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Wednesday, 28 August, 2002, 12:09 GMT 13:09 UK
Could you befriend a paedophile?

Do convicted paedophiles need decent friends if they are to be stopped from re-offending? Eileen Henderson pioneered the befriending of sex offenders in Canada, a method now being copied in the UK.

"Some of these guys aren't very nice characters," says Eileen Henderson, who is currently a "friend" to four convicted child sex offenders around Toronto, Canada.

"But even with them you see small changes, small growth, small miracles. These people have done horrendous things, but you see glimpses of the human."

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Set up with government funding six years ago, so-called "Circles of Support" (such as the ones Ms Henderson sits on) aim to safely reintegrate paedophiles into a hostile society after their prison sentences are complete.

While a released sex offender's circle of "friends" pledge themselves to "celebrate all the small victories" and "walk them through emergencies", the circle's first duty is to protect children.

"It's not unconditional support. The guys I work with know we'll call the police if it's an issue of community safety, but they also know we'll be there after we've made the call to walk through it with them."

Back on the street

While the province of Ontario has just established a sex offenders' register (called Christopher's Law, after 11-year-old Christopher Stevenson who was murdered by a known sex attacker in 1988), many paedophiles who have served their full prison terms are not closely supervised once released.

"When they make slips, there's no one there to call them to account," says Ms Henderson.

With the public increasingly outraged by child sex attacks, how do ordinary Canadians treat the "friends" of paedophiles?

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"My neighbours are pretty good, provided I don't bring anyone home. Most people want to lock these guys up and throw away the key. But that doesn't happen, so they're glad I do what I do."

The Circles of Support idea is coming to the UK, with pilot projects being set up in Hampshire and the Thames Valley by the Quakers (though as in Canada, volunteers need not be churchgoers).

"Our project was set up by Mennonites, but we have people of all denominations and of no faith at all. Finding volunteers is very hard. We go to churches to ask for help, only to find they have sex offenders who need our help," says Ms Henderson.

Fearing to be a friend

She says the reservoir of potential "friends" remains untapped because it is so hard for people to "break through their initial fear".

"People are capable of pretty amazing things if they are willing to take the risk."

Ms Henderson says the ideal volunteers are good listeners and "not someone who forgets about the crimes and victims, but can see someone as not just the sum total of their offence".

A demo at Portsmouth's Paulsgrove estate
Paedophiles are released into a hostile society
"Everyone has baggage, but some volunteers come with so many issues that they want the circle to support them, not the core member [the offender]. That's not our job."

The job itself can be more time consuming than even Ms Henderson had anticipated.

"Don't expect it to be a year and you're done. The longer they're out of jail, their expectations increase. They get jobs and relationships and with those come more frustrations. Our very first core members still phone their circle friends every day."

Ms Henderson also warns any British volunteers not to expect to turnaround a paedophile's life overnight.

"Volunteers find they change more than the people they are trying to help. They have to learn that can't make other people do things."

I spent all day thinking, had he ever listened to us?

Eileen Henderson
Many of the "core members" are genuinely committed to reforming themselves, says Ms Henderson, either out of real remorse or a desire not to return to prison.

However, these men are still capable of making what the friends call "bad choices".

"Last weekend, one guy made some very bad choices over alcohol. I spent all day in hospital thinking, had he ever listened to us?" says Ms Henderson.

"I feel hopeless most days, knowing how little we are doing. I wonder if it is better to be doing just a little bit knowing it's not enough or to do nothing at all."

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13 Dec 01 | England
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