It is "an absolute disgrace" that only about 5 per cent of cases involving child sex abuse reach court in Britain, an international congress in Edinburgh was told last week. David Niven, of Action on Child Exploitation, said wide-ranging reforms should include a Royal Commission on child protection and changes to the adversarial system in criminal cases.
"This system does not suit children giving evidence. We need to cherrypick among systems in other countries where the object is to discover the truth rather than score points," Mr Niven said.
The congress at Heriot-Watt University, run by the British Association for Study and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, drew delegates from 23 countries. Mr Niven called not just for the register of convicted sex offenders which has been proposed in the UK but for a register of suspected offenders.
This would be controversial but would include proper safeguards for men to challenge their inclusion through a tribunal system. At the moment child abuse was the only crime where the victim, not the criminal, was registered. "Imagine the outcry if all adult women who were raped had to put their names on a register," Mr Niven said.
If the register of convicted offenders was currently operative, he said, "there would be 100,000 men on that list, including 15,000 who would be placed on it for life". If these represented only the known 5 per cent of cases, the true figure registered for life would be 300,000.
Action on Child Exploitation is calling for parents and carers to be better prepared by an education that would make them more protective of children. The pressure group also wants a more effective programme of treatment for adolescent sex offenders and a more proactive approach to using the media by child protection agencies.