Page last updated at 09:37 GMT, Tuesday, 13 October 2009 10:37 UK

Why won't criminals reveal all?

Ian Brady and Vanessa George

By Stephen Robb
BBC News

Despite admitting a string of child sex offences, nursery worker Vanessa George has so far refused to identify her victims. Why would criminals withhold details of their crimes, and can they be made to reveal all?

Vanessa George has admitted her crimes, but she will not tell the police what they need to hear.

Detectives estimate about 30 children and toddlers were victims of the Plymouth nursery worker, but think there is only a small chance of identifying them from the pictures.

Vanessa George hides her face on her way to court
Offenders discussing their crimes means facing up to them

In police interview tapes released to the BBC, George is initially willing to talk, speaking of the motivation for her crimes and the disgust she feels for herself.

As the process goes on, she gradually clams up as the detail of her offences is explored, and is obstinately silent when asked to identify the children she has abused. But why, if a criminal already knows they are going to prison, do they refuse to give a full account of their crimes?

A desperate "power game" is often played by offenders after conviction, says criminal psychologist Dr David Holmes.

With every aspect of their existence now at the mercy of the justice system, offenders may come to see knowledge of their crimes as the only thing over which they hold any control.

On guilt:
Questioning officer: "I can see you're upset."
Vanessa George: "I'm fuming with myself really. I am. Because it's the epitome, isn't it? It's, like, absolutely disgusting."
On her actions:
George: "I knew it was wrong when I was doing it."
Officer: "What's wrong about it?"
George: "Well, it's vile."
On her victims
Officer: "Please help us and tell us who you took pictures of."
George is silent

George exchanged images of abuse with co-defendants Angela Allen, from Nottingham, and Colin Blanchard, from Rochdale, both also convicted of sexual assaults on children. The trio can be in no doubt about what their next few years hold after the trial judge warned them to expect substantial prison terms.

"Post-conviction you are in a fairly powerless position," says Dr Holmes. "While you are possibly thinking about your chances on appeal, other than that you are feeling pretty much helpless.

"People do grasp for any kind of power or status, quite desperately in fact. Often even minor-level offenders will become quite arrogant in the face of being disempowered."

In the nursery abuse case, Judge John Royce suggested George "must know, it seems to me, who she has abused and who she has not".

But offenders floundering for the barest scrap of power will also resort to pretending to withhold valuable information.

Attention-seeking can also motivate this behaviour, says Dr Holmes.

Not matching names to particular experiences maybe is a way of preserving some sense of equilibrium and being able to live with yourself
Dr Adrian Needs
Forensic psychologist

"They realise their minutes of fame, or infamy, could be extended by withholding this information, because it gives them a kind of power over the public or power over the media."

Still resurfacing periodically is the question of whether 1960s Moors murderer Ian Brady could locate the grave of missing victim Keith Bennett after more than 40 years.

"That has been the only time he has been in the news, over releasing the information about the missing lad," says Dr Holmes.

Journalist Peter Gould, who has corresponded with Brady since the mid-80s, is doubtful of the killer's claim that he could still find the grave.

But there is also "nothing in it for him" to assist the authorities, because he has always accepted that he will die behind bars, says Mr Gould.

Ian Brady
Has Ian Brady courted the media with his professed knowledge?

In contrast, he says, fellow Moors murderer Myra Hindley's co-operation from the 1980s onwards was motivated by her hope of eventual release.

"She decided to come clean, make a full confession, talk about her remorse, and be seen to be doing everything she could to help the search, in the hope that it might persuade the Parole Board that she was someone who could one day be let out."

Investigators could hint to Vanessa George that co-operating by revealing her victims' names, as a show of remorse, might see her treated more leniently at sentencing or at parole hearings in years to come.

In denial

Accepting responsibility and understanding their crimes to ensure the offences will not be repeated are vital to prisoners' rehabilitation, says forensic psychologist Dr Adrian Needs.

"At none of these stages is maintaining a stance of non-co-operation going to be helpful," he says.

You have got to try and find some spark of decency in them
Journalist Peter Gould

"There is no advantage in maintaining this sort of stance except at the start in terms of keeping feelings at arm's length and making things more comfortable."

A need to maintain an emotional distance from her crimes could explain why George might hold back from naming her victims, he suggests.

"To take that step does involve identifying the child as an individual - it does personalise the child to an extent," Dr Needs says.

"If you weren't actually thinking about them as individuals in the first place... not matching names to particular experiences maybe is a way of preserving some sense of equilibrium and being able to live with yourself."

In his 14 years working in the Prison Service, Dr Needs found it could be two or three years before some people convicted of the most serious offences could recall details of their crimes.

"With some individuals you can almost get this kind of paralysis - it's almost as if it's too much to take in," he says.

"Someone that has to accept that they have done something pretty dreadful - they have been exposed and their life will never be the same, everybody is saying what they have done is monstrous - all that can be quite a lot for someone to take.

"The first response might be to freeze or stick your head in the sand."

If George is in some form of denial following her conviction it could take many months of counselling work with prison staff before she can offer more details of her offences.

Persuasion ploy

Parents of boys and girls who attended Little Ted's nursery, in Efford, have described their anguish and the fear that they will never know if their children were among those abused.

Vanessa George's husband and parents have echoed the trial judge's call for her to do the "decent thing" by identifying her victims.

"In the end, I think all they can try is persuasion," says Mr Gould.

Police search Saddleworth Moor in the 1960s
The location of Keith Bennett's body remains a mystery

"However awful the crimes were, and whatever you think about the person who did them, you have got to try and find some spark of decency in them."

Winnie Johnson, mother of moors murder victim Keith Bennett, has spent decades hoping for evidence of a glimmer of decency in Ian Brady.

Earlier this year, after police abandoned the latest searches of the moors, she made a final plea to her son's killer to reveal the whereabouts of the body.

But Mr Gould says: "It's very hard to gauge how much of it actually gets through to him."

He adds: "If someone is capable of committing crimes like this - whether at the end of the day you consider they are sane or insane - the fact that they did them, it does make you wonder whether they will ever see reason, or if you will be able to find that shred of decency."

It is impossible to know whether Vanessa George will ever grant parents' wishes and name her victims. Less than a fortnight after her conviction, she may not even know herself.

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