Week 27, bleak af.
There is a man I see around town. He looks a bit like an absent minded professor, slightly dilapidated and a bit bewildered. He seems affable enough, with a sort of half smile on his face as he meanders around the supermarket, staring blankly at yogurts and cleaning products. He had a great job with the council for almost three decades, and was even lucky enough to get out with an early retirement package before the court case began. During the trial, the court was told that it was a German website that tipped off authorities to what he had on his computer – almost 14,000 images of children as young as one year old being violated, raped and abused. One of the gardai who dealt with the case said it was one of the worst he had encountered, while the judge said he was horrified by it.
I think about all these things when I see this man. He is a sad, pathetic figure, and I usually feel sorry for him – he has the look of someone who has no-one to care for him, to wash his clothes properly or tell him to fix his hair. I don’t grab my kids and run when I see him, because it’s not the threats you can identify that you need to worry about.
Contrary to our collective unconscious – or your local community group on Facebook – the monsters aren’t hiding in the bushes or driving around estates in black vans trying to snatch kids. They are standing next to you at the checkout, beside you in the pub, in front of you in church, or even in your circle of friends.
Everyone has that one friend who just can’t seem to get their life together. To most of my friends, I am that person, but even I found someone who was more of a disaster zone than I am. We were friends from childhood, but as we grew older, I settled down while he just couldn’t seem to find the balance in his life to make any relationship work. I married and had kids, he wallowed in drugs, prostitutes and pornography. His obsession with the latter overshadowed everything – he lived in a country where it was freely available and seemed to be endlessly consuming it. I’m no prude, but when I would visit him he would be scurrying off into some shady back section of a shop and come out with a bag stuffed with increasingly brutal DVDs.
We would poke fun at him about it, but it was relentless. His lifestyle choices generally, and the social circle he kept, which as he said was full of ‘the wanted and the unwanted’, meant that he was on a downward spiral.
I was chatting to him on Gmail on evening when he said he had been at a friend’s house and had seen some ‘extreme’ material. With a sense of rising dread I asked what he meant. The videos involved girls aged eight or nine – the same age my daughter was at the time. So I told him he needed to call the cops on this ‘friend’. He said no way, this guy was his pal. I told him his ‘pal’ was complicit in a crime, that he was part of a culture that delights in the rape and torture of little children. My friend was indignant, saying with absolute certainty that the children in these videos weren’t being raped, they were enjoying the abuse.
Some friendship fade out over years as your lives change. This one ended at that moment. I told him to never contact me again, and that if I saw him anywhere near my family I would call the police. I got a few abusive messages after that, but blocked him. In the intervening years he has tried to get in touch, expressing remorse that we ‘fell out’, but not once did he say that he had a problem, or that he was wrong, or that he needed help. I very much hope that I never see him again, because whether or not he ever actually harms a child, he clearly has the paedophile mindset – that children enjoy abuse.
I’m slow to use the term ‘child pornography’ as the word pornography implies consent, eroticism, or pleasure. These are images of worst kind of rape and torture – the most sadistic abuse imaginable. These are lives being ruined, and while the perpetrators are the active agents, those who watch the videos and share them on the internet are just passive versions of the same monsters.
All of this was in my head in the last two weeks as I wondered how I was able to pull the shutters down on two decades of friendship – but Tom Humphreys, an actual, active paedophile who defiled a child, was still deemed worthy of defence by some of his peers. Perhaps those who stood by him had trouble asking themselves the same question I had to ask after I severed ties with one of my oldest friends – what the hell is wrong with me? How did I end up friends with someone so morally bankrupt, so unfeeling, so utterly sick? But not every paedophile is as visibly odd as Jimmy Savile. Many of them are perfectly affable, average members of society who are secretly despicable creatures. They can be great writers, good friends and monsters all at once. But once the last aspect is revealed, your own humanity should recoil in horror. There is no ‘forgive and forget’ here.
But still there are people like the author John Grisham who in 2014 said that the American courts needed to be more lenient with people who watch videos of children being sexually abused, talking about an old law school friend who was sent to jail for this very thing. Grisham blamed alcohol, and bizarrely, boredom, for his friend’s moral decay. There are no excuses for enjoying the abuse of a child. Even Kevin Spacey somehow thought that telling the world what we already knew, that he was gay, somehow explained his assault on a 14-year-old. This isn’t about gender or sexual orientation – it’s about adults, children and abuse.
In the trial of the man I see shuffling around my town, one of the arresting gardai testified that he thought the man downloaded 13,845 images and videos ‘out of boredom as much as anything else’. In the end, the man got off with a four-year suspended sentence, due to a statement from the Granada Institute that he was unlikely to pose a threat to the community, and also because he was his mother’s sole carer. She died earlier this year, so now he is alone, muddling about the place looking confused. Some day he will die, have a tiny funeral, and that will be that. The world won’t be any safer or better, but there will be one less identifiable menace in my hometown, and – more worryingly – many, many more that I don’t know about.