Local News

Can paedophilia ever be cured?

Murdered teen Daniel Morcombe.

Daniel Morcombe, who was murdered by convicted child sex offender Brett Peter Cowan.

As convicted child sex offender Brett Peter Cowan is sentenced to life imprisonment for the sickening murder of 13-year-old Sunshine Coast schoolboy Daniel Morcombe, we investigate whether paedophilia can ever be cured.

It’s every parent’s unspoken fear: finding out your child has been sexually abused.

Their innocent trust in the world around them shattered. Their small bodies violated. Their lives blighted by sinister early trauma. And you – the one who is supposed to protect them – powerless to make it go away.

For Bruce and Denise Morcombe, it was even worse. Hearing the depraved details of their son’s helpless last moments of life must have been the worst torture imaginable.

They never got the chance to comfort or help their son. And even Brett Peter Cowan’s long-awaited conviction for his abduction and killing can’t take that pain away; it will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Today Cowan was sentenced to life imprisonment for his heinous crime. Many believe the serial offender, who had assaulted and raped children in the past, is beyond redemption.

His case begs the question: can paedophilia ever be cured? Or is it a life-long condition that may, at best, be managed? And, more importantly, what can be done to keep our children safe?

What causes paedophilia?

Originating from Greek words meaning “child” and “love” (unpalatable as that may sound), paedophilia is classified by the World Health Organisation as a disorder defined by a persistent or predominant preference for sexual activity with pre-pubescent children.

There is, however, much debate among experts over whether it is a medical condition, learned impulse or sexual orientation. Strong clues suggesting people may simply be born that way have emerged in recent years, with research showing paedophiles tend to be shorter, have less white matter (connective tissue) in their brains and are three times more likely to be left-handed than the rest of us.

This doesn’t mean we need to be suspicious of everyone with these traits – but it does indicate that a blueprint for paedophilia may be laid down before birth.

Does being sexually abused as child turn people into paedophiles?

Leading researcher James Cantor, a psychologist and sexual behaviour scientist at the University of Toronto in Canada, believes commonly blamed environmental factors – such as being victims of childhood abuse in the past – are unlikely to cause paedophilia, although they may increase the risk of criminal behaviour generally.

“[Our] findings suggest that, whatever chain of events leads to paedophilia, the first links of that chain are before birth,” he explains. “That is, it could be that biology causes paedophilia, but that environment makes a person more likely to act on that sexual interest and molest a child.”

This may help explain why even though about half of child sex offenders say they were abused as children, including Brett Cowan and another notorious paedophile, Dennis Ferguson, the vast majority of childhood victims do not become perpetrators.

How common is paedophilia in our society?

Paedophiles account for an estimated 1 to 2 per cent of the male population, although controversial research measuring penile response to adult and paedophilic stimuli reports up to one in five men are capable of being aroused by children.

It’s important to note that not all paedophiles act on their impulses. Conversely, not all child sex offenders are paedophiles; some may be opportunistic predators.

Is there a cure?

Although some paedophiles, like the late Dennis Ferguson, claimed to have lost their sexual appetite for children, there is no proven “cure” for paedophilia.

If, as science increasingly suggests, it’s part of a person’s fundamental make-up, it’s unlikely to change. “Paedophilia is a bit like alcoholism,” says Hetty Johnston, founder and executive director of the child protection advocacy group Bravehearts. “You will always be an alcoholic – it’s about whether you will have the self-control.”

Convicted child sex offenders Brett Peter Cowan and Dennis Ferguson

Convicted child sex offenders Brett Peter Cowan and Dennis Ferguson

Convicted child sex offenders Brett Peter Cowan and Dennis Ferguson

What about treatment?

The best approach for treatment, says James Cantor, is “helping people to manage their sexual interests towards children.”

Cognitive behavioural therapy, which involves teaching paedophiles how to avoid individual risks such as befriending single mums or getting involved with schools, is one of the most successful methods, according to Stephen Smallbone, professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Queensland’s Griffith University.

