A SMALL girl came running towards us, skidded on a stony path and fell with a cry.
As we helped her to her feet, she told us she'd become parted from her mother and sister. She was nine years old, lost, alone and frightened.
As luck would have it we'd seen her mother. She'd passed us five minutes earlier, another child in tow, looking worried and rather distracted. I turned back with the girl. Our route lay along a clifftop. I wanted to keep her from the edge on what was a windy day and to protect her from unsavoury strangers.
I wasn't alone in my concern. Along the way we met other walkers who had been stopped by the searching mother. They asked me: "Is this the missing child?" As they did so they looked me up and down. I was glad to be a woman and above suspicion.
We must have walked for a mile. When we reached hills, she ran up them, chattering, while I gasped in her wake. If I had been a man, it could have looked as though I was in pursuit.
Happily, half an hour later and back on the road, we met her poor mother, now almost frantic. Afterwards, talking about the incident, a male companion said he would have been in a dilemma had he been walking alone and had come across the lost girl. He would have done exactly what I did, but with a fearful heart.
Would the other walkers have been happy to let him deliver the child to safety, or would a woman have stepped in? Would they have seen him as a rescuer - or would they have wondered about his intentions?
Can any man behave naturally with children in today's suspicious world?
The issue has been highlighted by the experience of the writer and broadcaster Will Self. Self is a famously keen walker and his 11-year-old son has inherited the bug. The two were 11 days in to a 283-mile walk from London to Whitby when the police pulled alongside and checked Self out as a potential paedophile.
This most wholesome of family adventures was tainted.
Along the way Self had been teaching his son about the variety of flora and fauna they were encountering on their 20-mile-a-day journey. They were staying in B&Bs and pubs, taking note of architecture and getting into conversation with local people, the better to understand the lives of others.
As an exercise in good parenting it is hard to beat. It puts to shame anyone who leaves their kids parked in front of a screen while whining that they can't afford to take them on holiday.
But for his pains Will Self was, in front of his boy, questioned as a suspected predator.
It happened after he asked a security guard for permission to take a short cut across the private grounds of a college. The guard refused, saying there were under-18s at the college. Self pointed out he was with his son, also that he taught at a university and was no danger to students. Then, he decided "life was too short" for an argument.
Was it Self's clever-clogs vocabulary and tone that rattled the guard and caused him to call the police? Or did the man look at the "drooping" boy and at the gaunt features of the former (self-confessed) drug user and feel alarmed on the child's behalf?
I knew another father who (years ago) was stopped by police and questioned in the middle of Edinburgh when walking with his children. He had long, wild hair which he seemed to forget to comb and wore unconventional clothing. In fact he was an intellectual, a bit unworldly maybe, but a kindly and good person and a loving father.
As Self commented afterwards, it was unlikely a paedophile with an abducted child would kit himself out in rambler's gear and approach a security guard for permission to walk across college fields. But the guard may have thought a beastly man wanted access to a secluded spot. I can see both sides of it.
Do paedophiles look suspicious? Do they have wild hair or haunted expressions and pale complexions? Unfortunately they're not that easy to spot. They are not distinguishable by appearance. And this is the point. Most paedophiles look respectable. They are not typically scruffy, unkempt or obviously odd. They are more likely to be clean-cut and charming - the sorts of people parents trust.
And the abuse is conducted in the types of institutions we regard as the foundations of our way of life: in schools, colleges, families, even churches.
With something so foul being so hard to spot, is it any wonder we have become paranoid? Yet these bogeymen are rare. Self, who was trying to spare his son a trek along a busy road, wrote in a newspaper article that 2400 children were killed on the roads in 2011 whereas 72 were abducted by a stranger.
Yet more than road traffic, we fear men who prey on children.
What is the answer to this dilemma?
I'd like to say fathers must never be suspected, never asked to prove their innocence when out with their children. But take a look at the cases going through our courts and those that have already made the headlines. Men who were seen to be above suspicion have been convicted, family men amongst them - television presenters too.
Men in the teaching profession and men in holy orders have been getting off with sexual predation for decades. Their victims can take years - sometimes decades - to find the voice to speak out.
The sexual and physical abuse of children has been dragged into the light and - if we value all of our children - there it must remain. Too many children have been emotionally damaged. Too many others have been beaten or starved to death while neighbours and teachers and doctors and social workers failed to see what was in front of their eyes; failed to stick their nose in or their neck out when they had suspicions.
We can't let abuse of the helpless go back under cover. We can't protect the feelings of honourable, well-meaning fathers at the risk of failing to protect children.
Yet we need these same decent men to be involved with their own children and to be role models for those who have no fathers. We are pleased to see fathers go out and about with prams and with babies strapped to their backs. We want men like Will Self to introduce their children to the countryside.
Here's the difficult bit.
We must ask for their forbearance if and when they are falsely accused. On such a serious issue isn't it better that people act on their suspicion (so long as it is genuine) than that they don't? It's not the fault of the accuser, much less is it the fault of the children. If Will Self and other innocent fathers want to cast blame let them direct it at the vile few who pretend to be them - the wolves in human clothing who lurk in their midst.
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