At the end of last month, Jack Watson died on the streets of Dublin. I know (now) that he had a number of other names, but to me, he was Jack, so that’s what I’m going to call him.
Not long after the vigil at Dáil Eireann (which I attended) along with many other people who had been volunteers in Apollo House over the last Xmas and New Year period, the Irish Sun revealed that Jack had a string of convictions behind him in Australia. The most serious, and the most unpalatable of which were two convictions for sexual assaults on young girls, and another for the wilful transmission of HIV to a woman.
For me, and for many of the people who interacted with Jack during his time in Apollo House, and when he was on the streets afterwards, it was an enormous shock to learn that Jack had committed sexual offences. Speaking with some of the women afterwards, we were all dismayed to learn of Jack’s past; not least because – for many of us – our personal and professional backgrounds had brought us into contact with abusive men, and we were pretty sure we’d know one if we saw one. We were confident in our abilities to spot the ‘warning signs’ and the behaviour of a man who preyed on women and girls. To learn that we’d been duped by Jack – not one of us suspected that he was, or might be a sex offender – shook us.
And that’s the point: Men who abuse women, and men who sexually assault children don’t have a certain ‘look’; they don’t use key phrases that you can identify immediately, and recognise as indicators.
Above all, they are cunning. If they have been caught (as Jack was), they learn from that ‘mistake’ and adapt their behaviour in order to avoid detection in the future. They modify their approach to women in order to avoid suspicion. They don’t stop abusing women. They just stop getting caught. Sex offenders and predators walk among us; they look like the other men in our society, they sound like them, they present like them. They don’t have horns and a tail, or an easy identifier to alert the rest of us to their presence. They are our fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, cousins, trusted friends, neigbours, priests, teachers, solicitors, doctors, quantity-surveyors, gardeners – they exist in every socio-economic demographic, are of every religious and cultural background, and they walk among us, hidden in plain sight.