HOW do you stop a paedophile from being a paedophile? To the vast majority of the Scottish public, the idea of spending your working life in the company of child sex offenders is a vision of hell, but tucked away in a back street in Edinburgh are the offices of a little-known charity that work tirelessly to prevent paedophiles from offending.

In therapy sessions, Stop It Now offers courses for a growing group of paedophiles who claim they want to stop looking at online child abuse images and overcome their sexual attraction to children. The sex offenders are asked to take part in roleplay confessing their crimes to members of their families, and write letters to an imagined victim of abuse.

The Sunday Herald was given unprecedented access to charity staff, who also offer confidential advice to anonymous callers to a helpline, as well as online resources for people who want to stop looking at child abuse images online. The charity worked with 133 paedophiles aged between 17 and 78 at its office in Edinburgh’s New Town last year.

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Manager Stuart Allardyce, a former social worker said that the spectrum of offenders they work with range from teenagers sexting, to adults looking at child abuse images and offenders who have sexually assaulted children.

“Our work is about prevention," he said. "We would never turn somebody away. So, we also have offenders who have committed serious contact sexual abuse of children, who have gone to prison, and are now out in the community but are struggling with sexual thoughts towards children, but maybe social work are no longer involved with them. Those are the exception, the vast majority are people charged with internet offences.”

Allardyce has a staff of just five people though they have decades of experience in child protection. Many of the clients are referred by police who hand out leaflets after charging someone with sex offences.

One case worker, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “What we’re working towards is finding out why they did it in order to stop them doing it again or moving on to more damaging behaviour. Almost everybody I speak to is trying to answer that question themselves. There’s opportunities to stop it happening again if we can look at the mental state that led them down that road.

“Having an understanding of the effect the person’s behaviour has had is important. We look at the effect on their family, and on the children in the material. These are children being abused, it’s not child pornography, it’s abuse and people are part of that if they’re viewing it.”

The case worker said some clients will claim they accessed illegal material online “by accident” but he is quick to dismiss this excuse as “nonsense”.

He said: “My experience is a lot of people we speak to have been looking at way too much pornography. Often, it’s reckless behaviour, such as putting in search terms like ‘teen’ or ‘boy’, because, don’t forget, under 18 is illegal, and that can lead to younger images and more and more extreme images.

“But it’s chat rooms that are the biggest problem. Most of the people I’ve dealt with in the last year have been arrested through chat room activity. They are having conversations with others with a similar interest and sharing pictures. Some really quite disturbing stuff is shared through these chat rooms.”

Although the service is “confidential and anonymous”, staff will call police if they have “identifiable details” of child abuse. “We would never hold on to evidence of crime,” Allardyce said. “We always say to everyone who contacts us that if we consider them a risk to other people we are required to pass that information on.”

The case worker said many clients are already facing prison time and some will ask for a letter which they can present in court before sentencing. “We’re getting pretty good at picking out those who are approaching us for the wrong reasons,” Willie said. “That could be somebody that phones us because they’re in court the following week and want a letter to say they’ve come to see us.”

The case worker admitted that the charity’s approach may not be popular with some sections of society who want to “put them all in jail and throw away the key” but he insisted working with paedophiles on their behaviour can prevent harm to children.

A Police Scotland spokeswoman endorsed Stop It Now and said it’s vital there are “prevention programmes to reduce the likelihood of escalation and recidivism, either when an individual is concerned about their sexual thinking or behaviour towards children or young people, or following a police investigation into offences”.

She added: “We treat all reports and information that suggest that a child is at risk of harm or abuse with the highest priority. Anyone who has information that a child may be at risk should contact Police Scotland.”

THE MARRIED FATHER CHARGED WITH LOOKING AT CHILD ABUSE ONLINE

Father-of-two, Jim, was living in central Scotland with his wife when the police came to his door to arrest and charge him with viewing child abuse images online. He spoke to the Sunday Herald on condition that we don’t publish his full name.

“My ordinary life was turned upside down,” he said. “It came as a shock to my family who had no idea I was looking at illegal images of children.”

