Grand Committee Room
Palace of Westminster
5 December 2002
The timing of this event is exquisite. Last week we were wearing White Ribbons to campaign against domestic violence. That is significant business for me. The South East region has levels of domestic violence double that of London and three times that of the North of England.
Domestic violence damages not only the woman but also her children. One of Myra Hindley’s more courageous acts was to cling to her father’s leg, begging him not to strike her mother. What a trail of child abuse that man contributed to. Domestic violence goes sticky hand in hand with child abuse and this week we are tackling the sexual abuse of children.
I was at the start of Stop it Now! three years ago. We have travelled a good way since then. Two projects are up and running – one of which is in Surrey, led by Teresa Hughes, who was formerly a Surrey Police officer. Stop it Now!‘s hotline (0808 1000 900) is opening up new ways of hearing about child abuse. It’s a real breakthrough that people are beginning to ‘phone in because they are worried about being sexually attracted to children.
Like with domestic violence, one of our greatest barriers to tackling child abuse is a wall of silence, of embarrassment, shame, even guilt, and of the victim thinking it’s their fault, that they even encouraged it. We have to get this business out in the open. And get it clear that, as is always the case, the only person – the only person – responsible for an offence is the offender.
We have to be clear also about the danger points – schools, youth groups, church choirs are the traditional ones and many have made great strides to do better. This week the CTBI reported for all the British and Irish churches although – and it’s a personal view – I think the Roman Catholic Church still has some way to go, as Hugo Young pointed out so powerfully last week.
But home is still a dangerous place for many children, with parents, relatives and step-parents the most dangerous abusers. Part of our response to that is through criminal justice, but part is to take a public health view and work out how to prevent abuse whilst allowing a relationship to continue. There are again direct parallels with domestic violence, which is also increasingly recognised as a public health issue.
Much child abuse does not result in physical damage, so there has been a tendency to play down the deep damage it can cause through the breach of trust and the mucking up of relationships later in life and which may even get worse with time. Nobody underplays the harm more than the offender. He is systematically self-excusing, self-justifying, refusing to see what he has done, with a guile and self-deception which matches alcoholics and gamblers. Tackling this head-on in treatment is a real challenge: the Lucy Faithfull Foundation does it brilliantly.
But if the abuse in the open, it’s so much easier to intervene to prevent it, even by such obvious means as ensuring that offender is never alone with a potential victim. That, for me, is the frustration of the Michael Hill case. When it is all under wraps, nobody can be taking proper steps to protect children. But we safely employ convicted thieves in useful work, as long as we know not to leave them in charge of the till.
There is no doubt that the difficulty of debating issues around sex offenders in public both maintains the wall of silence and severely complicates the addressing of child sex abuse. Many people seem to have real problems talking rationally about it. This makes it much more difficult to address child sex abuse properly and to encourage abusers to seek help.
I long for the time when we can get a mature debate on sex offending – when we can manage sex offenders properly in the community; when we can operate a treatment facility without continually having to fend off hostile public opinion; and, perhaps most of all, when those who work to tackle sex offending, whose only motivation is to protect children better, won’t get portrayed as apologists for sex offenders.
There must be a mature recognition that there are, sadly, tens of thousands of sex offenders out there. Hoping for a sex offender-free village, town or world is not realistic. Instead we must find ways of managing sex offenders in the community, taking proper care that they do not offend or relapse.
And we also need to raise the very difficult question of treatment facilities for people who may not have been convicted of an offence – even may not have committed one – as well as the help we need to be giving to children and young people who are abusing others. A more open understanding of all these issues would make the world a safer, freer, place for children.
So it is wonderful to see Stop it Now! developing its new approach to identifying and intervening with sex offenders and so preventing child abuse.
Whilst the vast bulk of child abusers do not threaten life, the murders of Sarah Payne, Holly Wells, Jessica Chapman and Milly Dowler have made the last year so grim. We will only be able to start preventing those awful offences if we first break down the barriers of silence and panic so that we can understand and tackle effectively the lower level sex offences against children which often lead on to more serious offending.
That is why I am so pleased to be here to support Stop it Now! here today.
Address given by Hugh Marriage OBE
Crime Reduction Director, Government Office for the South East