This is not a topic which is easy to write about. But maybe someone has to. Deep breath. Last week there was outrage in a community in Hamilton after two men with convictions for sexual offending against children were found to have been living in a boarding house where children were also living.

And another family with two young girls were apparently told by the Department of Corrections to play on the other side of their house after a paedophile was moved in next door. This horrifies us. Most of the public discourse around sexual offending on young children is hysterical and terrified, with the impression of a lynch mob assembling in the background.

But this fear and anger, far from protecting children in the future, may be doing the opposite. The desire to have sex with a child is considered so shocking and perverse that we aren't inclined to try to understand it. But experts say the repugnance we feel when we read about crimes like these is getting in the way of trying to explain them and prevent them from happening.

Last week the Economist magazine, noting Dame Lowell Goddard's resignation as head of the UK's child sex abuse inquiry, published a well-informed editorial cautioning that the need to punish child sex abusers is sometimes being pursued at the expense of prevention. The Economist argued governments need to put more resources into research in this area because at this stage, there's almost no way to identify child abusers before they commit a crime. If we want to keep children safe we need to get over our repugnance and try to understand it in a rational manner. Yes, even if you find the topic yucky and would prefer to turn the page.


Here are some of the facts.

One serious misconception is that most perpetrators of child sexual abuse are paedophiles. In fact, paedophiles are probably in the minority. The clinical term paedophile refers to adults who are only or mainly aroused by pre-pubescent children. According to the data, a third of sexual assaults against children are committed by other children, who will probably mature to be attracted to people of their own age. Another significant number are assaults on children who are past puberty but not yet at the age of consent (which varies: I was surprised to find in Germany the age of consent is 14).

These men require help to learn to live with their compulsions without harming anyone.

Michael Seto, an expert on sexual offenders, says probably 1 per cent of men are predominantly or only attracted to pre-pubescent children. Some experts think paedophilia has an early biological cause, perhaps genetic or in the womb.

How terrible it must be to be one of those men. As of now, there is virtually no way to identify these potential perpetrators and get help to them before it is too late. These men require help to learn to live with their compulsions without harming anyone, not to be brutally stigmatised. No one is guilty for their sexual inclination, but everyone is responsible for their behaviour. But in an environment where it is pretty much impossible to ask for help, someone who fears they have a sexual attraction to children is isolated.

Neuroscientist James Cantor, who has used MRI scans to identify brain differences in paedophiles, argues we should make it easier for people who are sexually attracted to children but have never committed any sexual offences to receive support and assistance in staying offence free. Cantor has stated that, in his experience, paedophiles who commit sexual offences against children "do so when they feel the most desperate - when they have nothing to lose". He recommends that therapists use cognitive behavioural therapy and other techniques so that paedophiles can lead productive, offence-free lives. When the Department of Corrections lets down people like the offenders in the Hamilton boarding house case, it undermines this effort and makes it more likely offenders will lapse, I believe.

We have come so far in our understanding of other sorts of historically stigmatised mental illnesses. I hope one day we will do a better job of helping these people to stay offence free so we can keep children safe. But first we have to try to understand.