about books journalism links contact2 home2
The Investigator

A tall, gruff figure, Richard Nash lounges on a chair inside the offices of the NSPCC Regional Investigation Unit and ponders his work.

His job is to catch organised paedophiles; those child molesters who work in groups, or who systematically plan and organise their lives around abusing children.

?All the information there about paedophiles is that they?ll begin abusing in their teenage years and they won?t stop until physically they?re unable to,? he says. ?We?ve recently done an investigation on someone who?s 68 and he hasn?t just suddenly started abusing children.?

There is a heavy silence: ?And we put away another guy for life - he had offences going back to 1968.?

?There are adults who live within our society who will organise and plan themselves in order to abuse children? ? RICHARD NASH

As manager of the three person team within this unique unit, Nash knows he is dealing with the tip of an iceberg. His unit covers all the counties touching the M25, plus Bedfordshire, Oxfordshire, and East and West Sussex.

And after 38 cases, 650 families, 760 children, three custodial sentences (including one life), one fled, and four men on bail or remand, its work has barely started.

An expert on paedophile rings and a former social worker dealing with abused children, Nash helped set up the Regional Investigations Unit in March 1996. Why?

?There was one main reason: the realisation that there are adults who live within our society who will organise and plan themselves in order to abuse children. Abusing children is the main focus of their lives.

?It?s moved away from the notion of a man in a dirty mac in the park or that it just ?happens?. There?s more evidence that people organise themselves as rings or organise themselves as individuals. That?s a relatively new realisation by professionals. It happens and it happens frequently.?

When allegations of abuse come in suggesting 10 or 15 children are involved with two or three paedophiles, local authorities are ill-equipped to deal with such cases. ?Large scale abuse investigations require different methods and thinking to normal referrals,? says Nash.

Local authorities can usually only spare a social worker for a few days, and do not have the resources for the long term planning and background work necessary to target organised abusers. Nor can they easily investigate allegations against their own members of staff e.g. a residential social worker.

?If you have a situation where a member of a children?s home makes an allegation against a member of staff, if you act and go and talk to that child and that member of staff, you?ve immediately discounted by that strategy the possibility there are other children involved, that there are other members of staff involved.

?You haven?t thought about how to make that child safe. You need to think about that kid?s background, their needs, why they?re there, what else does that local authority know about members of staff, have there been concerns from anecdotal evidence.

The strategy has to be able to cope with a possibility that it?s wider than that one child saying something.?

?Knowing what we do know about children and how difficult it is to disclose, usually means the abuse has been going on for some time. You?ll then have very difficult decisions to make. Do you go in now, and never find out what?s going on, or do you sit back and wait and observe the situation longer while you plan??

Working with police, the joint aim is to get a conviction and to look after the welfare of the children. The team use their specialist skills as ex-social workers to communicate with the children, whilst helping the police gather enough evidence for a criminal case.

But it?s not easy. As seen with the sad abuse cases coming to light now in the North Wales (childrens? homes in the 1970s) inquiry, children haven?t often been believed. ?It?s incredibly difficult for children to admit they?ve been abused. Their behaviour will change, they?ll act out different things to draw attention to themselves. There?s no real physical signs, such as bruises as with physical abuse or neglect. Sexual abuse is by definition very hidden and very secret and abusers are very, very skilled at silencing and terrifying children into silence and keeping silences.?

?It?s incredibly difficult. In simplistic terms, it can often be an adult?s word against a child and a child is already at a distinct disadvantage. That word can only be tested in a court of law, an adult setting, which requires cross examination of the child, often very insensitively. Often defence lawyers behave without any concern for the child and what they might be doing to them.?

The three abusers who have been convicted so far have all pleaded guilty, which speeded up the court process.

But what?s it like on a real case; how does the Unit operate? Nash describes how his team successfully brought a systematic paedophile to justice:

?A young person had suggested to their sports coach that something inappropriate had happened to them involving their previous coach - who was still coaching children. This young person had said they didn?t want to talk to police or social services, that they wanted to talk to the NSPCC.?

?We got a call from our colleagues in the area and got the details of this young person. But there was a specific problem. He was making very clear allegations but if they were going to go anywhere police would have to be involved and social services would have to be informed. It would have to be their decision about who investigated it. So we went to see the young person - who was actually 17 and very close to his 18th birthday - and we didn?t notify the police.?

As a result of that interview he agreed to meet with them the following day and make a statement to the police.

?What the worker had done was reassure him about the process, give him information and let him come to a decision,? Nash explains. ?That is a difficult and skilled piece of work.

Had that failed there would have been no further investigation - young people worry about being believed. You have to assure them their confidentiality will be maintained.?

?So we went back the next day and he made a written statement. That actually took all day - it started at 10am and didn?t finish until seven that evening. Having said what had happened to him over a three year period - he talked about a number of indecent assaults and attempted buggery - he also talked about other young people who he thought might be at risk from this man.?

?After the statement was taken, we did a lot of planning and background work. We found out how this man had been a sports coach for about five years and he?d had contact with three different clubs in six different geographical areas. Through the national association that had informed us in the first place, we found he had come into contact with over 300 different children. So we automatically had 300 odd victims, so that was the starting point.?

So the Unit team sat down with the local police Child Protection Unit and began planning. The young person had named five other young people in his statement.

