Marilyn Hawes vividly remembers the first time she met Jeff Carney. It was 1981, and she and her husband were at church in Wokingham with their one-year-old son. “He was in a pew behind me tapping me on the shoulder saying: ‘You’re a lovely mum. Where’s your little boy going to go to school?’” Carney explained that he was the new headteacher of the local Church of England primary school, telling her: “A boy really needs a man on the staff.”
Thus began a friendship that was to have devastating consequences. Every week, Carney would talk to Hawes after church. Eventually her son became a pupil at his school, followed by his younger sister and twin brothers, born in 1986.
Hawes, a music teacher, joined the school as a staff member. She and Carney remained in touch outside school too, particularly in church where, says Hawes: “He was like the Pied Piper. Children would just flock to him. They would leave their own parents in the pews and go and sit where Jeff was sitting.”
Carney began offering to babysit so Hawes and her husband could go to concerts. When her son was in year 6, problems developed in her marriage and Carney would take the boy out at weekends, to the house he shared with friends and to McDonald’s. But after a trip to Paris one Easter weekend, her son refused to spend any more time with Carney – something the man explained away as simply a boy wanting to mix with his own friends.
During Hawes’s divorce she stayed with a friend for five months, along with her daughter and eldest son, while Carney took the twins, then about to enter year 6. When Hawes bought a new home and the twins moved back, one of them started to show behaviour problems. But he refused to admit anything had happened to upset him.
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Marilyn Hawes: ‘The training teachers receive doesn’t equip them to understand how paedophiles operate.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian
When the twins turned 12, Hawes remarried, and the family moved to Sussex. But a shock was in store. In September 2002 she was visited by the police who, acting on reports about other children, told her they suspected her sons had been abused by Jeff Carney.
Her initial reaction was disbelief. “I said, ‘Don’t be so ridiculous’.” When Hawes explained that Carney was a long-term friend and colleague, a police officer said, “They [the boys] have clearly been groomed, as have you.” Hawes had no idea what the word meant. But at that point all three boys disclosed that they had indeed been abused.
Carney was arrested and charged with sexual offences against children, although no charges were brought in relation to the Hawes children. Their mother says this was to prevent the 16-year-old twins having to give evidence. He pleaded guilty and was eventually sentenced to 15 months in prison. After his release, he was again convicted and jailed for further sexual offences against children.
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The case took its toll on Hawes’s mental health and she gave up her job as head of music in a primary school. She was determined to understand more about how she had been taken in and began researching grooming behaviour, realising that Carney had set out to win people’s trust. “Everybody worshipped him because he set himself up to be adored. He took confirmation classes. He was a youth counsellor for the church.”
It became important to her to warn others of the dangers. In 2004 she started Enough Abuse, dedicated to preventing sexual abuse of children. It is now a community interest company renamed Freedom from Abuse.
Hawes goes into schools to explain to teachers, parents and children how paedophiles operate and how to spot grooming behaviour. She coaches adults on the signs that a child is being abused and provides resources to support schools. She is fired by a conviction that much of the preventive work done in schools is useless because it is too is too vague and soft-touch. “The current PSHE [personal, social, health and economic] curriculum doesn’t cover grooming, and most teachers don’t understand how it works,” she says. “Teachers don’t talk to children about how abuse feels emotionally, whereas this is important and can encourage children to disclose.”
Hawes’s approach is hard-hitting, and designed to alert parents and children to the behaviours, offline and online, that predators engage in. “No safeguarding policy, no procedure is going to stop those children being harmed. It’s about the behaviour of the adults.”
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Staff training involves taking a safeguarding course and focuses on referrals and procedures after a referral. This misses the mark completely, she says. “Once you get a referral, it is too late. The training teachers receive doesn’t equip them to understand how paedophiles operate in plain sight.”
Her aim is to shake people out of their complacency: she is appalled, for example, at parents who are unaware of the frequency with which young girls are being persuaded to livestream sexual activity to predators. “Why do parents let them have a webcam in their bedroom? What are they doing?”
When she talks to children, she explains just how a predator will target them. In one activity, Hawes picks out six children to play a game of Pairs, while the other children watch. She will hide a card and while a distracted child is looking for it, she’ll ask questions: the child’s name, where he lives, which playground he visits after school. Engrossed in the game, the child – to the horror of those watching – gives away the information.
In the same way, Hawes tells them, a predator will solicit personal information through joining multi-player online games, using voice-distorting software so that they sound like a child.
Her approach – described by Ben Conway, deputy head at two Hertfordshire primary schools, Brookmans Park and Clore Shalom, as “very blunt” – gets results. Hawes has a pile of testimonials from schools – she shows me one in which a primary school headteacher describes how, following Hawes’s sessions, a pupil disclosed to teachers that her stepfather had been sexually abusing her for four years and that she was worried about her younger sister.
As Conway says: “It can be very raw even for the children. But that is what is needed to get a message across.”