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How can we deal with our collective paranoia over paedophiles?

By Clifford Longley - posted Tuesday, 18 March 2003

A friend of a friend recently resigned from the honorary post of Father Christmas in his local Rotary Club. For two decades he had donned false beard, red fur-lined jacket and trousers (though with less need, year by year, of a pillow stuffed under his shirt to emphasise his girth) and distributed small gifts to small children in the local shopping centre in return for a small payment to charity by their Mums and avuncular cries of "Ho Ho Ho!" But not any more, not once he was informed he would have to be registered and checked out to make sure he was not a paedophile.

This was the last straw in a succession of child-protection indignities he had had to endure over the years, culminating in the rule that the infant receiving a gift must stand and keep its distance, rather than sit on his lap in the traditional manner, and that a female chaperone had to be present at all times. Not that he objected to those rules so much as to the inevitable aura of suspicion that surrounded them. An innocent occasion had been sullied. So in that small town at least, Father Christmas literally no longer exists.

An anthropologist would probably say that the exaggerated fear of the invisible presence of paedophilia was very like the fear of the invisible presence of witches in, say, 17th-century Massachusetts, or the search for heretics in 16th-century Spain. There was felt to be a kind of invisible miasma seeping out from them, harming and corrupting those around in unspeakably dreadful ways. Those accused always denied it, and indeed looked and sounded normal. Eventually some of those not guilty began to doubt even themselves. And those who sheltered the guilty, albeit unwittingly, were deemed party to the evil whether they joined in or not. This way, of course, lies madness; and its name is collective hysterical paranoia.


The difference is that whereas witchcraft was always nonsense and heresy more or less harmless, paedophilia actually exists and is indeed a great danger to children. But it is no less a danger to society, which can start to behave just as irrationally as it once did over witchcraft, seeing it everywhere and believing the strangest things about it. A satirical television programme in Britain a year or two ago managed to persuade a series of well-known celebrities to make the most unlikely statements about paedophiles, such as that you could tell them by their smell or their eyebrows. But what made it possible was the way paedophilia lies outside not only the experience of normal people, but outside the limits of their imagination too. We can imagine robbing a bank, but not raping an eight-year-old. We can't check it out in our heads.

It is this factor which complicates the issue of Internet child pornography. Downloading images of children in real or simulated sexual situations allows the watcher to imagine themselves doing what they see, and to derive satisfaction from it. One report of the latest police operation into Internet paedophilia described the brutal rape of two eight-year-olds, despite their heart-rending tears and cries. What sort of monster, we are bound to ask, would enjoy watching such a thing? But whether it is right for the police to search out every aged pop-star or similar public person who may once have paid to look at child porn images, in order to disgrace and shame them for ever, is not so certain.

The law forbidding the downloading of child porn is undoubtedly draconian, yet it is the only indictable offence that anyone with no more than an Internet connection and a credit card can commit, in their own home, in just a couple of minutes. In the midst of life we are in death, as the burial service says. It seems in the midst of life we are also a couple of clicks away from public ruin and a long jail sentence. And just to add to the paranoia, the chief prosecution witness against someone accused of child porn is often their own computer, which can retain images on its hard disk long after the owner thinks they have been deleted. So the computer changes itself from agent provocateur to police informer. This really is the stuff of nightmares.

Collective paranoia greatly adds to the difficulties of the Catholic Church over child abuse in certain parts of the British media. Their obsessive hostility is not, as some at first thought, caused by residual no-popery. Indeed, the frequent repetition by journalists and child protection experts of the fatuous call for Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor to "resign" implies some sort of mutual contract between himself and the rest of English society which flatly contradicts the painful history of that relationship - not so long ago characterised by bigotry and even persecution - but assumes it is similar to the benign relationship with the Church of England.

Nor does collective paedophile paranoia have an easy cure, but giving it its correct name is a step forward. Institutions such as the Church can act in ways which discourage it (even if they are irrelevant to the actual prevention of child abuse) by, for instance, transparency and candour. The last thing they should do is to fuel suspicion by secrecy, evasion and denial. And in due course the media, or those parts that have succumbed to this irrational brain fever, may gradually be coaxed back to sanity. At least let us hope so.

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This article was first published in The Tablet on 25 January 2003. Click here for the original. Article courtesy of Church Resources, a member of The National Forum.

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About the Author

Clifford Longley is an author, broadcaster and journalist who has specialised since 1972 in the coverage and analysis of British and international religious affairs.

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