Sexual crime is dark and damaging – tackling it is too | UK News

I want to make it crystal clear that I do not sympathise with – and cannot and never will make excuses for – sex offenders.

What they have done is perhaps the most heinous and damaging thing a human can do to another.

However, I am also aware this is something society simply does not want to talk about – and yet it absolutely should.

It is a conversation we must all be forced into: what to do with sex offenders once they are released from prison?

Volunteers form 'circles' to support the offender
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Volunteers form ‘circles’ to support the offender

“Lock them up, throw away the key,” I hear you say.

The reality is that this is not possible – not least because of the burden to taxpayers, but also, as with any crime, there is a wide spectrum of offences carrying different sentences.

We need to confront head on the fact that many sex offenders need support to prevent re-offending.

There is a stark difference, by the way, between sympathising with a sex offender and supporting one with the aim of rehabilitation. That is something the charity Circles UK deals with head on.

As one female volunteer described it to me: “We are not friends with the ‘core member’ (sex offender), in no way are we friends. We would never condone offences, but we are not reducing him to his offence, we are trying to move on past that and get him away from wanting to do anything like that.”

Rachel says she supports the work of Circles, even though she is a rape victim
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Rachel says she supports the work of Circles, even though she is a rape victim

I was able to experience a Circle in action in the South West, which was at times fascinating, moving and terrifying.

In front of me was a sex offender, or “core member”, who had committed horrendous crimes.

To my view, over a number of weeks, he appeared contrite (core members are only allowed into a circle if they show remorse) and also, at times, I think scared.

He made no excuses for what he had done. He himself was a victim of abuse in childhood.

At times I found it hard to reconcile the person in front of me with the crimes he had committed. He seemed articulate and resolute. He seemed “normal”.

He described being “ashamed” of his offences, saying he understood if his victims wished him dead. At times the conversation fluctuated between the mundane and also tackling grim issues: one example – a dilemma over disclosure of his crimes to new friends.

Throughout I questioned myself – does he mean it when he says he’s ashamed and sorry? Can he in fact rehabilitate?

There were moments when he opened up to the circle, while I was observing in the corner. It was then that the power of a circle in action, members of the community giving up their time, for free and to help, became apparent.

The charity struggles to recruit volunteers due to the nature of the work
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The charity struggles to recruit volunteers due to the nature of the work

It is of course difficult to know for sure whether this circle will work for this particular person but he seemed determined.

Most importantly the circle of volunteers appeared to regularly challenge him on his world view and decision making and push him towards reintegration, in a safe way.

I felt naturally conflicted but optimistic when I left, and as a volunteer I would imagine you have to be. A circle is an extra layer of protection for the public around a sex offender – in addition to police and probation.

It is powerful because it is unique. It is the community taking ownership of sexual abuse. Volunteers, ordinary members of the public, who are trying to prevent re-offending.

They are attempting to own sexual abuse in society in the same way we try to do with drugs and homelessness. The simple aim of Circles UK is “no more victims” and it is difficult to argue with that, isn’t it?

That said, for many sexual abuse victims, and those close to them, the idea of “supporting” a sex offender will seem unpalatable. That’s understandable – and it is also why Circles UK struggles to get funding.

“We are absolutely at the bottom of the pile when it comes to fundraising,” chief executive Riana Taylor tells me.

Volunteering for Circles clearly isn’t for everyone. It is one of the aspects I find most fascinating about the work this charity does: you need to go into it with an open mind.

I guess ultimately it comes down to answering a very difficult question, which won’t be the case for every offender either.

Is a sexual offender simply a sexual offender? Or is he/she a person, an individual, who has committed sexual offences?

The answer to that question may be the difference between those who can volunteer and those who can’t.

We should also ask ourselves – is something that aims to keep us safer as a community a bad thing?

It can’t be. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Sexual crime is dark and damaging, complex and difficult, and so any possible or potential answer to tackling it will inevitably be dark and difficult too.

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