Don’t forget the child victims

The discussion concerning sex offenders and their treatment continues.

The letter by Ben Aaron MacLeod (January 2015), in response to one from Alex Hossack in the October issue, ponders whether psychologists should be able to rescind their legal responsibility to report paedophiles who admit actual offences by maintaining their anonymity, because the author is concerned that compulsorily contacting the police makes treatment ‘almost impossible’. From my experience as a clinical psychologist, child sexual abuse survivor and prosecution witness at crown court trial resulting in the imprisonment of a paedophile, I believe there are issues that need to be considered carefully before embarking on this proposed course.

What would the consequences be if psychologists no longer had a statutory, legal duty to adhere to current safeguarding proceedings and could ignore the precept of ‘the child, first and foremost’?

First, it would mean that those child victims would remain hidden and untreated. There is overwhelming evidence of extremely serious psychological (and physical) suffering; for example, a report from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England (Horvath et al., 2014), describes how victims may remain chronically damaged with poor mental and physical health, lower occupational achievement and a life-long pattern of abusive relationships, although others do find their strength to develop constructive self-agency (Sanford, 1990).  

Second, it could reinforce paedophile thinking that they have not done any real harm and anyway, the child wanted it… as many paedophiles are tempted to coat accounts of their actions with an innocuous ‘rosy glow’. A lack of accountability also suggests that should they offend again, they need not worry there would be legal consequences for them.

Third, it places the psychologists above the law; these clinicians become the prosecution service, judge and jury as they decide to keep the criminal outside the accountability that the criminal justice system is designed for.  

Fourth, it means that treating psychologists do not have to confront the defensive outrage of their clients, and indeed may experience their gratitude at being ‘understood’ (as long as psychologists don’t think about the hidden, unhelped victim – the child).

People become psychologists for many reasons, including wishing to make the world a better place through compassion for those who struggle with poor mental health. It is therefore very easy for caring psychologists to fall into a ‘compassion trap’, whereby their empathy for the sex offender eclipses their awareness that responsibility and accountability includes wider societal and legal consequences. Furthermore, given that many paedophiles are experts at ‘grooming’ (i.e. the process where they deliberately befriend and establish an emotional connection to lower a child’s inhibitions), it is likely they will attempt to groom the therapist into minimising their awareness of the impact of abuse on children.

It seems to me that the struggle being explored by those clinicians who choose to work with paedophiles is a dilemma: should society lock them up and throw away the key, or should society feel compassion for what is regarded as an ‘illness’ and exempt them from the law. A further challenge for some psychologists is that they could be seduced into a parallel process in which being a therapist means they feel entitled to be above the law.

For many survivors, the uncomfortable struggle for accountability continues. In my experience, stepping into anger is essential in order to get it.
Name and address supplied

Horvath, M.A.H., Davidson, J.C., Grove-Hills, J. et al. (2014). ‘It’s a lonely journey’: A rapid evidence assessment on intrafamilial child sexual abuse. London: Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
Sanford, L. (1990). Strong at the broken places. London: Virago.


I was pleased to read Ben Aaron MacLeod’s letter (‘Tackling child sexual abuse – a lesson from Germany?’, January 2015). Beyond the title, however, I was disappointed. The disappointment then developed into concern. The piece is a rudimentary (at best) comment on sexual offending. As such it is rather misleading, both in terms of exploring support for convicted and unconvicted offenders and in terms of the knowledge base we have of the psychology of these individuals.

It is concerning to read that the author considers the ‘main stumbling block for unconvicted and would-be offenders seeking psychological support lies in our mandatory reporting laws’. We know that the majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated in secrecy with victims silenced sometimes for a lifetime. The dynamics of abuse highlight the emotionally abusive and traumatising nature of the crime, perversion of attachment systems, denial, minimisation, intimidation, exploitation, etc. I would have welcomed a more reasoned approach acknowledging a spectrum of offending that includes organised, calculated abuse. Otherwise treatment options will perish under, for example, false compliance.

Victims of sexual abuse have been failed on a grand scale, hence the importance of mandatory reporting. To condense and reduce all individuals inclined to think or act abusively towards children as a ‘sexual underclass’ is of utmost concern. I would respectfully suggest that help-seeking individuals concerned about the risk they may pose to children are a very different class of individual to those that abuse and manipulate children, carers, police and other services. Being lumped together with the latter class of criminal and sometimes psychopathic individuals is possibly the greater deterrent to seeking help.

To end I think the work of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation is groundbreaking. Additionally the awareness raising campaign of NSPCC is, in my opinion, world-leading. All individuals concerned about the risk they may pose to children should be supported to access help, including risk assessment. Fundamentally, all individuals concerned about the safety of children should be supported to seek advice and report. To survive and recover, victims of sexual abuse, whether currently children or adults, should be supported, whatever their relationship with an abuser, class or circumstance. Mandatory reporting is an attempt to respect that children are not an ‘underclass’ to be failed.
Dr Liz McGonagle
Consultant Clinical Psychologist
Northern Ireland

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