I have just finished reading an excellent, and short, book by Michael Sheath of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, a globally recognised centre of excellence and expertise in the field of child protection. What does the Foundation do to protect children? Several different things but one of the most valuable is its work with convicted child sex offenders or people who are worried they might end up committing sexual offences against children.
Michael is one of the Foundation’s most experienced members of staff and in “Crossing the Line”, creatively utilising a series of individual monologues which can be read by an actor, he presents key learnings drawn from cases he has dealt with in the course of his professional life.
But these learnings come from, not the wrong side of the track exactly, yet it is a different one. Not one I usually travel along. We are brought face to face with the collateral damage of child sex offences, that is to say we meet the partners and children of the offenders, the police officers who have to make the arrest, get to know the offender and his circumstances so they can prepare the case against him, and the parents of a child who has been sexually abused.
We also meet a perpetrator who, ultimately, kills himself. He tells us how he got involved in downloading child sexual abuse material in the first place and how, in the end he could not live with the shame and disgrace of what he had done. We learn from copious, extremely useful endnotes that between 3 and 4% of men convicted of child sex abuse offences will follow the same path.
In the UK today if you are arrested for offences of this nature automatically you go on a suicide watch list. As someone who works with child protection organizations my sympathies are not automatically drawn to the plight of the offenders but when you meet the offenders’ families and some of the professionals who have to pick up the pieces only someone with a heart of stone could feel unmoved.
It starts with a victim in an image. But it doesn’t end there. If you read the account of “the daughter” (of an offender), you are left in no doubt she too was a victim, if of a different kind. She lost her dad so becomes another victim who will live out the consequences for the rest of her life.
Sheath’s book provides insights into some of the unhelpful stereotypes which attend cases. They can magnify the harm done, at least to the perpetrator’s immediate family. “The wife must have known, she was probably complicit”. “His children were probably sexually abused, or at the very least they were at risk of being so”.
At no point in the book do you pick up a sense that Sheath’s sympathies are in any way compromised. Throughout, he retains a flinty-eyed realism about the harm done to a child and of the importance of his work in ensuring this or that perpetrator doesn’t do it again. But you definitely feel his anguish about the ways in which our bureaucratic and inadequately resourced ciminal justice and social services systems add to the casualty list.
PS Just to underline the value of the endnotes which accompany each chapter look, for example, at what “safeguarding” can actually mean in practice for a child whose father has been arrested and been ordered not to sleep under the same roof as his children. “Same roof” seemingly sometimes will not cover a tent in the garden or a garage which is attached to the house.