Sexual abuse is an especially pernicious form of violence. Lives of individuals are devastated. The social fabric of families and communities is damaged, often over generations. The cost to society is considerable and painful.
A perplexing thing about sexual abuse is how many incidents go undetected, sometimes over years, in everyday contexts such as school, church and home. This is remarkable given the degree of public attention it gets and our extreme vigilance around it. Trusted institutions and respected community members are seen to have used their position and influence to manipulate victims into subjugation and silence.
Such revelations are shocking, not merely because of the abhorrence we hold for such betrayal, but because we failed to anticipate or detect the abuse.
Sexual offending is widely held to be one of the worst kinds, perhaps because it exploits and violates our cherished image of intimacy, and - in the case of child victimisation - our beliefs in the sanctity of childhood.
Sexual abusers are, therefore, usually considered the worst kind of offenders.
Alongside this widespread public concern, considerable academic effort goes into understanding and explaining sexual abuse. So, how do we account for our apparent blindness and subsequent failure to prevent it?
I suggest the key to understanding this paradox lies in the fact that we fail to grasp the idea that sexual abuse is a social matter, a community health issue.
Perhaps it's nostalgia, but I seem to remember seeing a lot more children playing in the street, shuttling back and forth to their neighbours' houses, walking to school. Now I see children whisked away from school at 3pm in vehicles designed for mountain tracks, yet subtly promoted as protective shells, providing insulation from the risks "out there".
Once home, children connect themselves to the online world that has become their playground and voice box. We are increasingly retreating from the physical community.
One of the risks we are seeking to avoid in this retreat from the world "out there" is the child molester. We are mesmerised and terrified by his Hannibal Lecter world, simultaneously captivated by the infamous deeds, whose perpetrators we ascribe the identity of the Beast.
He is the reason we hold our children so closely. The Beast becomes sexual abuse personified. Regrettably, as a consequence, we fail to recognise the vast majority of offenders. When uncle, father, politician or teacher X is suspected of being an abuse risk, our reflex response is: "No. Sexual offenders are monsters. I know X. He is not a monster. Therefore, he cannot be a sex offender".
The vast majority of offenders are known to those they victimise. We know this but we don't get it. Somehow we still expect them to jump out from behind a hedge with a bag of lollies.
Another problem with this characterisation of sex offenders as barely human, incurable beasts is that, in our shunning of them, we create the circumstances in which re-offending is more likely to occur.
My best understanding of these offenders, after 12 years of working with them and 18 years of studying their habits and practices, is that they are more like you and I than they are the general criminal population.
Sex offenders are human beings who are out to meet their needs for belonging, intimacy, competency - like you and me. The problem for them (and the rest of us) is that they feel unable to achieve these things through adult relationships based on respect and concern.
It's widely believed that sexual abusers cannot be cured. This is correct. But they are incurable not because there is no hope, but because there is no illness. While we refer to the behaviour as "sick", this is a misnomer. In accepting that sexual abuse is a public health issue, we are less likely to see it purely as the result of a sick mind and more likely to consider the context and circumstances that give rise to it.
Applied psychology has taught us a great deal about the thinking, feeling and covert behaviour of those who abuse. However, this doesn't help us much to see it when it's happening.
The sexual offender needs to be held accountable for the sake of public wellbeing. The best way to achieve this is that he or she accepts the bulk of this responsibility.
Each year, dozens of New Zealanders complete sex-offender rehabilitation programmes based, largely, on socialising forms of therapy. Researchers strongly believe these programmes reduce reoffending.
If we are serious about rehabilitation, we need to support such programmes. Shunning, name-calling or attacking their graduates - however justified it might feel - is not helpful.
These actions are likely to trigger the kind of response that drives such people underground, where they might well change their identity and re-emerge in a needy and agitated state.
These are the psychological and social circumstances under which they are more likely to re-offend.
Overseas jurisdictions have had promising results with a community-based enterprise called "circles of support". Volunteers are recruited and trained, and collaborate with formal services to monitor and support programme graduates and their whanau in establishing functional, non-abusive lifestyles.
We might be reluctant to accept notions of sex offender recovery and rehabilitation because to do so is to admit sexual offenders are like "us". Nevertheless, if we are serious about addressing the social problem of sexual abuse we would do well to consider shifting from a position of repudiation and dismissal to one based on a positive community response.
As unpalatable as this prospect might appear, by failing to embrace it, we blind ourselves to the problem and contribute to the creation of Beasts.
Dr Andrew Frost is a lecturer in the department of human services and social work at the University of Canterbury.