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Sunday 30 May 2010

A total absence of common sense

The experience of two boys found guilty of attempted rape is akin to child abuse, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

You didn't have to be prurient to think a lot about sex and children last week, for there was massive publicity about two boys, aged 10 and 11, who had been tried in London at the Old Bailey for rape and attempted rape of an eight-year-old girl.

Paedophiles will have had a most enjoyable time letting their imaginations run riot over the film of the little girl holding her teddy bear, Mr Happy, as she tells police about the boys pulling her pants down and showing her their willies. Most of the rest of us looked at the artist's impressions of the three children with shock and disbelief that the authorities thought a public trial appropriate.

From the Daily Mail to the World Socialist Web Site, commentators were in agreement that to have pre-pubescent fumblings a matter for court proceedings made the English justice system a laughing stock.

And so it did. All over the country people were expostulating and reminiscing to each other about their childish games of doctors-and-nurses or 'you-show-me-yours-and-I'll-show-you-mine'. I couldn't join in much of that, mainly because nudity was so normal in my family home that I had little curiosity in that department -- though I had to evade the attentions of some children who did -- but I did understand how ludicrous it was to have believed the little girl's allegation that the boys had used force when a) there was no medical, DNA or forensic evidence to back it up, and b) the boys were of good character.

Under cross-examination by video link, the girl said she had gone willingly with the boys and had invented the allegations because her mother would deny her sweets for being naughty.

Now there is an area where I can really identify. Telling lies is a short-term solution for children and becomes a long-term nightmare when adults take you too seriously.

I still wince with shame at having put my mother through a long period of worry because having invented severe headaches and faked the odd faint to get off school -- which I hated -- I saw no way out when doctors were brought in and hospital tests were recommended except to go on lying and gradually stage a recovery.

What bewildered the public was the absence of common sense anywhere. The Chief Crown Prosecutor, Alison Saunders, explained that "the allegations made by the young girl were very serious" and that she had "the same right to the protection of the law as an adult".

But she wasn't an adult. She was a vulnerable little girl and her alleged assailants were vulnerable little boys and an adversarial court system was no place for them. When she admitted her lies, the judge could have thrown the case out, but didn't, and although the jury acquitted the boys of actual rape by a majority of 10 to two, they found them guilty of attempting it, whereupon the judge instructed that they sign the sex offenders' register; he will sentence them in eight weeks'.

It sounds like child abuse to me.

Nor is this an isolated case. Seven children aged 10 or 11, were charged (unsuccessfully) with rape between 2005 and 2008, and in the last five years, 346 have been either convicted, reprimanded or formally warned for sexual offences.

Nor should Ireland feel too smug. I can't find similar figures, but it was not until 2006 that the age of criminal responsibility was raised from seven to 12 -- still among the highest in the world -- and it is 10 for murder, manslaughter, rape or aggravated sexual assault.

At root of all this is a failure of adults to understand children on their own terms. On the one hand, children are exposed to floods of sexual imagery and forced to grow up too soon, but on the other, their childish behaviour is judged by adult standards.

In English schools we have had very young children being chucked out of school for what is called "inappropriate" sexual behaviour, but they think is playing.

What we are now supposed to call "challenging behaviour" from neglected, over-indulged or inadequately disciplined children is less and less dealt with by the adults who are supposed to care for them at home and in school and more and more handed over to strangers whose bureaucratic world encourages over-reaction.

"We hope that the jury's verdict today can provide the young girl and her family with some comfort after these difficult events," said the idiotic statement from the Crown Prosecution Service.

Well, no, actually. I should think being interviewed by police, cross-examined by a barrister and plastered all over the media (albeit anonymously) would be terrible for even the most robust child.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards