Warning: This programme contains explicit descriptions of attacks and the emotional and physical damage they have caused, which some viewers/readers may find distressing.
Narrator: The sexual abuse of children by women was once thought to be so rare it could be ignored. Today the victims tell a different story.
Woman: You knew when my mum was being really nice, you knew something was going to happen – you were going to get raped.
Man: Imagine your worst nightmare come true. It probably doesn’t even come close to it.
Narrator: Tonight Panorama reveals how the scale and nature of this sexual taboo has been severely underestimated.
Boy: We used to play football together, go for walks, we were just friends
Narrator: Cheryl’s friend was just a 12 year old schoolboy. She was 19. Walking with him one evening she committed such a serious act of sexual indecency she went to prison for it.
Cheryl: So I says to him, I says, we’ll walk the field way. So we started walking the field way and I sat down; he sat down. I pushed him back, pulled his trousers down, pulled mine down, then I had sexual intercourse with him … until someone was walking past with a dog.
Interviewer: And how long did this assault go on for?
Cheryl: About 15 minutes
Interviewer: Why did you do it in the first place?
Cheryl: ‘Cause I were feeling aroused. He was crying, shouting for his mum, he wanted to go home.
Interviewer: And what did you think when you saw him crying?
Cheryl: At that time I couldn’t think straight, so I just carried on.
Narrator: After she had raped the child, Cheryl realised that as a woman who had abused, she had broken one of society’s most serious taboos. She marched him to a railway bridge, believing there was only one option left to her.
Cheryl: Then I looked round to see if anything were coming.. such as transport, and there was nothing and I just pushed him over. I were thinking what have I done wrong?
Interviewer: Why did you push him?
Cheryl: Trying to frighten him – scare him so he wouldn’t tell what happened.
Interviewer: You could have killed him. Did you know that when you pushed him?
Narrator: The boy survived his fall from the bridge. Cheryl was sentenced to 18 months for indecent assault and grievous bodily harm.
Narrator: Sexual abuse by anyone is appalling, but when the perpetrator is a woman the crime seems so unnatural it offends against all instincts. It’s thought that 10% of the population are abused as children; it is hard to accept that some of their tormentors are women
Jacqui Saradjiam: (clinical psychologist) I think people find it so difficult to see that women sexually abuse children because the whole view of women is of nurturers, carers, protectors – people who do anything to look after children – and they see the women as victims rather than enemies or perpetrators of any abuse.
Michelle Elliott (Director – children’s charity Kidscape) I think the issue strikes at the core of what we perceive ourselves as women to be. I think that it’s easier to think that it’s men – men the enemy, somehow – but it can’t be women – it’s one thing women can’t do. Women can be equal, we can be free, we can be in charge of companies, but we can’t sexually abuse children – That’s a load of rubbish.
Narrator: Reaction to 28 year old Tina Purser’s relationship with another 12 year old boy demonstrates society’s reluctance to even associate women with sexual abuse. Purser, a trained nurse and mother of four secretly abused the 12 year old for two years.
Interviewer: When did she make her first sexual approach? How did she do it?
Mother: Apparently not long after he was 12. Her own children she’d sent round to the local park to play. Our son was in the house and she was just doing her housework and apparently while she was cleaning the bathroom she just turned around to our son and said how would you like this and actually abused him – she masturbated him on that first occasion, with him apparently leaning against the door. Afterwards he just cleaned himself up and she said “You’d better pop off and play with the children now and I’ll finish the housework and see you later”.
Interviewer: Do you think she targeted him?
Mother: Definitely. She went for that blonde gorgeous little boy. She used her son to get him. She used her son to get him over to play. She used her son to do the things that our son liked doing. If our son liked certain videos, she’d get her son to like them too.
Interviewer: On any level do you understand what she was getting out of a relationship with a 12 year old boy?
Mother: None whatsoever. If he’d have been a Chippendale, yes, but a 12 year old boy, no. I can only presume that she was getting from it sex, and didn’t have the problems of a grown up man and demands of a grown up man and a full blown relationship. This was just easy sex.
Narrator: It took secret tape recordings by a private detective to convince the authorities that Tina Purser was abusing the boy, albeit he appeared to consent. The family were distressed the media reported the relationship as an affair.
Interviewer: Would you say what they were having was an affair?
Mother: No. She raped him. She raped him hundreds of times and robbed him of six years of his childhood. I had a gorgeous little boy and now I’ve got a very aggressive moody teenager.
Narrator: Tina Purser was found guilty of two indecent assault charges, but the sentence was just two years probation and the judge said he didn’t see Purser as a future risk to children.
Society excuses female abusers
Michelle Elliott: What tends to happen is that the female sexual abuser is excused in a way. “She must have been misguided” or it was a “chronicled affair”. For example an affair with a 34 year old woman and a ten year old boy. I mean we wouldn’t have said that about a man. And what happens is that the sentences are more lenient. The judges might even think “Well a woman really couldn’t have done this – it must have been a mistake”. And they usually get probation or they walk free. A man doing that would be locked up.
Narrator: That’s because men have long been seen as both capable of sexual abusing children and as being the main perpetrators. That still holds true; they are, but there is increasing evidence that far more women sexually abuse children than previously thought.
Michelle Elliott: In the past the statistics have indicated that perhaps 2-5% of abusers are female. I think, based on the people who’ve contacted me, that that is probably much higher, maybe as high as 25%.
Narrator: Chris Roberts, seen here in the 1980’s in a foster home, was removed from his own home because of physical abuse by his father. What the authorities didn’t even consider at the time was that his mother might be sexually abusing him.
Chris: There’s no way you can describe how unpleasant it was. You couldn’t put it into words. Imagine your worst nightmare come true; it probably doesn’t even come close to it. The earliest memory would be when I was probably about two and a half or three years old. Beatings, physical and sexual abuse, mental abuse, from both my mother and father. My mother would keep us away from playschool and my other two brothers from school and use us for her sexual perversions whilst our father was at work. When I was three I remember I was put into a children’s home.
Narrator: But Chris’s abuse was not to end there. On the weekly visits they were allowed to the home, his parents continued the abuse.
Chris: The supervision order wasn’t enforced. We’d be taken into a play room and our father would ram a chair up against the door and the abuse would carry on – on the property of the children’s home.
Interviewer: What sort of abuses happened in the home?
Chris: At this point in time my mother had lost a set of twins … can I stop for a minute please? [breaks down].
Narrator: Chris was told he was to blame for the twins death. His feelings of guilt helped ensure he would submit to yet more abuse.
Chris: There were many forms of abuse – physically, mentally and sexually. I had a mixture of mentally and sexually would be putting pornographic magazines into the children’s home where we’d be made to sit and look at the magazines whilst performing sexual acts with our mother, and our father joining in as well.
Narrator: Approximately one in every hundred girls in the population and one in every hundred boys in the population are sexually abused in their childhood by a woman. And that’s a vast number of victims that we are avoiding if we are not looking at the issue of women as sexual abusers.
Victims trapped in the custody of their mothers as children, often only speak out after they’ve escaped. When they do, much of their testimony shatters the myth that women only sexually abuse if coerced by men.
Narrator: Lucy Jenner had a single mother. Lucy took the place of a husband in the bed she had to share every night.
Lucy: She would lock the door and after a certain time she would snap on the lights. Sometimes I tried to pretend to be asleep and it wouldn’t happen, but it didn’t make any difference. My mother would be behind me and I would be facing the wall. My mother would be around me and she pulled up a chair and she would say that she loved me and various other things and she would penetrate me vaginally and rectally with whatever she had.
Narrator: There was lasting damage, causing pain and bleeding even today a legacy of the abuse she’d endured.
Lucy: I think mainly it was the abuse that affected my bowel. I have a rectal prolapse which was a direct result of being penetrated with objects whatever when I was a child and was sexually abused by my mother.
Disbelief the biggest trauma
Narrator: The biggest trauma for some victims though is disbelief. A survey of 127 survivors by the children’s charity Kidscape showed 86% were not believed at first when they named a woman as their abuser.
Jacqui Saradjiam: The fact that we are not expecting women in our society to do this – not expecting that women our society do this actually has profound effects on the victims, often making the experience go on much longer than it would have done in other cases, but also making them feel more stigmatised, more different, more betrayed, more powerless.
Sandra & Lesley
Narrator: For 20 years no one saw what Sandra and Lesley Wilson endured. their mother started to abuse them aged 5 and six, and continued even after they were married. When they threatened to go to the police she threatened to abuse their children. Sandra and Lesley’s mother was accompanied by their father in the abuse, but it was she who took the lead.
Sister: Mother always used to come in the bedroom and drag us out of bed. She never had any clothes on. You knew what was going to happen. I was made to do things. I was frightened. I was crying. I was told to shut up and I just had to get used to it.
Sister: You’d know when my mum was being really nice – you knew something was going to happen – you were going to get raped. It felt like it was every night – 2 or three times a week they both raped me.
Interviewer: Who started these sessions? Who was the dominant partner?
Sister: My mother. My mother always came to get me.