?They were clearly the five most at risk, so we had to go and see them first, with the police. We decided we wouldn?t telephone first, because there?s no way of doing that without creating huge anxieties for parents - and their first natural reaction would be to talk with their son or daughter and by definition start the interview, which we know would not be helpful.?

So they knocked on the doors of each family, accompanied by the police, and explained the situation. It was difficult, but they soon established that all the young people had the same colour hair and were good looking. All were males.

?So we?re building up a picture of who this person concentrated on, who he had a sexual interest in. It was boys between the ages of 12 and 14. They would have a certain hair type, certain looks and were usually fairly good at the sport. Also he would assess them in terms of their vulnerability, in terms of what?s going on at home. All the children either didn?t have a father figure at home, or dads spent a lot of time out of the family home through work. That?s the selection process - the guy obviously wanted to make sure he could abuse kids without getting caught. That?s the primary objective.?

?He would also then take the selected children to Alton Towers for the day; he would buy them presents; take them to the cinema, often taking three or four together. He would drop them off in turn and the last one, the one he wanted to be alone with, was the one he would abuse.?

?So what he did was psychologically become very important, to confuse the young people into not knowing what was wrong and right. And if any of the young people resisted, he would then drop them from the sports team, he would shun them, turn his attention to others, make them isolated, say things like ?I take you out, buy you all these presents and you treat me like dirt?. He would make them feel incredibly guilty so they would say ?yes?. I?m probably understating the skills this abuser had in manipulating them. That?s not unusual, that?s quite normal.?

Did no-one suspect? ?He was well-liked by adults and children, and he was seen as good fun. Parents invited him to their homes, to their parties, that sort of thing...he was clearly a sports coach so that would get him nearer to children. He become very emotionally important to them, by selecting kids without a dad around.?

The Unit had to move fast. Within a week of receiving the first allegation, the team had interviewed the five children on video and been with police to arrest this man ?before he could get to the children, parents or disappear.?

He was officially charged with attempted buggery, numerous indecent assault and gross indecency charges. He denied everything. He was held in custody overnight and went to court next day, where he was remanded in custody and eventually received a three-and-a-half year sentence.

Nash thought the sentence did not fit the crimes: ?Psychologically, he really did mess those kids up.?

The team also sent out over 300 letters to parents whose children had been in contact with this man, explaining the recent chain of events:

?It never ceases to amaze me how many people didn?t respond - something over half. We can?t do any more than that, but I would have thought most parents would at least want some information or want to talk about it in some way.?

There was also a worry, which they could never prove, that he was working with another adult abuser.

?It's almost as if it's got to get worse before it can get better? ? RICHARD NASH

In Nash?s view, all of us - parents particularly - are partly to blame for situations like these: ?There?s a number of cases we?ve looked at where parents have behaved very, very naively and haven?t picked up or heard the signs. Sometimes they?ve observed inappropriate behaviour by the paedophile but not acted on it. They may have thought about it and dismissed it. There?s a lack of education.?

?This is not scaremongering,? he states, ?but moving away from the stereotypical ?stranger in the park with a long mac?; that guy doesn?t get to abuse kids. None of them go near him. It?s the well-presented, smart-looking, plausible man who comes along and says ?I?m going to set up a youth football team, the kids have got nothing to do round here.?

Forty-nine times out of 50, that?s a well meaning, totally safe person doing that.?

So what can we do about it? ?There?s ways of checking things out. A person may behave quite strangely - for example, I?d be worried if a football coach regularly showered with the kids. Or offering to take them away for the weekend, or going on camps, or coming round the house and getting to know mum and dad, then saying ?I?ll take young Johnny out for the day. You two work and I know it must be very difficult for you both.? Parents go ?great, what a wonderful person, and the kids really like him!? Danger. And people don?t think in that way. It?s sad that they have to, but it?s not about having a moral panic, about every scout leader, every ice cream salesman, whatever. It?s about having an awareness that they could be.?

So are we facing a crisis? ?There?s more there to come out yet, without a shadow of a doubt, unfortunately,? he admits. ?It?s almost as if it?s got to get worse before it can get better.?

These articles were originally published in MSN NEWS

Other stories in this series:

Sex abuse: the survivor

The lasting nightmare of child abuse. Peter Saunders tells how the scars last for a lifetime.

Sex abuse: the probation officer

How to shatter the sex offending cycle. Donald Finlater helps sex offenders survive back in the community.

Sex abuse: the police

Inside Scotland Yard?s Paedophilia Unit. We?re dealing with very serious crimes warns DCI Reynolds.

Sex abuse: the mother

Whirlwind romance led to horror of child abuse. He was everything my first husband wasn?t.

Sex abuse: the legal expert

The law is failing the victims of child abuse. Barbara Joel-Essam is trying to change the culture around sex offence.

Sex abuse: the investigator

The man who catches child abusers. Abusing children is the main focus of some people?s lives.

Sex abuse: the expert

?You can buy a child for a packet of crisps?. Grim warning from Britain?s top sex crime consultant.

Sex abuse: the abuser

Abuser who claims six-year-old led him on. Convicted paedophile hasn?t yet taken full responsibility for his crimes.

You can buy all these articles, and seek new commissions, either by contacting me direct or my syndication agency, www.correspondent.com

IFJ Special Commendation Winner


To keep in touch with new projects, columns and other regular developments, join my newsletter.