Paedophilia in the Community
Paedophilia in the Community
Published in The Hebridean, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Western Isles (Outer Hebrides), 20 November 2003, p. 9.
When the editor phoned up and asked me if I could write about the effect of paedophilia (or pedophilia) on communities, I agreed, but with two caveats.
First, we all know why this issue is of such concern in the Western Isles at the moment. But it is not for me to address any specific allegations about a paedophile ring having moved into our islands.
Those who have been charged by the police are to be presumed innocent unless and until a court of law finds them guilty. I can air the issue only in general terms independently of current cases.
Secondly, I have more than once encountered paedophiles in my work with communities. As I put it in the extended paperback edition of my book, Soil and Soul, discovering that somebody who was once trusted in their community has raped children is “like being hit by a missile out of Hell”.
However, whilst I might have something to say about how paedophilia affects communities, I cannot claim to be a professional in the question.
Kate Cairns’ Work
So how best should I respond to the editor’s request? Well, here’s what I’m going to do. A friend of mine, Kate Cairns, is a child care consultant who trains social workers and other professionals in England.
She has published a book called Surviving Paedophilia: traumatic stress after organised network child sexual abuse. Its aim, she told me, was “to help people understand that paedophilia affects not just the primary victims, but the whole community.”
To circumvent my own deficit of professional expertise, and with her generous permission, I’m going to draw on lengthy quotes from her work. To avoid confusion in the narrow columns of a newspaper as to whose voice is speaking, I’ll put all her words in italics.
Please note that whilst the material I quote is not lurid, it is disturbing. I suggest reading further only if this is acceptable to you.
Community as Victim
So, what is the effect of child sexual abuse being uncovered in a community? Kate describes it in this way:
“Like blast from a bomb, circles of harm spread outward from paedophilia, making victims of any who stand in its way. At the centre are the children, the primary victims who will bear the scars forever. Then there are those closest to them – whoever loves them enough to feel the wounds and suffer harm because of them – secondary victims through loving those who suffer most. Further from the centre are those whose work requires them to immerse themselves in the world of paedophilia – professionals it is true, but not prepared by training or experience for what they may uncover; and there are tertiary victims here, searching for a language to express what they have learned and an audience to hear it. And beyond [at a fourth level] is the whole social order, for where there is corruption, no part of the social fabric can escape the taint.”
And “taint”, as she suggests elsewhere, is too weak a word. “Toxin” is more to the point. Professionals who are close to the cutting edge - in social work, medicine, education and the police - typically come out with statements like, “This work contaminates. It’s like a poison, it gets under your skin and spreads to infect everything you do.”
Paedophiles may operate alone, within institutions, or as criminally organised networks including the Internet. For example:
“Lone paedophiles, with or without a history of incest in their own family, may organise their lives around a career of paedophilia; they may seek work which provides access to children, especially vulnerable children; they may make opportunities to gain the trust of families, as lodger, family friend, teacher, baby sitter, sports coach, or partner to a single parent; they may establish a role with unprotected groups of children by targeting churches or youth groups, or by setting up ‘projects’ to meet a community need. The sexual activity will depend upon the tastes of the abuser. It may involve children of the same gender as the abuser, of the opposite gender, or be indiscriminate; it may focus on children of a particular age range or with a particular disability; it may involve a single child, or groups of children. Children may be bribed, coerced, threatened, seduced, drugged, or tortured to ensure compliance and silence. Children may be used to recruit others.”
may get organised in groups, because: “Social exclusion makes for group
cohesion. Given the strength and power of the inhibitors around paedophilia, it
is inevitable that paedophiles will become organised and create an internally
cohesive and validating social group.”
This creates a
vice-gripped sub-culture in which child abuse becomes normalised, and may even
be represented as good for children. Thus, “Paedophiles write about
paedophilia as though it were harmless, as though paedophiles love children in
much the same way as oenophiles love wine, and urge that paedophilia should be
accepted as one of the many diverse ways human beings may relate to one another
But the bottom
line, Kate asserts, is that, “There is no getting away from the fact that
organised child sexual abuse is a conspiracy, in the exact sense of the word: a
combination of persons for an evil or unlawful purpose; an agreement between two
or more to do something criminal, illegal, or reprehensible (OED).”
