Losing the battle against child abuse

The Daily Mail, August 21 1996

The Belgian Minister of Justice looked weak and depressed as he sat before the world’s press this week and tried to explain how his police officers had failed to detect Marcel Dutroux, the 39-year-old builder who has confessed to the serial rape and abduction of young girls.

Britain’s police chiefs should breathe a sigh of relief that they do not work in Belgium.

As the authorities in Brussels struggle to survive the embarrassment of their failure, their opposite numbers in Britain know that they, too, are hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with the paedophile threat.

Consider two figures. First, on the paedophile database which is held by the National Crime Intelligence Service, NCIS, there are more than four thousand names.These are not simply names that have cropped up in somebody’s address book, but men who have an established interest in the sexual abuse of children. They have been caught smuggling child pornography, or buying it or selling it, or they are implicated in its production.

Second, in the whole of the UK, there are only 14 police officers who are dedicated to the task of catching them. To put it another way, the known paedophiles outnumber the detectives by about 300 to one.

I have investigated the activities of paedophiles in the UK and Europe and the Far East. I have seen them using children for pornography and prostitution and simply for their own casual pleasure. The problem is unmeasured, but it is certainly vast. The few detectives who deal with it know that they are losing. And their bosses know it, too, though they have done almost nothing to help.

The central difficulty is that the victims of child abuse are almost always silent. Belgian police have admitted that when they twice searched the home of Marcel Dutroux last winter, the two eight-year-old girls for whom they were looking almost certainly heard the search but stayed silent in their basement dungeon for fear of being punished. The two girls subsequently starved to death. It is a grim image and a symbol of a child’s reaction to rape: because they are frightened, because they are confused, because they have been tricked, because they feel guilty, they will say nothing.

This silence is particularly dangerous in the world of policing in the 1990s. Police chiefs now run businesses, they have to justify their budgets, and they do this by clearing up reported crime. On the rare occasions when child abuse is reported, they will investigate, and most forces now have Juvenile Protection Units to do so. But a modern police chief is most reluctant to jeopardise his budget by asking his officers to dig up a mass of unreported crime.

It is ten years now since police in Kilburn decided to try breaking the pattern. They received a complaint of child abuse and decided to investigate not just the one allegation but all of the secondary allegations which they found along the way. They ended up with no less than 653 complaints of paedophilia and they charged 20 adults with serious offences against children.

The two officers who ran the Kilburn case, Roger Gaspar and John Lewis, quite reasonably wondered what would happen if every force followed up every allegation in the way that they had. They were staggered by the scale of the problem which they had uncovered, and they wrote an internal paper which they called ‘People not Property’ in which they pointed out that almost all of Scotland Yard’s specialist squads were devoted to protecting property. They asked for a squad to protect children. It would gather intelligence on paedophiles and then target them to find evidence to justify their arrest.

The two detectives presented their paper to the Association of Chief Police Officers and to the men who were then in charge of serious crime at Scotland Yard, but it was rejected.

Three years later, Iain Donaldson, who ran the Obscene Publications Squad from 1985 to 1989, mounted exactly the same argument in a formal proposal, entitled “The Investigation of Multiple Offences of Child Exploitation Outside the Family”. That report, too, was rejected.

In 1994, Michael Hames, who took over the Obscene Publications Squad, submitted a confidential report to the Commissioner arguing the same line. “We need a pro-active national squad to go out and gather information and to target these people – like they do for burglars and robbers,” he told me then. However, his report was rejected.

Since then there has been one advance. Scotland Yard has at last established the Paedophilia and Child Pornography Unit, which contains the only 14 officers in the country who are working full-time on the problem. A few other cities have vice squads but they have to deal with the whole range of prostitution, pimping and pornography. The paedophiles have to take their place in the queue. In most of the country, there is not even that much – not one officer attempting to detect child abuse.

Compare that to the number of specialist detectives who work on reported crimes against property like the burglary of houses or the theft of cheques or antiques.

Remember Operation Orchid in the 1980s, when police broke a paedophile ring who had murdered four young boys from the East End of London. At the end of that inquiry, detectives released the names of six other boys who were also missing and who, they feared, might also have been victims. And, unofficially, they admitted that they knew there were up to a dozen members of the ring who had escaped prosecution.

And listen to Detective Superintendent Ed Williams, who trapped the two paedophiles who abducted 10-year-old Daniel Handley from the East End of London and left his body in a shallow grave near Bristol. “We are not doing enough on paedophiles,” he told me.

When he started to investigate Daniel’s disappearance, he called for the files on Operation Orchid and discovered that they had been mislaid. When he went to NCIS to check their database on paedophiles, he found its details were hopelessly out of date. When he tried to check the files of known sex offenders in the General Registry, he found that more than 30% of them were simply nowhere to be found. When he turned to the Scientific Intelligence Unit, which is supposed to analyse evidence from all the sex crimes in London, he found it consisted of only one officer and one secretary.

“It is outrageous,” he said. “It is almost as though guys like me and Hames and Gaspar are seen as nuisance value to the police service. Child protection is not macho. Those who are involved in it are looked askance by Met police officers. They don’t have the same status as Regional Crime Squad or Flying Squad.”

Like others before him, Ed Williams last year submitted an internal report warning of the immense danger from paedophiles and calling for a new nationwide offensive to build on the success of the Paedopohile and Child Pornography Unit. Like the others before him, he saw his report rejected.

All these officers spoke out as they retired from the police. None of them had anything to gain from doing so. Their argument is overwhelming: as social pressures generate more and more child abuse, the police in Britain are in danger of being left behind – with consequences as embarrassing and as tragic as those which have befallen their colleagues in Belgium.