In November of last year, I exchanged some e-mails with a paedophile living in the UK. I wanted to know how he felt about his sexual attraction to children. “I wish it would go away,” he wrote. “Sometimes I wish I could just take a blow-torch to my own mind.”
I’m calling him a paedophile which, despite common misconceptions, doesn’t make him an offender. In fact, this guy avoids children at all costs; he doesn’t want to be an abuser. But he does need help. He told me that the two therapists he’d approached said they weren’t equipped to treat him. So he gets most of his support from on-line forums populated by people with similar issues.
I come from Ireland, where I grew up hearing about horrific cases of child sexual abuse, mostly perpetrated by Catholic priests. As many as one in four Irish people may have experienced sexual abuse as children.
Perhaps it’s this backdrop of horror that makes talking about paedophilia such a particular taboo in Ireland. In popular discourse, paedophilia – defined medically as a persistent sexual attraction to children – is almost indistinguishable from the crime of acting on that desire.
But the truth is that the relationship between paedophilia and child sexual abuse is far from straightforward. Recently, I spoke to a man called Jens Wagner. He represents Germany’s national paedophile treatment programme. He told me that 80% of cases of child sexual abuse are not carried out by paedophiles. Canadian psychologist Hubert Van Gijseghem mentioned the same figure in an address to a parliamentary committee back in 2011.
At first I was surprised by the figure. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Paedophilia is an orientation; it has nothing to do with a person’s character or their likelihood of committing a criminal offence. Consider paedophiles as ordinary people and you realise that their aberrant desires are likely to be a source of considerable anguish.
In Ireland, if you are in prison for sexually abusing a child, you are entitled to counselling. However, I’m yet to find a single treatment centre for paedophiles who haven’t offended. While researching this, I stumbled upon a transcript of a debate in the Irish parliament that took place in 2001. Fine Gael TD Dan Neville was asking then Minister of Health Micheál Martin his views on the lack of services available for paedophiles seeking help controlling their urges.
After an unsatisfactory interchange, Martin concluded that “the idea of setting up a specially designated service is not one that has found favour so far with those in the health boards or the relevant professions on the grounds that it could lead to stigmatisation and, perhaps, a reluctance to participate as a result.”
It’s an extraordinary reply, when you think about it. The implication is that the possibility of paedophiles being stigmatized for getting help outweighs the potential benefit of providing it. Apply that way of thinking to any other area of medical treatment and you will realise how ludicrous it sounds.
Public policy-makers play a significant role in shaping social attitudes. They have a responsibility to provide help to vulnerable people.
And here is a sentence that might make some of you squirm. Paedophiles are vulnerable members of society. For the most part, they are ordinary people who know that to act on their urges would be to commit a horrible crime. They are people who want help to make sure they never hurt a child. Unfortunately, they have to do just that in order to be entitled to treatment.
They are, in effect, forced into a culture of silence.
Let’s take a look at the alternative. In Germany, the “Kein Täter werden” (Don’t become an offender) programme offers free counselling to non-offending paedophiles. It deals with potential stigma by guaranteeing patient confidentiality. Therapists in breach of it could even end up in jail. When I spoke to Jens Wagner for a related story, I asked him if the societal taboo on paedophilia was good or bad. “Bad,” he answered without skipping a beat. “Hysteria helps nobody, nor does the myth that every paedophile becomes a molester.”
Ireland needs to face up to the fact that paedophilia is a sexual orientation, not a crime. It needs to provide therapists with the tools to treat people looking for a way to manage their desires. It should not take a child to be abused for that help to be offered. Sweeping sexuality under the carpet should be a thing of the past.