The emerging crime statistics make potential suspects of everybody – men and even women. From just one Internet swoop in the United States, 10,000 names are currently under investigation by the British police, all being people who used credit cards to buy pornography that had been made by the criminal degradation of children.
Silence of Denial
It is normal that none of us want to believe this. At first, most people resist what they’re hearing. We typically try to project it as far away from our own community as possible:
existence of paedophilia is denied. Or rather, since it is clear that
paedophiles do exist, their existence is believed to be elsewhere, a sort of
extended version of the not-in-my-backyard phenomenon. And they are demonised,
made to be alien, other, not like us. The thought that paedophiles are living,
breathing, feeling human beings who may live ordinary lives as our next door
neighbours, except that their particular distortions of thought and feeling both
compel and allow them to relate to children as sex objects, is generally
The suffering is a
double torture for victims because where there is social denial they may feel
unable to cry out for help: “Sexual abuse is particularly likely to leave
children speechless. They are silenced by their own terror, by their own sense
of self-blame and self-loathing, by their own lack of an appropriate vocabulary,
and by the threats issued by their abusers. In the case of organised abuse, the
perpetrators are likely to be particularly skilled at silencing children. Many
adult survivors of paedophilia speak and write movingly of the experience of
being silenced as a child.”
Facing up to abuse in the community can be made even harder where trusted pillars of the establishment are involved – clergy, teachers and law enforcement officers. It appears not uncommon for abusers to live a compartmentalised Jekyll and Hyde existence, perhaps as respected contributors to public life on the one hand, and on the other, concealing something that is hard to credit.
Kate says of her
own struggle to come to terms with the evidence: “I had accepted the
reality of child sexual abuse, and understood that some families and some
individuals made use of children as sexual objects. Yet when I was presented
with evidence that the sexual abuse of children is also institutionalised in our
society I resisted the learning…. To recognise this, and to acknowledge that
we do not know one another as we thought we did, that we have very little idea
how any other person we meet thinks or behaves in the privacy of their sexuality
and may, for all we know, be abusing children daily, hurts us profoundly.”
Loss of Innocence
It is this that makes it all so toxic and corrupting. As if the violation of children by adults were not enough, it additionally leaves a community wondering whether anybody can be trusted any longer.
It may leave men, in particular, fearful that if they kick a ball about with the little ones, wrestle with the young lads, take the teenagers off fishing, make snapshots at a school sporting event, or even run a Bible class, then they may fall under suspicion.
Indeed to ensure adequate child protection, all of us today involved with child work have to accept placing ourselves under suspicion by accepting a disclosure process so that police records can be checked. Involving adults in youth work was never easy. Thanks to paedophiles, the hurdle is now twice as high. On the one hand there is the danger of false accusations being made for malicious reasons. On the other hand, “Sometimes people tell lies, and people who are abusing children tell lies a lot.”
The confusion so created is all part of what Kate means by the fourth level of victimisation – the level at which the whole community becomes damaged by paedophilia. The whole community feels violated, shamed and necessarily on its guard. There is a collective fall from grace. The very thing that most integrates children into the community – the ethic of “suffer little children to come unto me” – is perverted inwards on itself.
Kate’s book is mainly about the effects of trauma on care workers – the heavy burden of awareness, the threats to personal and professional security, and perhaps such symptoms as depression, anger and reduced interest in their own sex lives. But she also touches on the possible causes of paedophilia. She says: “It is beginning to be received wisdom that people who do really terrible things as adults must have had a really terrible childhood…. Children who have been victims of paedophilia may develop behaviour patterns which are socially unacceptable and personally harmful.”
The social knock-on
effects are potentially vast and intergenerational. They concern us all because,
“Victims of trauma, especially victims of trauma perpetrated upon them by
others, ultimately pose a threat to the social order.”
This does not mean that all victims will become perpetrators. Some do and many thankfully rise above it all. But there is evidence that people who do become paedophiles were often abused themselves as children or had childhoods that were devoid of real loving care.
One theory (not discussed in Kate’s book) is that an abused child’s sexual development can become frozen at the age when they were abused. The normal process of sexual growing up is disrupted, and it becomes as if the adult’s ability to relate sexually is stuck in a timewarp.