Jim said he had been looking at legal adult pornography “as a way of dealing with stress” but admitted he soon began viewing child abuse images and “kept on returning to it, even though I knew what I was doing was wrong”.

Jim was later convicted and received a suspended sentence. He first contacted Stop It Now after police officers handed him a leaflet.

He said: “They gave me the support I needed to start making changes in my life, and I was soon on a 10-week course they run, along with other men in the same position as me. The course helped me understand my behaviour and how I can control it in the future.

“Most of all, it helped us all understand the great damage we’d caused to the children in the pictures. Understanding my responsibility for that harm, and the shame that makes me feel, is the most important factor in making sure I will never look at illegal images of children again.”

To seek support from Stop It Now, call 0131 556 3535 or visit stopitnow.org.uk

HOW THE PAEDOPHILE THERAPY SESSIONS ACTUALLY WORK

Stop It Now’s 10-week course sees groups of eight or nine paedophiles sit in a circle for a session that lasts about two hours as case workers take them through issues such as relapse prevention, impact recognition, compulsive behaviour and sexual fantasy.

The clients are forbidden from exchanging contact details or spending time together outside the charity’s headquarters in Edinburgh. The majority have already been charged by police but have yet to appear in court.

One case worker we spoke to, who has been running therapy courses for several years, said: “They’re all in a very similar situation. It can be many months before they appear in court and it’s only after they appear in court that statutory services kick in. We work with them in the intervening period.”

Manager of the charity, Stuart Allardyce, said: “People will say of our work that we’re letting them off lightly and approaching it with a soft touch but we’re actually asking them to do an awful lot more than they would otherwise.”

Week one sees clients identify positives in their lives and seek support ahead of what case workers describe as the more “stressful period” that follows. Week Two goes on to look at the legal system and offer practical advice about the prison system and Sex Offenders Register.

Week Three sees paedophiles examine repeat behaviour before Week Four looks at relapse prevention techniques. One case worker said: “It might be that every night they’re upstairs on the laptop while the wife and family are downstairs watching TV – they’ll need to change that behaviour.”

In Week Five police officers and social workers are brought in to explain the process the participants will go through before and after they are convicted and sets out what they should and shouldn’t be doing online and in the community. “It’s quite heavy,” the case worker said. “Some of them are head in hands saying they’ll never be able to work again, but there are jobs they can do.”

The compulsive behaviour module in Week Six educates paedophiles about the consequences of acting on their sexual fantasies. The case worker said: “This is not about being nice to people who are interested in children, it’s about prevention.”

Weeks Seven’s impact prevention module can be “quite difficult for them”, the case worker said, adding: “A lot of them have never thought about it. It’s voyeuristic for them. We ask them to put themselves in the position of the mindset of the children and what kind of lives they might be having. We ask where the mother and father are in all of this. We ask them to write a letter from the perspective of the child about their life. The atmosphere in the room is electric. It brings home to them that they’ve taken part in an activity that’s a had a real impact on a person somewhere in the world. They quite often break down in tears.”

In Week Eight the paedophiles are given advice on how to break the news to family and friends that they have been charged with child sex offences. “It has to be done in a way that doesn’t minimise it in some way,” the case worker explained. “We do that in the context of role plays.”

The final sessions suggest further lifestyle changes and strategies to prevent relapse. The case worker said: “There are some exercises that involve them interviewing each other and feeding back.”

The overwhelming majority of participants complete the course and some feel a “sense of loss” after the final week, according to case workers, because “they will have lost friends and family and will be very isolated”.

One case worker said: “One of the things they get on the course is the ability to talk openly about their thinking, but that only happens in the room. We discourage any interaction outside the room.”

When asked how he copes with working alongside paedophiles the case worker admits it can be “horrific”.

He said: “People conjure up this image of sexual offenders being monsters. Now, it would be great and easy if they were monsters because they’d be identifiable. Actually, the vast majority of guys I work with are ordinary people who have lives no different to anyone else. But clearly the work I do can be quite disturbing and some of the conversations I have are beyond belief, but I’ve done this for a long time and I have good support and a great home life. There are some days you listen to stories and it’s so horrific it stays with you, but you try not to dwell on it.”