The neighbourhood paedophile

In July 2005, in Angers, France, a court jailed 65 women and men for sexually abusing, exploiting and prostituting 45 children aged between six months and 16 years, many their own children and grandchildren. The details were dreadful and don’t need to be repeated, but more shocking was the ordinariness of those involved. And that nobody noticed the goings-on in a sub-society of venality, cruelty and sexual addiction in these ordinary flats, in a state housing development, in this neighbourhood.

There were warning signs, though police, social workers and friends didn’t pick up on them until one brave child made a formal rape complaint. One regular customer had been convicted twice, which was why he liked wearing a mask. Another had been jailed in 1991 for raping his son, and now faces another 28 years for doing the same to three grandchildren. The son, who had facilitated much of the abuse in his flat, faces 18 years’ imprisonment. Nearly half of the accused were women, which defenestrates my assumptions about ‘caring’ mothers. One mother used to collect the fees and smoke while the kids screamed as they were serviced in another room in her flat.

Most disturbing of all was that nearly all those convicted had themselves been abused as children.

We don’t know the precise incidence of paedophilia because it is so socially repugnant that most paedophiles have become expert at hiding in the community. In June 2005, New Zealander Graham Capill was jailed for nine years for rape and other gross sexual offences against three girls under 12. Capill was a former police prosecutor and, until 2003, leader of the Christian Heritage Party, a ‘family’-oriented political group that campaigned for traditional family values and against child abuse. His sentence was longer than he anticipated, largely because of an email that Capill sent to his supporters claiming that one victim had consented to their ‘relationship’. The presiding judge took a dim view.

More than 50 years ago in Australia, under the Fairbridge Farm Scheme, the British government sent thousands of orphans, like Western Australia’s Robert Excell, to Australia. Many of these children endured years of forced labour, physical abuse and neglect, including the pain of believing they were unwanted and unloved. A few had the added trauma of sexual abuse. Excell got the lot, which goes some way to explain, though not excuse, how he came to sodomise a seven-year-old boy in 1965. Excell was jailed and paroled, and then raped a nine-year-old. Four months after he was paroled again in 1977, he raped a boy of 13. In 1982 he was charged with sexually assaulting two ‘youths’ (but not convicted) and in 1998 charged again (but not convicted) with 14 counts of sexual penetration of a 19-year-old inmate of the jail where he was taking part in a sex-offender treatment program. No charges were laid, either, after a young former prisoner made new claims this year. Police claimed the evidence wasn’t likely to lead to conviction.

Robert Excell, now 66, was released from prison on July 28 this year. As he had never taken Australian citizenship, he was deported to England the following day. He has not lived there since he was ten.


Many child sex offences are not prosecuted as children don’t make credible witnesses. It is very hard to give compelling evidence of traumatic events that took place years earlier. Further, the recollection of a child must be tested under cross-examination, in the interests of justice to the accused and their right to seek to establish reasonable doubt. The result of participation in a criminal trial can be catastrophic for any vulnerable witness, especially a child.

There are paedophiles among us. Some of them are known, some have been convicted but, we may well suspect, most have not. Paedophiles are dangerous to pre-pubescent children because they are erotically preoccupied with children. They see nothing wrong in what they do, or fantasise about doing. Their perceptions of relationships between adults and children, and sexual normalcy, are warped. There is powerful evidence from prisoner studies that many of them developed their sexual norms through their own sexual exploitation as children. About 20 per cent of sexually abused boys are thought to become child sex abusers as adults. Why the rest do not is, of course, the unanswered question.

The one question we must answer is whether, and how, we can adequately protect children from sexual exploitation. It is an urgent question given the seemingly unstoppable flood of child pornography and trafficking.

One way would be to know how to ‘cure’ adults whose sexual preoccupation with children has been disclosed. I have done a lot of sleuthing for hard evidence of programs that work, and haven’t found one. What I have found are individual success stories of men and women who have developed some internal locus of control over their urges. Success, however, depends on incentive, relational support, therapeutic intervention and the money to pay for it.

It is evident that Australian paedophiles who wish to avoid  reoffending won’t get much help in our prisons, where they are the lowest and most vulnerable of the low. In agreeing to release Robert Excell, the West Australian Attorney- General accepted that he now posed a much lower risk following years of intensive psychotherapy. This treatment was, however, arranged and paid for by Excell’s remarkable wife.

It’s also obvious that Excell was unusual in seeking treatment. Paedophiles either see nothing wrong with their sexual interest in children because it was fixed too early in their psychosocial development, or seek treatment at the direction of the courts. Most, too, opt out once therapy becomes confrontational. The early stages of self-pity and self-excuse are much more comfortable than the horror of feeling their victims’ torment.

Most feel powerless over their urges and look for an external cure, such as chemical—or other—castration. Those who have not  reoffended have often assumed responsibility for changing the circumstances that may contribute to their offending, such as restricting access to children, avoiding occupations that facilitate power over compliant parents, and not using drugs or alcohol. A recovering paedophile needs enduring ‘normal’ relationships, but these are precisely what we in the community feel we cannot safely offer.

Psychiatric treatment, or counselling, is part of safeguarding treatment. Most paedophiles don’t want to look at the negative feelings that lie behind those titillating fantasies. It is genuinely hard to empathise with a victim, which is the only way to attain a proper sense of guilt rather than the narcissistic self-pity often presented to a court.

The best way to protect children from paedophiles is to protect both girls and boys from being sexually exploited. We know that the transition from a sexually abused child victim to a sexual victimiser can be direct. Our child-protection programs need to be much more sophisticated and effective. Parents need to understand how paedophiles gain their confidence in order to exploit their children. Children need to be educated about sexual boundaries early and consistently. Adult professionals need to know how to listen to children.

The French victims are being ‘treated’ and no doubt fostered in loving homes, but their futures are bleak. Robert Excell and his wife have been sent to the UK without the extended support system that might reduce his chances of  reoffending. Accessing effective treatment will be made all the more difficult for Excell as he is front-page fodder for British tabloids, and targeted by vigilante groups. He will not have the behavioural supervision and support he will need for a long, long time to come.

What hope is there for a theoretically intelligent, insightful, remorseful paedophile who knows that he or she may still present a risk to children and doesn’t wish to reoffend? None, if we simply reject them. Unending self-disgust and rejection is a passport to repetition. Should we jail offenders indefinitely in order to protect our kids? What sense does it make to house ‘ordinary’ child sex addicts with equally ordinary thieves, murderers and drink drivers, or subject them to a pointless regime of petty rules and useless occupations? If offenders cannot be cured, or made safe, if we continue to neglect the education of parents and ignore early intervention, then we have to find a humane way to segregate those who pose a danger to children. It may even mean civilised, if segregated, communities if there are those who cannot live safely among us.  

Moira Rayner is a Senior Fellow in Melbourne University’s Law School, a writer and public speaker, with a particular interest in democracy, children’s rights and medical and professional ethics.

 

 

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