Belfast Telegraph

We're scared to face real bogeyman of paedophilia

Fionola Meredith

Mention the word 'paedophile' and the world convulsively reaches for its pitchforks. It's the only time when it's permissible to go all Ku Klux Klan and start galloping around screaming for blood and waving flaming crosses.

Parents' nightmares are full of snaggle-toothed old men in smelly tweed jackets, with a funny look in their eye, hanging around near playgrounds, proffering sweets. Yes, paedophiles are the true bogeymen of the 21st century popular imagination, sparking revulsion and murderous loathing in the most mild-mannered of hearts.

Up to a point, that's understandable – there is no greater depravity than to violate the innocence of a child.

But sometimes the widespread horror of paedophiles – and the need to find and punish them – gets so intense that it starts interfering with our capacity for rational thought.

And that's a bad sign. Such excess of fear and confusion leads to the mad logic of the ducking-stool, or the burning stake; it does nothing at all to keep our children any safer from twisted men.

In spite of all the shrieking and the hand-wringing and the institutionalised hysteria, though, we're still not exactly sure who, or what, a paedophile is.

Is it, quite simply, someone who has ever experienced desire for a girl under the age of 16, the age of consent? If so, half the men in this country must be sick in the head: all those nice, respectable, happily-married 'paedophiles' out there in the community, causing no harm to anybody.

I'm reminded of the distasteful 'Countdown Clock', publicised in many newspapers, which ticked off the seconds to the moment when the young singer Charlotte Church turned 16 and thus would be legally sexually available.

By this token, if you felt attracted to Church when she was 15 years and 364 days old, you were a filthy pervert, but if you experienced a flash of lust on the next day, when she became 16, you were free and clear, a perfectly healthy, upstanding and virtuous man. It's as arbitrary and nonsensical as that.

Here's the thing: there's a big difference between feeling attracted to a 15-year-old girl, who has the body of an adult woman (although, of course, it's an entirely different thing, both morally and legally, to act on that impulse) and feeling attracted to the bodies of pre-pubescent girls, which is the really scary, screwed-up, damaged and damaging stuff.

The former doesn't necessarily make you a latent Jimmy Savile. The latter certainly does.

That's why I am wary of the ringing certitude with which Jeremy Forrest, the maths teacher who ran away to France with his 15-year-old pupil, was described as a paedophile by the court which convicted him.

Criminal? Yes. Immature? Yes. Narcissistic? Certainly. Abusive? Possibly; Forrest certainly abused his position of authority at the school. But a predatory paedophile? I'm not so sure.

Remarkably, while Forrest was sent down for more than five years, the broadcaster Stuart Hall, who abused numerous young children, received only a 15-month sentence.

Since the Forrest story broke, other women who had affairs with their teachers, as teenagers, have come forward to speak about their experiences.

One – using the pseudonym 'Bernadette Rooney' – describes how she began a relationship with her 27-year-old English teacher when she was 16 years old.

"I was not a child who was damaged by an abusive relationship with a paedophile," Rooney insists. "I was an intelligent young adult with the power of reason who knew what I was doing and I don't regret a thing."

I'm certainly not advocating a free-for-all, in which teachers and pupils are at liberty to rush into each other's arms any time they like. That would be absurd and offensive, a recipe for disaster.

(The long-ago claim of Chris Woodhead, then the chief inspector of schools in England, that relationships between pupils and teachers could be "educative", still makes me feel a little queasy.)

But Rooney's story shows that life is often more complicated and contradictory than any approved system of moral, or legal, values can accommodate.

We need to be honest when it comes to confronting the grotesque phenomenon of paedophilia. We must be clear about what it is and what it is not.

And when it comes to punishing those who are guilty, we need to be coherent and consistent. As every parent knows, it's only by turning on the light that the bogeyman under the bed disappears.

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