Sister: My dad was at work. I was cleaning the bath out and everything. All of a sudden my mum come in the bathroom and she pushed me flying, she grabbed my hair and dragged me into the bedroom and she made me do things you know to her satisfaction.
Sister: I couldn’t understand how your own mother… You’ve got no one else to turn to. If it’s your dad doing it at least you’ve got some chance – your mother to try and talk to if she’s a good mum. But when you’ve got your mother doing it as well what chance have you got? No one’s going to believe you. There was no escape.
Narrator: Sandra and Lesley’s father John Wildman was eventually sent to prison for 22 years. Maureen Wildman died shortly after being charged. It’s her abuse the girls say hurt them most.
Michelle Elliott: Those survivors who tell me they have been sexually abused by both a woman and a man always tell me that it was more traumatic to be sexually abused by a woman – they feel more betrayed, they feel very angry, they feel the woman should have cared for them, should have loved them instead of abusing them. For some reason they expected it almost of the man, but never of the woman.
Narrator: The violence that often accompanies the abuse is also unexpected of a woman. Victims often report excessive force equivalent to if not greater than that of a man. This was the experience in a Newcastle taxi a year ago of a 15 year old girl. Her 33 year old aunt held her down and forced her to submit to oral sex by the driver as payment in kind. Angered by that and other sexual attacks by her aunt Paula Belisle, the victim has decided to speak out publicly about the abuse.
Louise: I was sitting watching the telly and I thought she was going into the toilet because she went out in the passage, She came back in and she had this chair leg cause it was on top of the electrical rad and then she just come over on the settee and put her hand over me mouth and pulling me pants down had her legs over my legs and she’s got like big fat legs, you know what I mean, well really really tight on my legs and I couldn’t move. She had a hand on me shoulder and a hand on me mouth and everything – just one hand though, and she was shoving the chair leg up us really really hard and I couldn’t hardly scream because she had her hand over me mouth. It was very painful, it was like I was having a bairn [baby]. And I was just crying – I was really upset I didn’t want me own aunty to do it to us. I thought men were animals, but women are just as bad – especially my own aunty doing that. I hate her. If I had the chance I’d kill her. I can’t stand her.
Narrator: Paula Belisle is now on probation. Louise says she has since threatened to kill her for going to the police.
Michelle Elliott: Women are supposed to be the gentler sex, women are supposed to be incapable of cruelty in a sense, and I would like as a woman to believe that. Unfortunately my experience with the survivors tells me that many of their abusers have been very sadistic to them. Cruelty that is almost unimaginable
Narrator: In the early hours of one morning in South Wales last year the authorities drew up in a quiet street to a neat looking terrace house, looking to arrest a male abuser. Nothing prepared them for what they found. Child Protection Officers were to stumble on a den of professional paedophiles, but a den in which the mother was the prime abuser.
Margaret Harris: (South Wales Probation) It had all the appearances of a normal sort of terrace house from the outside, in a very ordinary community – a very proud community. And as you went in the front door it changed dramatically. The house was full of rubble and rubbish from floor to ceiling. The walls had been taken away right through to the point that you could see bare wires hanging down as though the house was still under construction. It gave the appearance of a house that was just designed really to completely disorientate the children. In the room where the family actually lived – that was where they videoing the children – they used two different cameras. The room where the computer was kept was full of rubbish and yet in this corner in a particular corner which had been sectioned off from the rest of the room was the most sophisticated equipment that you could imagine. There was a kitchen area where in the larder there were videos – pornographic videos. Hardly any food, just videos upon videos upon videos. We also then found under the floorboards home-made videos of the abuse of the children. They did what would almost be construed as a professional video, which we assumed would be for selling.
Narrator: The husband had filmed the videos, but his wife did the abusing. She took a lead role, sometimes reading from scripts, acting out scenes. Most of them involved her daughter videoed between the ages of eight and thirteen.
Margaret Harris: The older child was naked. Mother was naked. They strung up the older child and tied her, gagged her and string her up from a hook in the ceiling and beat her something like 100 times in about four minutes. They then laid her on the bed and further abused her. All the time mother was doing this, father was videoing the actual abuse. At the end of it all, at one point when the child was lying on the bed almost unconscious, mother and father sat on the edge of the bed and had a cup of tea together. I think that portrays very graphically the awful nature of this. To give it the name sexual abuse belies what actually happened in that house. It was torture. It was the most abhorrent torture I have ever seen.
Narrator: The mother used the Internet to feed her fantasies. Links to the North of England and the United States were stark evidence of leading female involvement in the sort of network of abusers normally associated with men. The father was taken away and jailed for life. The mother got a lesser 15 year sentence. Without the exceptional video evidence the authorities say because she was a woman she may not have been implicated at all.
Margaret Harris: Often when children are trying to tell us what’s happening to them, we are dependent on their stories and I do wonder with this child, if we hadn’t found the videos, and this child had simply told us what had happened it would have been beyond belief, and I do worry that no on would in fact have believed her. And I wonder therefore how many other children has this happened to, where they’ve either been too afraid to tell or if they have tried to tell they felt they weren’t being believed and have held back. Because what we know we know from the videos. The children still haven’t talked in full about the horrors that they encountered.
Narrator: Half the women in a recent survey of 50 convicted female sexual abusers said they derived sadistic pleasure from inflicting pain on victims. The research showed neither class nor age were barriers to their behaviour.
Jacqui Saradjiam: In my research I’ve come across women of any age from young teenagers to grandmothers, from any class – from women who barely had a house to live in during their life to women with very large houses. And from any level of education – women who can barely read and write to women who’ve got degrees. We can’t make assumptions about the type of woman who will sexually abuse a child.
Narrator: More than 40 people are now alleging abuse including sexual abuse at this former children’s home in Aberdeen. The orphanage was run by the Poor Sisters of Nazareth. The complaints the police are now investigating were until recently dismissed as impossible. They range over a period of 30 years in which individual nuns are alleged to have abused.
Boy: I was about 7 or 8 at the time and she was in charge of our group, and just one day out of the blue she came along and asked me would I like to learn the time. And I just said yes, I’d like to learn the time. She told me that her watch was inside her breasts underneath her cassock which they used to wear. So I put my hand in – obviously I was fondling her breasts to look for the watch and I found it and while I was doing that- pulling the watch out – she would put her hand next to my penis and she would just gently squeeze it and that would get me excited. I could tell she was getting excited cause her face was pure red and her speech was pretty excited speech.
Narrator: This sort of incident happened on several occasions but the boy felt powerless.
Boy: I knew it was wrong to do it, but I just did it because I had to do it or I got punished.
Female abusers acquire positions of trust
Narrator: Some children aren’t just at risk from the people they live with; they are vulnerable targets when they leave their homes. Out in the community female sexual abusers can manoeuvre with even more ease than men into positions of trust with authority over lost of children.
Dawn Read and Christopher Lilley
Narrator: Dawn Read and Christopher Lilley worked together as qualified teachers at a nursery in Newcastle. About 120 two to four year olds passed through their classes. Their mothers suspected nothing.
Mother: I really liked her. She just came across really as a nice person, always laughing, smiling and wanting to talk to you, and just made us feel at ease.
Narrator: It took two years for trusting parents to find out that their children were being repeatedly sexually abused at the nursery. Lilley and Read were never tried in court, making the parents determined to stand up in public and draw attention to the abuse.
Mother: My daughter was sitting at the lunch table and said she didn’t want her lunch, so Dawn got a knife and fork and took my daughter to the toilet which was in the classroom and sat her on the floor and inserted the knife and fork into her vagina. Chris was there and they were both laughing.
Narrator: What did your daughter tell you about that, about how she felt?
Mother: Well she said it hurt and there was blood and that they had to get a towel when she got washed, and the towel had blood on. But they seem to have done it a few times.
Narrator: This child was one of more than 20 others who went on to tell their mothers what Dawn Read had done to them. At first they couldn’t grasp what they were hearing.
Mother: I’m angry with her. I can’t understand where she was coming from when she was doing this to the children. I can’t believe, as a mother I trusted her and I can’t believe that a woman would let people trust her and then go out and misuse that trust.
Narrator: Dawn Read and Christopher Lilley persistently misused parents trust at the nursery and at other addresses in Newcastle.
Interviewer: What were they asking you to do?
Girl: Pull my pants down. If I had a dress, lift my dress up.
Interviewer: Did anyone take any photographs of you?
Girl: Yeah, there was a camera man there.
Interviewer: Tell me about that
Girl: He was just like taking pictures when they were being nasty to her and everything. I was like crying and just a lot of upset like. Screaming and saying I wanted to go back to the nursery and me mam and everything. And they wouldn’t take any notice and they’d be laughing at me.
Interviewer: When you had to join in with them, what did you have to do?
Girl: I can remember when Chris put his privates into mine.
Interviewer: And what was Dawn doing while Chris was doing this?
Girl: Looking at the other children, being rude to the other children.
Interviewer: She was being rude to the other children? What was she doing to the other children?
Girl: Making them lift their dresses and take their clothes off
Mother: Medically there was tearing of the tissues, bleeding trauma, extensive damage to the hymen. She has since underwent STD tests for sexually transmitted diseases. She has also had an HIV test.