How about castration?

Castration uses surgery or medication to reduce sex drive. This may help, but is supplementary, as it doesn’t necessarily prevent offenders from molesting children and may prevent them resuming healthy sexual relationships with adults.

In any case, it’s difficult to measure the effectiveness of any treatment, James Cantor points out, because they can only be trialled on volunteers, who are probably least likely to re-offend anyway.

How do you stop a paedophile from molesting children?

Unsurprisingly, acting on paedophilic impulses in the first place makes further abuse more likely. “The more someone entertains these kinds of fantasies, the more difficult it is for them to stop,” says Professor Smallbone.

Exacerbating this problem today is easy internet access to child porn and paedophile networks. “We need to give these people as many possibilities to establish normal relationships with people who are well,” says Professor Smallbone, “and limit their association with people who have similar problems.”

There’s the catch: experts say the more integrated paedophiles are into mainstream society, the less risk they pose. Yet once they are known, society tends to force them to the fringes.

“My experience is that paedophiles commit their crimes when they feel most desperate, when they feel they have nothing left to lose,” says James Cantor, who says health systems need to make it easier for paedophiles to seek help.

What can the government do to stop paedophiles acting out their sexual fantasies?

To better protect children, Professor Smallbone says governments need to shift the focus from punishing child sex offenders to prevention. “The system relies on children being abused,” he says. “That’s not good enough.”

He and his team have had success with preventative work, especially with young people in vulnerable communities. Dennis Ferguson’s ex-counsellor Wendell Rosevear advocates a “circle of trust” of support people around paedophiles, enabling them to establish healthy relationships and be accountable.

Vilifying or taking vigilante action against paedophiles, on the other hand, may increase the risk of child sex abuse by forcing them underground.

What are the odds of paedophiles reoffending?

Many would assume it’s inevitable, but the statistics say otherwise. Professor Smallbone says rates are lower than most other crimes. “Probably the biggest study showed 13 to 14 per cent of offenders had reoffended after five years,” he says, while this figure increases over further time.

Yet Hetty Johnston casts doubts on official figures, pointing out that reliable data is impossible to find because of low rates of reporting of abuse, narrow criteria of a repeat offence and perpetrators’ improving ability to avoid detection.

Irrespective, she thinks it’s not a risk worth taking, as the cost is too great. She would know: her own daughter Kayleen was molested by her paternal grandfather.

So what about hardened re-offenders like Brett Cowan?

Some paedophiles, like Brett Cowan, repeatedly re-offend and show no signs of remorse or willingness to rehabilitate themselves.

Controversial legislation first introduced by the Queensland government after Dennis Ferguson was released from jail in 2003 – and since copied by other states – allows ex-inmates deemed still dangerous to be detained indefinitely in special housing where they’re closely monitored.

However, the prospect of rehabilitation in this environment seems unlikely. Similarly to in jail, they will likely mix with other offenders who can encourage or even give them more ideas about sexually abusing children.

Should we be putting more effort into teaching our kids about stranger danger?

As anyone who works in the field knows, Hetty Johnston’s case is more typical than the Morcombes’ ordeal. Up to 95 per cent of victims know their abuser, usually a relative or trusted friend.

Stranger danger has a place but parents would, statistically, be better off keeping a closer eye on what’s going on in their own backyard. Bravehearts also runs an education program teaching children to trust their instincts and leave a situation if they feel unsafe.

Uncomfortable as it may seem, the fact is paedophiles will continue to live among us. For many, it will go no further than a sexual fantasy confined to the mind. But some will inflict the same kind of terror, long-term harm and fatal abuse that Brett Cowan did.

Yet we are not completely helpless. Indeed, how we and our government, lawmakers and educators respond is certain to play an important role in influencing the risk faced by our children now and in the future.

Related stories