If research confirms that theories like this have validity, the hopeful side is that by tackling the problem the spread of paedophilia might be nipped in the bud.
Towards Child Protection
How, then, can a
community come to terms with the problem and protect its children? Kate suggests that,
first: “For the process of discovery to begin, someone has to notice what
is happening to the children. Or rather, someone has to notice that something
very powerful and destructive is happening to the children. There are procedures
for the protection of children … in theory it should be possible to set out
the process [to aid child protection].”
Second, we have to
accept that child protection becomes a normal part of community life. This means
allowing it to become socially acceptable to talk about the problem, because: “Once
we discover a language in which we can talk about paedophilia appropriately it
can then become a domain of discourse instead of a domain of silence.”
Third, the fact that a community is forced to wake up to the reality of paedophilia should be the last of reasons for adults to withdraw from engagement with children. If it is the case that unloved children are more likely to grow up to become paedophiles, then the recognition that “it takes a whole community to raise a child” has never been more important. Victims in particular, Kate points out, “need stability, therapy, secure social attachments and the possibility of joy.”
if child protection procedures and the law are one part of society’s response
to paedophilia, research suggests that another side to protection is teaching
children to recognise and react to inappropriate behaviour from an adult.
lastly, and now I am moving beyond the limits of Kate’s book, there is an
issue of transparency when choosing to live in tight-knit communities such as
those of the Western Isles.
the past it was often the case that everybody knew everybody else’s business
in our communities. Maybe we need to ask again if that’s such a bad idea.
Hebridean childhoods that many of us were privileged to enjoy were, in
retrospect, very special experiences. In my observation, there was never any
problem with, say, a person having a criminal record, provided they
didn’t try and hide it.
It is arguably the case that if people are not prepared to be open about who they are, then they shouldn’t bother settling in a Hebridean community. Belonging to or being fostered into a Hebridean community can be an amazing experience, but it does carry an expectation of openness. These islands may be a place to get over a chequered past, but never to hide from it.
Spirituality and Healing
I think this brings us full square round to the very profound manner in which paedophilia challenges us on the nature of community. Ultimately, community is about “membership one of another”. It is a spiritual thing; an extended family in which we learn about that which gives life. To theologians, this is the real meaning of the word “Church”.
Paedophilia shocks the community because, at one level, it violates such intimacy so very deeply. Another theological word, “Fall”, comes to mind.
As Kate puts it:
“A key to understanding the damage done by trauma is the recognition that
traumatic events and circumstances can catastrophically destroy certain basic
assumptions we hold about the world…. Trauma … leads to the breakdown of
fundamental beliefs and assumptions about the world, such as the belief that the
world is essentially just or benevolent, that people have control over their
lives, or that bad things do not ultimately happen to good people.”
Equally, however, we need to hold in mind the word “redemption”. To heal or to “salve” the human condition (and thus, the word, “salvation”) means facing up to the brute realities of the world, but doing so with courage. It means not giving up on life. It means continuing to work for a better community even against immense odds. As a well-loved petition puts it, “Thy Kingdom come ... on Earth…”
Kate points out
that, on the one hand, “People who have had a religious faith and who find
that it disintegrates as their meaning world collapses are bereft indeed.”
But on the other hand, “Many systems of religious belief … can contribute to resilience by sustaining a sense of meaning and purpose.”
She concludes that,
“The balance seems to be that religious faith contributes more to
resilience than to vulnerability.” And she leaves us with a quote from
Helen Keller: “Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall
emerge into the light.”
The shock of learning about child sexual abuse has damaged the meaning, freedom and presumed innocence of a Hebridean childhood. But may all in our communities find the strength, wisdom and compassion to face the issue. Let us not allow such damage to succeed in becoming a theft.
“Surviving Paedophilia” by Kate Cairns is published by Trentham Books at £14.99. Other references include: “Abnormal Psychology” by Davison, Neale and Kring (John Wiley & Sons); “Child Abuse: Towards a Knowledge Base”, by Brian Corby (Open University Press); “For Your Own Good: the Roots of Violence in Child-Rearing”, by Alice Miller (Virago).
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20 November 2003