Narrator: Dawn Reed and Christopher Lilley were never brought to justice because the judge thought the child witnesses too young to be heard in court. There was an outcry on behalf of the children. The parents formed a protest group to support each other and publicise fully Reed and Lilley’s abuse. Some children are still showing signs of trauma.
Mother: She was always trying to make play with herself and I used to think that’s just what children do. I did ask the health visitor a couple of times and she said “She’s just exploring her own body and a lot of children do this”. But as she started to get older it didn’t just settle with her. I’ve had a lot of counselling about it because I’ve got a fear of her growing up to being an abuser herself. What the therapist said was that a child who comes from a loving home who is being abused doesn’t necessarily go on to be an abuser. But that’s not to say it can’t happen.
Therapy for abused children
Narrator: The Sexual Abuse Child Consultancy Service is one of the few organisations attempting to break this cycle. In specially designed rooms long term play therapy helps children explore feelings and relationships. Half the children who pass through here have been abused by a woman – like this 10 year old boy.
Therapist: His abusers were involved in a lesbian relationship and he was also abused by men too, so actually he’s quite a confused little boy, which is shown very often in his play where he doesn’t really know whether he’s a woman or whether he’s a man.
[shots of boy who has made a montage of a pretty girl with lots of diamonds and an engagement ring]
Therapist: He was out of control. Sometimes he’d be physically violent and sometimes that would develop then into spitting, sometimes weeing in a playroom, sometimes weeing over the therapist. He was also highly eroticised, both with adults and with the other children, which meant that there would be a lot of sexual wriggling – he would get his penis out and wave it around – that kind of sexualised stuff, and trying to do very sexy kisses with the other children and with staff.
[shots of boy hugging with baby doll, saying he had a baby in the night, and then kissing it on the mouth]
Therapist: He understands about nice kissing and safe kissing, but when he was holding the baby clearly the kissing started to get very unsafe. He had looked to me to make sure that I had understood that the kissing was unsafe. So an issue for him is unsafe kissing with babies – which of course was his experience.
Therapist: Some of them become eternal victims and never recover from that. Other children like this little boy will mask their confusions and go into adulthood and never really be able to sustain relationships or have very distorted relationships because of their enormous confusions. And there are other children who will go on to hurt not only other children in their own childhood but in adulthood.
250,000 children abused by women
Narrator: It’s thought more than 250,000 people in this country have been abused as children by women. While not everyone who has been harmed goes on to abuse, it is thought about 5% do. So what is it that makes them do it and others not?
Jacqui: Women in our society have been portrayed as victims. And yes I’m not disputing that nearly all women who sexually abuse children were in my research were themselves very victimised, but somewhere within their victimisation they learned that to abuse children gave them a sense of power, control, agency, that they’d not had any other in their life. And therefore they used the abuse of children to gain those things.
Narrator: The natural compulsion of a mother to love and protect her child can be destroyed by years of abuse. One such woman who went on to abuse claims she saw her baby as a mere object.
Zoe: I was about 22, I’d just divorced my husband. My sons – one was two and the other was a babe in arms – and the eldest son, I changed his nappy and masturbated him – once. I felt sick at what I was doing. I felt angry at what I was doing. I didn’t do it for pleasure, it was more for anger for what their dad had done to me. It was a day when I had just finished decorating the bedroom with my eldest brother. He had sexually abused me and I was so angry at what he had done that the anger came out by masturbating my son.
Interviewer: What effect has what you did consequently had on your sons?
Zoe: Both my sons are sexual abusers. My eldest son is in prison now for what he’s done.
Interviewer: What has he done?
Zoe: Sexually abused a nine year old boy.
Interviewer: Do you feel responsible for the way he’s turned out?
Interviewer: Why’s that?
Zoe: Because if I hadn’t done what I’d done to him he wouldn’t be like he is now.
Narrator: Zoe was jailed for four years on three counts of indecent assault. While she was in prison she was ostracised but not treated. Now she’s back in the community and still considered a risk to children.
Jacqui: There’s very very little being done to look at the issue of female sexual abuse. We have no programmes in this country that are aimed at working with female sexual offenders specifically. Quite a lot of professionals are picking up women offenders now. What they’re not doing is having the resources to help them deal with these women offenders. It’s because so many professionals are now getting to pick up women offenders that we are now getting to realise some of the extent of the problem throughout the country.
Narrator: Few abusers ever volunteer their guilt, and behind closed doors it is difficult to prove. A woman’s traditional role in the home as a mother often puts her above suspicion, and medical evidence is hard to obtain. But as more and more of women’s victims come forward and speak out they may just force us to face up to the ultimate taboo.