Don’t give benefit of doubt to predators

At the time of going to press, Ruth Kelly, the education secretary, is still in her post. She has proposed a single register for sex offenders as Sir Michael Bichard recommended in the wake of the Soham murders of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells.

In this kaleidoscope of events, we may also have discovered that our schools have employed not 10, not 88 but even more individuals who have been cautioned or convicted of sexual offences.

What is definite in the midst of all this uncertainty is that the Department for Education and Skills is in a shambles. The extent of the panic is revealed by 100 civil servants allegedly becoming involved in preparing the statement Kelly gave to the House of Commons.

Would that social care departments were staffed to such luxurious levels. Think how much preventive work rather than ministerial patching up could be achieved if social services departments were staffed to that level.

Kelly has now said sorry and promised that no one either convicted or cautioned for a sex offence against a child will be able to operate in a school. What is depressing is that in spite of decades of sex abuse scandals, some involving teachers, it is only now that the pledge has been made.

At this point, a depressing aspect emerges from the coverage of this chaos. As many social workers can vouch, children are now tracked but, shamefully, their potential molesters are frequently much less efficiently policed. Why? Because for years the risk of accusing an adult wrongly has grossly outweighed the damage inflicted on dozens of children.

Still, in spite of a huge body of research that proves the appalling long-term destructiveness of abuse – the benefit of the doubt, again and again, is given to paedophiles while the suffering of children is downplayed.

Some in the media have implied that if an offence occurred 20 years ago and no crime has been committed since, the offender has paid his penance. No wonder probation officers and social workers tear their hair out trying to persuade other adults that paedophiles are a constant danger.

In a letter to The Guardian, an unnamed probation officer who deals with sex offenders on licence expresses the incomprehension that most people working in social care must also experience. “Our policy without exception,” he writes, “is that no convicted child sex offender be allowed to work with children in any capacity…”

I would go further and put the rights of children before the rights of adults. Even without a caution, if there are numerous separate complaints about an individual but insufficient evidence, then that information should also be available to potential employers – and, fairly or not, that person should not be employed to work with children.

Ruth Kelly has now established a panel headed by Sir Roger Singleton, the recently retired chief executive of Barnardo’s, to try and bring order until new legislation is passed. Singleton’s understanding of the deceit that is part of the paedophile’s method of operation is welcome.

Chris Hanvey, Barnardo’s UK director of operations, made perhaps the most important point of the last murky fortnight. “Most people who have abused children have no criminal record,” he said. “Checks are only one part of the jigsaw in assessing a person’s suitability for work with children… employers need thorough management and supervision procedures.”

This crisis was created precisely because some adults continue to have little comprehension of the wiles of paedophiles and the seriousness of their actions. Of course, there is nothing wrong with giving the benefit of the doubt but let us ensure that it is granted to children – not to the men who are the predators, no matter how “good” they are as teachers.

Yvonne Roberts is a writer and journalist


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