Media-stoked fear of paedophiles is an "absolute tragedy" which is destroying communities, a senior Liberal Democrat has warned.
Baroness Williams blames the media for stoking fear of crime
Baroness Williams said there was no reason to believe paedophilia had got worse in the past 20 years.
But fear of it was now damaging the trust between adults and children.
And people had stopped volunteering to work with young people for fear of being branded a paedophile, she told a party conference fringe meeting.
Baroness Williams, formerly the Lib Dems' leader in the House of Lords, said the erosion of trust was "eating away" at communities.
"I have to say quite directly that the trust issue has got completely out of hand," she told a Social Market Foundation meeting on "loving thy neighbour".
"One reason for that is the way in which the popular media play upon two things. One is crime and the other is, specifically, paedophilia.
"The emphasis on crime and, incidentally, crime figures are lower now than for 10 years, is one that makes people terrified in their homes, especially people over the age of 50."
She said most older people were not likely to be affected by serious crime "if they keep away from binge drinkers".
"They aren't likely to be attacked but they believe they are - and that's good enough. They cease to take part in the community."
On paedophilia, she said the problem had existed when she was a Labour education secretary in the 1970s but it was "not talked about" then.
"Paedophilia is an absolute tragedy. There is no reason to think that paedophilia is much more substantial than it used to be 20 years ago.
"We didn't talk about it in those days. I was education secretary - I know all about paedophilia - but we didn't talk about it when it was in schools.
"We told the school to close or to deal with the teacher.
"Now it's so extensive we get people terrified to volunteer to be leaders of Cub groups or Guide groups because they think everyone will point at them and say, 'ah, of course you know about John and Margaret, they like to get close to young people'."
She said it was a "tragedy" when a teacher is afraid to put their arm around a child who has grazed their knee in the playground for fear of being branded "a potential criminal".
"That's ludicrous. This particular meeting is called loving your neighbour. If you can't love your little neighbour, if you can't show any love to your little neighbour you are already beginning to destroy his or her sense of trust in other human beings.
"We have to address it. We have got to get this particular problem under control."
Baroness Williams also criticised Britain's "long hours" work culture, which she said damaged communities because it prevented people from volunteering.
"It's not surprising that we have a particular problem in the United Kingdom because we have the longest hours of work of any country in the European Union.
"And if people are working - as so many of them are - 60 hours a week then the time they can give to both parenting and volunteering is essentially carved out of what are already terribly pressurised lives," she told the meeting.