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Should we be aiming to rehabilitate, not jail paedophiles?

Matthew Lynas considers a controversial solution

As a society, our first reaction to the sexual abuse of children is justifiably one of moral outrage.

Speculation on the mental health of child rapists can therefore be an uncomfortable subject, leading to conclusions that could be interpreted as an attempt to shift the blame from abusers.

However, if our primary goal is the prevention of sexual abuse, then it makes sense that we should be drawn towards investigating the abuser's state of mind.

There are medical scientists who are already engaged in this kind of research. In their 2009 paper on the psychopathology and personality traits of paedophiles published in the Psychiatric Times, authors Lisa Cohen and Igor Galynker concluded, that in contrast to popular opinion, existing treatment techniques for paedophiles show promise. Cohen and Galynker also noted that with increased public support there could be "significant advances" in the prevention of this "destructive disorder".

Their findings are not unique. In fact, entire communities of medical professionals engaged in research concerned with the prevention of sexual abuse can be found online.

But despite a popular abhorrence for sexual abuse among society, the common complaints among these scientists appears to be a lack of research, lack of data and lack of support.

It shouldn't be too surprising that there is a lack of support for this kind of research. Paedophilia is not an illness like cancer.

When we talk about cancer, we are talking about a group of diseases that are easily identifiable as such. Cancer is detectable, manifests physically in the form of a malignant tumour, and is in many cases treatable.

We don't consider the morals of cancer any more than we do the common cold. That paedophilia cannot be so easily identified as a sickness is an undeniable hurdle to public support for research.

I am not a doctor nor a scientist. My own experience of the consequences of child sex abuse has been limited to the difficulties faced by many men attempting to interact normally with children in a cultural climate which can at times feel understandably, if not reasonably, suspicious of any male physical contact with children no matter how innocuous.

As a graduate, I spent my first year of freedom from educational institutions as an English language instructor in South Korea. This threw me right back into the student-teacher relationship, but at the powerful end for the first time.

Teaching mixed gender classes ranging in age from four to 15, I approached my role with a degree of caution. However, as anyone who has worked in childcare can tell you, any notion of avoiding physical contact with young children is impractical at best and cruel at worst.

Four-year-olds don't yet live in the world we occupy and children tugging on the trousers of an adult or looking for a hug after a fall are normal parts of a teacher's day.

However in the same way that the echo chamber of outrage accompanying every high profile paedophilia case makes working with children a difficult business for men, I believe it makes discussion on new approaches to child abuse prevention almost impossible.

I confess to having used words like "sick and "twisted" to describe paedophiles in the past without giving a thought to what those words would imply in any other context, but as the Operation Yewtree investigation rumbles on, with sick revelation after sick revelation filling up the news cycle and with Westminster finding itself under scrutiny, I have to wonder how loud our collective outrage can get before we are willing to explore the potential benefits of a new approach.

Paedophilia may not be as tangible a condition as cancer but there is evidence to suggest that the mental health of abusers is worth investigating.

For example, in his paper, titled current understandings of paedophilia and the resulting crisis in modern society, Dr Kieran McCartar, of the University of West of England, noted that paedophiles tend to have higher levels of psychopathic disorders as well as being prone to more psychological disorders than the general population.

McCartar, an associate professor in criminology, also highlighted that as a group, paedophiles tend to suffer from higher levels of social introversion, sensitivity, loneliness and depression.

This is not to say we should be more suspicious of people who suffer from any of the above. A study on paedophilia conducted at the University of Toronto found a higher proportion of left-handedness among paedophiles. It would be absurd for right handers to be suspicious of the left handed on this basis.

However, research does seem to suggest that issues with mental health that lead to an inability to cope with adult relationships could be a contributing factor in driving sex offenders towards a sexual relationships with children.

This at least allows for the possibility that better provisions for the mentally ill could contribute to a reduction in instances of child abuse and is therefore surely a path worth exploring.

While better provisions for the mentally ill sounds reasonable, there's a definite leap between discussing difficulties caused by social introversion or depression with your GP and confessing a sexual attraction to children.

There are groups working to bridge this gap. In Germany, Prevention Project Dunkelfeld is one such project providing confidential treatment for individuals with a sexual preference for children. The project's web address, www.dont-offend.org states its goals clearly and should overcome any objections that could be held on morality grounds to providing support to those with sexual desires towards children.

Another example of a project offering paedophiles treatment is the Circles of Support and Accountability programme, first developed in Canada. Although perhaps hard to believe in the current cultural climate, the programme sees members of the public in Canada, the USA and the UK volunteering to aid paedophiles in their community upon their release from incarceration. Initial research on such programmes is said to be showing some success in discouraging re-offending.

A question that could justifiably be raised at this point is why we simply do not lock sexual abusers up for life? It would undoubtedly be the best way to prevent re-offending.

But this solution brings its own dangers for children. If we try to deter abusers with the promise of guaranteed life in prison, then we have no cards left in our deck for deterring murder.

It's possible that we may reduce the number of victims in this way, but those remaining are now placed at greater risk. If an abuser believes killing their victim could reduce the likelihood of being caught, then we have eliminated any legal incentive not to.

It may not be everyone's idea of justice, but a rehabilitative sentence seems like the best solution for the vast majority of crimes related to paedophilia. And so, if those released offenders who are offered support and treatment really are at a reduced risk of re-offending, then the ethical action is to offer that support, as unpleasant as it may feel.

The uncomfortable nature of the last example highlights the underlying choice that has to be made. In an ideal world there would be no paedophiles, but blanket condemnation seems ineffective with things as they are.

If we wish to be as effective as possible at protecting children then it may be time to accept that we need research and support in addition to the law.

Matthew Lynas is an ex-English teacher now working as a journalist in Glasgow.

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