obscurely, sometimes merely noting that “a despicable crime” had been committed and a man sent to prison with hard labour.
If the child was older we’d report the case more fully, the evidence including more than once that the perpetrator had taken a beating from an irate father.
There was, however, no talk of driving them out of town.
In a town of a couple of hundred people, or even a couple of thousand, a handful of paedophiles would have been well known, and could have been watched, and tolerated if they behaved.
The “what is the world coming to?” brigade has got a point now that the towns are bigger, however, and people more anonymous. You might not know who lives two doors down. A century ago they knew everyone.
Channel 4’s FactCheck says that, according to freedom of information requests submitted by the NSPCC, there were 1.9 sexual offences per thousand children in England and Wales in 2012/13, and the rate has changed little in recent years.
Of course we have the internet, allowing people to (albeit indirectly) commit offences against children in other countries.
The NSPCC also found that 29,837 people registered as sexual offenders had committed crimes against children.
Most offences are not reported (and we’d guess are mostly committed by adults known to the children): while the NSPCC found that there were 1.9/1,000 record offences against children, the reporting rate — ie the number of people who said they’d been assaulted — was 4.8%, or 4.8/100. (That’s in a thousand for recorded offences, in a hundred for reported assaults).
This is where the NSPCC’s “one in 20 children has experienced contact sexual abuse” comes from.
Channel four reports that this 4.8% is probably around the same in other countries.
The BBC’s statistics programme reported that up to 5% of people committed offences against children (about the same percentage as offenders in the Catholic Church, incidentally, where offending priests match the proportion of the general public; they’re only human).
All this means that — probably — up to 5% of the population have some kind of paedophile tendencies, which they may often act on. At your secondary school that was probably five or six people out of your year group.
And as the police get better at detecting them, more of them than in the past are becoming known, as they go through the courts. It doesn’t mean the number of paedophiles is rising, just that more are being caught.
As the numbers rise, we have to have a better response to these people living in our midst than just running them out of town.
Except: we would normally adopt a libertarian approach to most things — even Donald Trump — which boils down to letting people do what they want as long as they don’t harm others. In the case of sex offenders this clearly does not mean letting them offend, it means letting them live normal lives when they’ve been before the courts, and not having to live in fear.
For most things this works ok but it breaks down when — as in the case of more “serious” paedophiles — people cannot help themselves.
Someone who downloaded a few photos and has been up in court will probably never do it again, but the more determined paedophiles are unable to stop — though to be fair, the man whose case started this discussion has apparently been able to do so.
This small number of determined paedophiles is where libertarianism breaks down. If they’re locked up they can do no harm but eventually they will be released.
Can they behave? Or do we need to look at more dramatic steps, such as detaining a small number of people for life, or chemical castration? Hard decisions, but a conversation we are surely going to have.