Crossing the Line: an interview with our principal practitioner, Michael Sheath

13 October 2022

Michael Sheath has been working with child sexual abuse offenders since 1987, first as a probation officer and then as Principal Practitioner at The Lucy Faithfull Foundation from 1997 onwards. In 1997, he received the Butler Trust Award for his work with male survivors of sexual abuse at HMP Blakenhurst.

Coinciding with his sad departure from the Foundation after 25 years, he has published a collection of five theatrical monologues concerning child sexual abuse, trauma and secondary victimisation. They present a raw and thought-provoking exploration of loneliness and isolation, highlighting the rippling effects that offending behaviour can have on the family members of those who commit sexual crimes against children.

The book is available to purchase here. All proceeds will go towards Children Heard and Seen, a charity which supports children with a parent in prison.

Can you tell us a little about their work and why you chose to partner with them?

I came across them accidentally, as you do on Twitter. There are virtually no services for children in that situation because they’re not seen as at-risk or in need as such but they have profound needs that the state doesn’t provide for. Children Heard and Seen provide children with mentors and they campaign about those issues and they run a summer camp. Particularly with the children of men convicted of sexual offences, the issues are more profound because you’ve got the prospect of direct risk of abuse as well as stigma and embarrassment which is very difficult for children of any age to bear.

You weave the phenomenon of secondary trauma throughout your monologues. In particular, ‘The Detective’ portrays a police officer sadly turning to alcohol abuse to cope with his exposure to illegal images. Do you think the psychology of secondary trauma is fully understood?

I think there’s a particular potency to the post-internet age because many people have seen what previously only sexual offenders saw. I have concerns – as do detectives – about what the impact of seeing so many children being sexually abused will be.

I’ve seen many police officers suddenly go under and leave the job or go off sick. Sometimes they drink, sometimes they become very sad and get depressed. We will have a legacy, I suspect, of thousands of professionals from the police service and other services who have seen too much.

One of the most poignant scenes in your book is that of the Wife making tea for the officers arresting her husband. Why is the symbolism of such an ordinary ritual amongst the chaos of the scene so powerful and why did you keep returning to the image?

I’d heard of it a number of times. My wife’s a probation officer and she had male clients who’d said that their wives made tea for the officers and I’ve had men say to me that that had happened. When it was first performed, a lot of the audience thought it was implausible but police officers who see it nudge each other and say ‘we’ve had that’. Women in that position often try to find a tiny bit of control and try to civilise it. I don’t know if it’s an English thing, a British thing or a universal thing. The Wife was the first one I wrote and I’m sure it’s the most heartfelt.

A theme throughout your book is the contrast between the perpetrator’s viewing of illegal images and his seemingly normal home life. You describe offenders as being “good blokes, good husbands, good dads”. Do you think this is a way for the person to justify their behaviour? 

The detective describes him that way because that is his experience. That is the dissonance – that we are seeing men that are extraordinarily ordinary doing this terrible thing. How is it that these ordinary men dip in and behave so absolutely appallingly online and then click their computers off and take their kids to the park? I say to them what if someone did it to your children and they say ‘I’d kill them’, and you think ‘what about these children?’ They don’t see those children as people. When they’re called to account suddenly the barriers between fantasy and reality all collapse. This is where the suicides come from – where you see how other people see you.

‘The Daughter’ speaks to an all too common phenomenon – that of grooming and child sexual abuse in sports. The recent legislation to criminalise sexual relations between under-18s and people in positions of trust in sport has been welcomed by many child protection advocates. Do you think laws like this go far enough to protect children in sport?

I think you need the new law but you also need a change in the culture. I used to work with priests a lot and I see exactly the same dynamic in religion as in sport and it’s in the power of the coach. The coach has psychological power, there’s the euphoria of success or failure that cleaves coach and coachee together and there’s room in there for coaches to take advantage. We’re just beginning to understand the psychological power that coaches have over all of their coachees and the damage that follows from that. I support legislation in that respect, it’s been too long coming, but in terms of prevention, I’d be much more interested in a cultural shift.

The daughter’s story is as much about contact offending in sport and its causes as it is related to the internet – the girl is additionally abused by being filmed and photographed. It goes around in a circle. Geoff is taking advantage of a girl’s abuse of some years previous. The timescale is quite long, with the whole piece going from seven years after Geoff’s arrest to seven years before Geoff’s arrest when the girl was abused for his entertainment. I like the idea that everyone is connected even if they haven’t met – seven degrees of separation. We have a duty to people we may never meet. You forget that at your peril.

Find out more

The Lucy Faithfull Foundation is the only charity in the UK dedicated solely to preventing child sexual abuse. Our Stop It Now! helpline is open to anyone with a concern about child sexual abuse and its prevention.

 

 

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